Chicago Ideas Week in Review: Radical Creators and Tackling Taboos

If you haven't been to Chicago Ideas Week yet, you're missing out. I've been lucky enough to attend for the last four years, and I've been inspired by some of the most incredible people. This year, I attended two 90-minute programs, vastly different, yet similar in the ways in which they challenged my assumptions about the world.

Radical Creators

On Wednesday night, I was part of a packed house at the Museum of Contemporary Art for "Radical Creators: The Cultural Leaders Defining the Zeitgeist." As inspired as the title itself may have made you want to go out and change the world, the speakers had an even greater impact. Actor and writer Fawzia Mirza moderated most of the event, and had an easy manner that made her conversations with interviewees seamless. Krista Vernoff, writer for "Grey's Anatomy," was the first guest, and I must admit, I am a "Grey's Anatomy" super fan. I firmly maintain this show is just as good now as it was in 2006. She talked about how she changed the TV writing game by making bold choices. Vernoff originally wrote for the TV show "Charmed" (thankfully, for the original). When the plot lines moved from intellectually driven to how much skin the actors can show, Vernoff was out. She made the brave decision to leave the job, though they offered to double her salary. Soon after, she met Shonda Rhimes; they clicked, and Vernoff became showrunner for "Grey's Anatomy" from 2007 to 2011; today she's the showrunner again. This involves calling many of the writing shots and even directing her first episode. Though her chat was full of wisdom, my favorite moment is when we learned that she tried to write in a line for Addison, the ob/gyn surgeon, that used the word "vagina." This was somehow banned from television. (Yet, the word "penis" was allowed, and Vernoff had written "vagina" in to describe a medical procedure. At this point, all of the women in the room were shaking their heads in dismay.) So instead of leaving it behind, she pitched "vajayjay." The entire crowd laughed when we learned the writers then said, "Okay, 'vagina' is fine." For those who want to create, she left us with a few pieces of advice: Don't listen to the voices in your head that tell you you're not good enough. Delete your social media apps. Consider quitting drinking for a month. And, she's definitely right in her advice. Cameron Esposito was up next. She's from Chicago originally, so she gave some love to her favorite haunts (Cole's Bar!) and discussed her upbringing, rooted in religion. "Everything I've ever tried to do has had two motivations--create social change, and, I'm scared and alone too, so I'd like you to join me." Her motto is to hold the door open, and to hold it even wider for those who are disenfranchised or have less privilege. What a beautiful motto. At one point, her college wanted to kick her out for being gay. And today, her comedy special "Rape Jokes" is available free on her website--don't let the title deter you. She wanted this special to become the top slot in Google rankings so that this two-word string that shouldn't exist, "rape jokes," is replaced by something good. It is free, but you can donate to RAINN when you watch, which has raised $80,000 already. Local comic Bryan Babylon interviewed Hannibal Buress next. Each was a last-minute addition to the schedule. Buress talked about the hypothetical restaurant he would start, doing comedy sets in the red states, and his affinity for Hiatus Kaiyote. At this point, both the audience and I were unsure that one of the highly anticipated show listings, Boots Riley, was going to come onstage. Much to our joy, there he was. His indie movie Sorry to Bother You is considered a potential Oscar nominee. He spent his time organizing, doing theater, and working in music. He went to film school and quit; it's at this time that he started his script and finished it in 2012. Dave Eggers published it, and it went from being published in McSweeney's to the Sundance Film Festival. Throughout the talk, Riley talked about how we could create change, despite our deeply fragmented times. "The world is working on a capitalist system, and we need a whole different system," he stated.

Tackling Taboos

Thursday night the theme was "Tackling Taboos," the event I was the most excited about due to its, well, taboo nature. How in-depth and real would this event be? Luvvie Ajayi moderated this program, and brought a warm, conversational presence for these taboo-focused chats. Yvonne Orji was the first guest--and you bet the entire audience wanted to be best friends with the gal behind Insecure's Molly after hearing how down-to-earth, vibrant and vulnerable she was in person. Orji discussed her religion by stating that she had a conversation about Jesus with Stephen Colbert. "It took a turn," she said with a laugh, noting that it felt so free to just talk about religion with someone else. Her career technically started in the 3rd grade, when she begrudgingly picked comedy for the talent show. Though she won third place, she aptly noted, "I always say I didn't win, but I always win." And that's her mindset now, because "the L's you take in life are the stepping stones to the W's." She shared with us how she helped to develop Molly's character, in that she wanted it to also align with her morals. And being honest about it preserved Orji's boundaries; for example, she doesn't curse in her comedy sets, and she's a virgin. When she's not in the room, she wants people to say about her: "She lives, and she is photogenic." I wished that Emily Witt's talk had lasted longer, because I had so many questions. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Witt found at age 30 that she was looking for sexual happiness. She wasn't in a partnership yet as she had envisioned, and so she set off to write Future Sex, in which she discovered other modalities for what sexuality means. In this, she learned that she herself had held on to many taboos about sex. She went to a porn shoot. She did orgasmic meditation. (See? I had questions.) She talked to people in polyamorous relationships. And she articulated the following: "You can have a phase of being single, a phase of being polyamorous, a phase of being married." The times they are a-changin', and she articulated why and how our society is shifting away from traditional marriage norms. Michael Arcineaux discussed his book I Cannot Date Jesus, taken from a talk he had with his mom. My favorite revelation from his talk? His sensitivity to the stories of others when writing his own. "When you're writing about your life, you're also going to be telling some people's stories. So you have to be thoughtful of what you're trying to say," he instructed. The last guest, Norma Kamali, once designed a swimsuit for Farah Fawcett. The 73-year-old (yes, the audience and Luvvie all gasped at this information) is glowing, and discussed with us the way she navigated wellness in the fashion industry, one that is rampant with body image issues and more. She noted we have to take ownership of our health and fight to feel empowered. "It's not about the swimsuit. It's about how the woman feels wearing it," she said. All in all, this year's Chicago Ideas Week was another stellar smorgasbord of offerings, from talks to labs to events. Ideas Week started some conversations so let's keep them going, shall we?

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Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks is a native Chicagoan with a penchant for words, music, art and this magnificent city of Chicago. Raised on The Beatles and learning the violin at age 9, Sarah’s passion for music began early in life. Her musical obsessions include Wilco, Otis Redding, Neko Case and Real Estate, but they truly change daily. She can be found at a concert, trying a new restaurant, or running along the lakefront path.