Interview by Emily Fuller
Introducing Heart Open, a frequent and female-focussed open mic night of endless creativity and exploration that is founded by two local ladies – Chloe Warren and Alex Morris. I remember when I first immersed myself in the experience of one of their events, the feeling of gratitude and hope for the local creative community lingered on my skin for days afterwards as I was completely taken with the supportive yet laid-back atmosphere both Chloe and Alex have created. Here is what they have to say about their fun little project.
Can each of you ladies tell us a little bit about yourselves, and about your project Heart Open?
Chloe: I’m originally from East Anglia in the UK, and I’ve been in Newcastle since 2011. I worked in genetics research for about five years, and then moved on to science communication full-time in 2017. After finishing my PhD, and leaving a couple of different jobs with a sour taste in my mouth, I sort of went into a ‘cultural recovery mode’ where I just threw myself at as many different arts/community/networking different events as I could – and that’s how I met Alex Morris and started doing a bit of stand-up comedy and MC work.
Alex: I’m originally from South Carolina, but I’ve been living in Newcastle for nearly seven years now. My background is journalism and tourism. I’m a freelancer currently writing for the Newcastle Herald and working at the Newcastle Museum. I’ve been writing and performing poetry for a very long time.
I understand both of you come from different creative and academic backgrounds, how and why did the two of you join forces in creating your concept for Heart Open?
Alex first proposed “some kind of event” as an alternative to a poetry night she was already hosting – Word Hurl Anti-Slam, with David Graham – mainly because she wanted to be able to drink alcohol whilst MCing and Word Hurl venue didn’t have a license hahaha.
I honestly can’t remember why we decided it should be a female-focussed event – but Alex always tells people I used to complain about what a bro-fest the comedy scene was, and that does sound like me so…
David and Alex had always emphasised that Word Hurl was a no-rules, anything goes sort of event – (ie. the complete opposite of slam poetry) and we wanted to keep that vibe. We loved that anyone could stand up and try out their stuff, but we also wanted to highlight some of the region’s more established creatives. Hence the idea of combining ‘featured artists’ with open mic spots.
What are your thoughts on female and non-binary representation within the creative scene of Newcastle? Have you noticed a shift in its dynamic since launching your open mic nights?
It’s really hard for me to comment on how things have changed on the Newy arts scene because I feel like I’m very new to it! I wasn’t exactly a hermit while I was studying but I definitely wasn’t going to gigs or cultural events very regularly.
What I can say is that both the comedy and poetry scenes are going a bit bonkers these days. There’s several different comedy nights a week, and a heap of regular poetry events pulling in writers from across the state too. Newcastle is a great size – if you have an idea for a thing, you can make it happen. And clearly, plenty of people have great ideas.
My idea of ‘local music’ was a bit tainted by my teenage years. I was extremely cool, so obviously I would go to all the battle of the bands gigs…and the music was honestly terrible – but there were boys there and I got to wear my purple flares. It was all white boys covering Nirvana, which I guess is what teenagers do, so I shouldn’t really slate them for it. This is honestly shameful for me to say but – it was at the beginning of this year when I went to a Banshee gig that I realised how ridiculously jampacked full of amazing musical talent this city is. I’d seen odd acts here and there and been impressed, but for each one I had really just considered it an anomaly. Then this Banshee gig just blew me away – every single act had me agape and I was like…”holy shit this is no coincidence…this city is heaving with talent”. None of those acts were led by men and it didn’t feel like that was a conscientious decision made in order to tick a feminist box. It was just a sick gig.
I think it’s got to the point where you can’t produce a gig or event without thinking about equity and representation because you will get called out for it – in Newy at least. We’re a small city and we’ve got a lot of internal commentary going on. That can come with its disadvantages – people love to whinge – but it does help make people be a bit more accountable. While I wasn’t here for the ‘cock rock’ years (as Dawn Laird affectionately called them last night at the Belle Badi single release), it’s safe to say things have changed since then!
Do you think there are any particular areas we need to improve on for female or non-binary artists to have creative recognition within Newcastle, and also in a general sense within the creative world?
I think there are plenty of dudes making an effort to include women on paper and in person. They’ll jump through all the loops and make all the phone calls – but they still don’t know how to interact with women, or each other when women are in the room! I guess the paperwork has to come first but it’s always a bit disappointing to show up to a comedy gig you’ve been invited to, and still have dudes onstage calling women bitches and sluts. Is this really how men talk to each other when we’re not around?
It’s one of the reasons I haven’t done stand up for a while. It was emotionally exhausting to have these arguments. When you’re on a stage you’re in a vulnerable position in terms of potential humiliation: some comedians feel like any kind of criticism on top of that part-and-parcel vulnerability is unfair. That means that a lot of things go unsaid, and people never learn that some of their material might be upsetting.
The guys all know they need to do a better job at including women in their line ups – but there aren’t that many female comedians around in Newy. And if my case is anything to go by, it’s because we don’t feel welcome.
Who else can we thank for really making Heart Open happen from month to month?
A local incredibly talented graphic designer named Sophie Elinor Brown did all our artwork, and she is amazing. Also another talented comic maker and artist Ben Mitchell has been taking money on the door for us and helping us out. We love them both. Ben’s been particularly amazing at finding us talent as well. We’ve also been so lucky with the different venue owners who have been willing to work with us. Having everyone support us/come to Heart Open has really demonstrated how beautiful, powerful and healing local events can be.
Do you have any upcoming projects or goals within the new year for Heart Open?
Our next event is going to be part of Newcastle Museum’s “Supernova Summer of Science” on February 1st. We’re also developing some stuff for the Hunter Innovation Festival in May, and for National Science Week in August.
Within the next year we are really trying to build a better financial basis for our projects! We already have some government support courtesy of a local not-for-profit (details TBA!), but we are trying to build a better strategy in terms of money. We always prioritise paying our artists, but the donation-on-the-door model just doesn’t cut it. Alex and I have started to have weekly meetings, not only to discuss event planning, but grant applications and sponsorship deals. It’s a huge and awkward conversation to be having, but I’m a cold hearted businesswoman: so we will get there!
How often are your open mic nights held, and where can our readers stop by to check one out?
We’re on for six events in 2019, and we move all over the place! So best catch up with us on Facebook or Insta.
Heart Open Instagram: @her_art_open
Photography: Alpha Sierra