Profile: This American Lie

This story originally appeared in Paper Darts magazine. An old friend is telling me about how he once had a vision of doing a literary series that would mostly involve robots. Lots of robots. Enough robots to stand in for every bad literary reading cliche, including “goth-emo girl” and “shouty-angry man.”

This feels like real genius. Admittedly, I have been drinking. Even sober, though, I’d be really, really excited about this. But I know it will never happen.

So does Ryan Duke, the guy telling this story, who I met almost seven years ago when were both fiction writing students at Columbia College in Chicago. For me, a lot of the time following our first class together involved me either loving or (mostly) hating people who wear tights-as-pants, kind of like a politician confused about what’s up with women’s rights. Ryan, on the other hand, was going places.

He was attending literary readings that he noticed were frequently dominated by performers. He unapologetically loved them.

High on the list of readings he admires is Write Club, which bills itself as “bare-knuckled wit” and pits two writers against each other for no longer than 14 minutes. It’s pretty easy to describe the atmosphere as at least a little unhinged. And then there’s shows like 2nd Story, which Ryan admires for giving audiences well-rehearsed, polished performances that detail each author’s deeply personal stories.

Ryan wanted to produce his own take on a show, that would highlight each of these elements. The reading series—robots and all—would be riotous. It would be rehearsed. But it would also highlight the short fiction he felt isn’t necessarily suited to a no-holds-barred literary battle.

Laughing, he counters that with, “What the fuck do I know about running a show?” He’s modest. He’s a former theatre nerd, and his family is actually lousy with talented voice actors. He knows things.

Regardless, he pitched his idea to other writer friends, including Simon A. Smith, and asked them to contribute. He also notably began talking to actors like Eleni Pappageorge and other theatre friends. Everyone contributed. “Everything was a group decision,” Ryan says. The show evolved in earnest until August of 2013, when Pre-Post Humanists Present launched a show for the first time.

The show featured fiction written by C. James Bye and James Tadd Adcox, but did not feature them reading their own work. Instead, voice actors stepped up and voiced the characters and story of each work themselves. In the case of an excerpt from Bye’s novel, this gave several actors the opportunity to give the kind of vivid, multiple-character-driven performance that’s unlike virtually any other reading series…but a lot like a play.

Brandon Paul Eells, the voice of the show's malevolent computer.

Did I forget to mention there were still robots? Okay, I mean, there was a computer. An all-knowing computer. Inspired by post-humanist fiction, science-fiction-related reads like H+ Magazine, and Ray Kurzweil. (Otherwise known as the guy who believes the Singularity is near. Or in real words: that soon, maybe computers will be so smart and intuitive that they can maybe be your girlfriend, but maybe don’t actually think beer is cool.)

The influence of all that nerdery on the show is easy to see. In between the staged readings of short fiction, the Pre-Post Humanists Present collective performed sketch comedy featuring an animated computer eye projected onto a wall, that notably berated and abused the show’s hosts.

Its sole purpose appeared to be to make the humans humiliate themselves. The list of possible activities it had come up with seemed endless: dancing, performing at literary readings…

The usual humiliating things.

So why call it Pre-Posts Humanists Present? Ryan explains it like this: “The joke on [Pre-Post Humanists Present] is that it’s before what comes next—apocalyptic stuff,” he says. “We had a computer always threatening us. So he was The Singularity.”

Simon A. Smith with Eleni Pappageorge

Ryan isn’t shy about admitting that the show is a weird hybrid of two very different shows—it’s essentially two plays wrapped in a comedy. Does he think the stories ever get overshadowed?

The answer is yes.

“It was neat and different. I was really committed,” says Ryan, “but it took a lot of people to just objectively look at it and tell me, ‘You have two shows going.’”

He will now readily admit, “The silliness seemingly drowned the fiction.”

Future shows featuring the collective’s version of a Singular Consciousness are now on hold. Ryan hasn’t given up on dramatizing enjoyable short fiction stories, though. The talented folks he runs with at Pre-Post Humanists Present are just now releasing the details on a new series called Reading Out Loud. This time it’s online. But it dramatizes fiction using many of the same voice actors, and with plans to produce audio performances of stories written by authors including Aaron Burch, James Tadd Adcox, and Elizabeth Crane.

The whole show is a bit like This American Life, with one very big difference: they don’t tell true stories. What the collective does plan to do is tell short, enjoyable fiction; use professional voice actors; and also utilize post-effects including audio effects and musical queueing that complements, not distracts, from the actual narrative. “We’ve joked that it’s This American Lie,” Ryan says.

In the future, he says, “…the dream is to be picked up by radio stations.” They haven’t ruled out the possibility of a live show either—the group has considered taking it on the road to produce it for live audiences all over. Just as the original live show did, it’s an idea that’s going to evolve.

Submit to Reading Out Loud

If you want to get your work read by the talented voice actors of Pre-Post Humanists Present, keep in mind these guidelines:

Flash fiction: Up to 1,000 words

Full-length, short fiction submissions: 2,000 to 4,000 words

Beyond that, almost anything is game. What interests the collective most, Ryan says, is “character-centric stories, people moving in space.” He adds that “Stories that read well in this format have interesting characters that cause trouble.”

But don’t let that overly limit what you submit. Be creative. For examples of what Reading Out Loud has already produced, check out:

“Bedwetter” by Ryan Duke

“Lightly Used Boy,” by Simon A. Smith

Get more details on how to submit your work.