From A to Z

By Brianna Wellen

Wyoming is the state that made women’s suffrage sexy, inspired people to leave picnic baskets for Yogi Bear, almost lost part of itself to a state called Absaroka and whose “governor” threatened an entire audience to visit the least populated state in the country or he would kill a puppy. And with the Internet and all, is Wyoming even necessary? Maybe. At least that’s how the cast of “The Encyclopedia Show” sees it.

Delving each month into the subtopics of an over arching encyclopedia entry, the show’s Series 2, Volume 9 performance revolved around the state of Wyoming on May 5. Spoken word performers, comedians, musicians, poets and writers joined together on the Vittum Theatre stage, 1012 N. Noble St., to expand slam poetry and spoken word into a noncompetitive, educational literary-based show.

About a dozen performers write pieces related to a subtopic of each month’s theme to read aloud or perform as slam poetry, stand-up comedy or songs. Regular hosts and cast members maintain transitions with sketches related to the topic.

“My co-host Shanny Jean [Maney] and I both grew up in similar performance traditions,” said Robbie Q. Telfer, co-host and creator of “The Encyclopedia Show.”

Both Telfer and his co-host Maney grew up in the tradition of spoken word and competitive speech. While they enjoyed performing, they wanted to take out the direct competition and create a collaborative opportunity for local talent instead.

“We decided to create the show as a way to work together and also to really highlight the awesome potential for performative literary arts in Chicago,” Telfer said.

He created the structure of the show to not only entertain, but to provide a platform to comment on society and social justice issues through unique and strange topics. It’s about tricking people into having a transcendent experience through the show.

The show presents regulars Telfer and Maney as hosts and Kurt Heintz acting as fact checker, keeping track of the truths and untruths presented on each topic throughout the performance.

Wyoming’s show came out with more than 30 truths and only seven untruths, which is the largest margin for truths found in the show’s history. Keeping alive the educational aspects allows the show to comment on the potential danger Telfer believes can come from the academy, but Shelia Gagne, who performed a piece on Jellystone Park, got a lot out of the night’s truths.

“I probably learned more about Wyoming than if I had looked it up on my own,” Gagne said. “That’s what I like about the show. You have fun, you get inspired, but then you leave with a little bit of knowledge. At least one performer will say, ‘I did not know that, I’m going to use that at a cocktail party.’”

The show picks subjects each week that are general enough to have a wide range of topics, and specific enough to result in a unique cohesive performance. When choosing Wyoming, Telfer thought the topics were value neutral or at least a little funny. He was surprised to discover a melancholy feeling.

“I think people accidentally or subconsciously have turned the state into a sublimation of our own forgotten histories and our own forgotten corners of existence,” Telfer said. “I’m fine with that even though I thought it was going to be way funnier. We’re able to put together an evening that’s never going to happen again with a unique mood.”

One of the pieces Telfer expected to be funny and turned out surprisingly sad was Diana Slickman’s performance on Wyoming’s lost state of Absaroka. Finding information on the territory that almost became the United States’ 49th member was near impossible for Slickman whose research only revealed a picture of Miss Absaroka.

“I thought, ‘Whatever happened to her? What happened to Miss Absoraka?’” Slickman said. “So I thought of it from her point of view, what’s it like to be the queen of a state that never existed?”

“The Encyclopedia Show” has expanded across the continent with performances popping up in Oklahoma City, Providence, R.I., and even Vancouver, British Columbia.

As the show becomes larger, the ultimate goal remains to bring together artistic communities to create a new idea of literary performance.

“The only requirement of being in the community is being a lovely human and no jerks invited,” Telfer said.

The next topic for “The Encyclopedia Show” is “Circuses.” The performance will take place on June 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Vittum Theatre, 1012 N. Noble St. For more information, visit