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Image: Program notes from a recent Trampoline Hall event www.trampolinehall.net

smoke drink lecture
The cloud-splitting genius that is Trampoline Hall

By Scott Anderson

Chances are that if you've met Sheila Heti in the past few months, she's asked you to lecture at Trampoline Hall. The 25-year-old artist and writer is seeking "interesting people who do interesting things" to fill a three-speaker roster for a monthly lecture series at the Cameron House. Any subject is fair game, though the more personal and original the better.

"Someone wanted to talk about the history of the dildo," Heti tells me over coffee one afternoon in March. "But I felt like I could probably read about that anywhere." Academic topics don't fare well either, and she's not keen on writing that's "obvious" or "reverent."

Nor does she care about whether the topic is a strong "draw." Her nose wrinkles as she describes being pitched an idea by someone who misunderstood her motivations entirely. "This person said they could have an editor from Penguin there, and that they could really fill seats. [For them], it was all about being successful."

To understand what Trampoline Hall is about, it's useful to know that it was inspired, unwittingly, by New York comic strip artist Ben Katchor, who spoke in Calgary last October at a literary festival. Heti, who was also on the festival bill, caught Katchor's lecture and slide show done in the style of his comics and on the subject of the psychological geography of cities. She left feeling like the world had changed. In a letter to Katchor on her web site, Heti writes: "What you did that afternoon was better than so much great theatre and it filled me with wonder." To me, she adds that Katchor's presentation was "theatrical without being conscious of being theatrical."

Upon returning to Toronto, Heti was inspired. There must be plenty of people like Katchor, she thought, doing interesting things, but who aren't local celebrities or media darlings and don't have a venue to tell the world what they're passionate about.

The first Trampoline Hall was held last December. "I had no idea what was going to happen," says Heti. "Misha [Glouberman, the emcee] and I hadn't really planned anything."

Dozens of people showed up, and many were turned away for lack of seats. Those who stayed experienced an odd combination of improv and academe-a grown-up version of the high school public speaking class, with drinking and smoking but not a single mention of spontaneous human combustion. "There was a cohesiveness," says Heti of that first night. "A mixture of incompetence and charm."

Trampoline Hall is one of the more unpolished acts you'll see in this city. People sometimes stumble over their words, bore the audience, or say inane or silly things. But the do-it-yourself lustre endears. Each night yields at least one Eureka!--a moment of unexpected funniness or poignant revelation or cloud-splitting genius.

One such moment occurred during Matthew MacFadzean's speech about the number 32--a subject, he admitted up front, in which he had no pressing interest. "I don't care about 32, I'm not 32 years old, I don't hold it in any esteem, it has never been a number I have really considered at all."

But in the number 32, MacFadzean, an actor, begins to find elements of a character: it anchors the Fahrenheit scale; it's the number of pieces on a chessboard; the Goldberg Variations are written in 32 movements.

"32 seems to be about calculating, precision ... it is about building, gaining strength, I almost want to use the word Germanic," he acknowledges early on, "but that might be pushing it."

Other findings, however, lead him further down this brambly path: Beethoven, a German, wrote 32 piano sonatas, there are 32 counties in Ireland, a squash court is 32 feet long, there are 32 classes of crystal. "All are related to words like arrangement, network, construction, composition, order."

Then comes the moment. Atomic number 32: Germanium. MacFadzean beams: "Hello thesis."

For Heti, MacFadzean's lecture stands as an early watershed, as does Julia Rosenberg's explanation of why she hates God, from the first Trampoline Hall. "She was sitting down, smoking, and she appeared very casual, very frank," says Heti. "It was personal and provocative." Heti also cites Duane Wall's "Cameraworld," one third of a themed Trampoline Hall on the idea of utopia, in which the speakers' mothers were present on stage, along with the speakers.

After hearing about how, in Wall's world, cameras would watch our every move, and everything would be recorded and stored in immense databases, one audience member asked Wall's mother where her son hid things when he was a kid. "He didn't," was her slightly unbelievable but motherly reply. Where some participants are mistaken is in believing their role on stage is to impart information. It's passion the audience wants, and originality--not facts. Emcee Misha Glouberman cites as an example the talk by Sheila's father, Gabriel, on his liver transplant. "It was amazing how funny it was, and how touching." Glouberman also mentions being drawn to the "glow of genuine terror," that masked each of the participants on the first night, noting that he misses "that element of fear," now that participants know what they're in for.

Building a community of people passionate about unusual things has prompted some interesting possibilities. With the $4 to $5 a head cover she and her team have collected each night, Heti has created an art fund, offering grants of up to $1500 to create works of public art. "Having never gotten a grant, I know the kind of thing we'd give money to is not something that would get a grant," says Heti. Artists interested in applying should visit the "Gallery Motel" at www.trampolinehall.net. Proposals will be accepted until the "last official day of summer."

Art plays an official supporting role at Trampoline Hall, too, where a different, original painting is chosen each night to stand on stage, in case, as Heti says, "people get tired of looking at the lecturer." In June, Glouberman, the Globe and Mail's Carl Wilson, Sheila, and Margaux Williamson--a visual artist--are taking Trampoline Hall on the road for the first time, down the East Coast to places like Boston, New York, and New Orleans.

The road show will double as a book tour for Heti, whose first story collection, The Middle Stories, is being published in the U.S. by McSweeney's, the house that author Dave Eggers founded. Heti plans to seek speakers in each city through the McSweeney's website. In the meantime, Heti is hoping to extend the Trampoline Hall community through her own site, with what she calls the "Alleged Family Lending Library." Think of it as "freeBay"--a site where people can post information about items they are willing to lend, and others can borrow them. The idea is pure Heti--all about helping people share in the perplexing and wonderful things that fill our physical and emotional worlds. Or, as she describes it simply, "another way of spreading ideas."

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