Once in a while, if you’re lucky enough, you stumble across a person who seems to do just about everything. And with gusto – mind you. Passion, energy, and motivation can go an incredibly long way when it comes to making exciting things happen within a community. Erich Haygun can often be spotted around Jamaica Plain, walking his adorable dog Nini (whom he compares to the ghost in Pacman) or helping mentor youth in the poetry slam community, volunteering for BARCC (Boston Area Rape Crisis Center) or working audio and visuals for events and non-profits all throughout New England. Erich recently launched the 17th installment of Cheap Seats on May 12.
Cheap Seats is an interactive show in Cambridge that combines multiple genres of performance art and seems to excite audiences between the ages of 12 and 70, leaving people talking about this wildly ambitious and chaotic artistic experience for months afterward. You really must experience this show for yourself, but we wanted to give you a peek into Erich’s vision for the Cheap Seats experience and introduce you to our first of many “Unsung Heroes of Boston” to come: Erich Haygun
Whitehaus put on Weirdstock 3 in 2011, with bands playing all throughout the day, and to give credit where it’s due, Arkm Foam came up with the idea of five minute “sets.” I got to perform poetry between this band Hunnie Bunnies and right after me was Guerilla Toss. I thought it was awesome that the show was back to back in this format with a mesh of different genres, and thought, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have these types of shows all the time.
So I decided that every month we should throw shows with 5 minute sets for everybody. It will have this open mic chaotic feel to it. There’s a sense that there’s a breakdown between audience and performer. It becomes salon style with lots of support and egging one another on. The show can then create it’s own platform, resource, and way for people to be inclusive of one another.
Was it smooth sailing launching the first ever Cheap Seats show?
It was pretty much shoved, kicked, and pushed into existence. Some people thought that it was a great idea and encouraged me, but it was hard to explain to others what this show would look like. For those used to doing full sets, they had to understand it would just be a five minute act. The format of the show is the star of the show. It was hard to explain that at first, but there were definitely people that immediately got it, bought into it, and wanted to be a part of it every time. Then it just became a process of bringing in new people. Every time I meet new people I say, “Oh you perform, you should come and do this thing!” I try to bring in the music scene, the poetry crowd, the comedy crowd, burlesque crowd, the weirdo / noise crowd, students who haven’t been a part of the DIY scene before, etc. and let them find one another through this space.
The YMCA is a neutral zone. There have been shows but it’s not as known for a particular scene. I try to make sure that the show is presented as a community experience. I encourage you tell people if you like what they’re doing or vice versa. Luckily people have been very supportive of one another and things have remained quite positive at these shows.
How do you go about curating the performances for Cheap Seats shows?
One of my goals when I first started running these shows was to try and include the national poetry scene, because I come from the poetry background. When the National Poetry Slam was happening in Cambridge in 2013, Cheap Seats was the official opening night event. Google that. It was a huge fucking deal. There had to have been 350 people in the room for the show. It was mostly poets from around the world and local Boston weirdos and it was a lot of fun.
You would see Andrea Pensado and Angela Sawyer underneath a sheet growling at one another and rolling around on stage. It was funny, talking to some of the poets after the show and half of them were like, “what was this all about! what a weird thing to do.” It’s cool for people that do all kinds of particular niche things to see one another and to experience 5 minutes of one another’s sets that they might not otherwise check out.
It seems like these brief sets play a vital role in the Cheap Seats experience. Can you explain your decision to keep sets as short as they are?
I feel like with short sets it allows you to include more people. It’s a fun format and it forces people to think about what they’re going to perform in a different way. You have a challenge to distill your act into 5 minutes. I’ve had some feedback from folks who are glad to have to narrow down their act and figure out what they really want to show. It’s really elaborate technical experience but also the stakes are much lower because we’re all just hanging out. You can come bring your projector, computer, etc. which makes it more accessible to everybody on purpose. It’s also great for really popular bands to come and try out their solo and side projects, aside from their normal band thing. For all of those reasons, the format just made a lot of sense to me. You want to keep people’s attention spans moving.
The idea of putting together a bunch of different kinds of things in one show is a Whitehaus thing. You want to have those that are popular, people nobody knows of, and different genres all in one show and see what comes out of it. Thinking of unconventional ways to do shows, whether that’s like doing Woodstock 4 on Boston Common or putting on guerrilla shows in outdoor spaces keeps things interesting. There will always be shows of 3 or 4 bands booked for house shows and venues but there are so many other ways to do it.
How would you like to see Cheap Seats evolve within the next 3- 5 years?
I’d love for Cheap Seats to exist with me being away for a month or two. There are almost always people that help out, set up chairs, and move things around but there isn’t really a go-to person to help out. It would be really cool to find someone to help or have a production team of sorts. If there was a way to offload some of the behind the scenes work, I’d love to get to that point.
I’d like to see similar ideas in other places. I was just talking to someone who wants to throw Cheap Seats in Florida. The idea of poetry slam, for example, is an exported idea. It would be awesome to have Cheap Seats Miami, Cheap Seats NY, etc. You need a round robin space, lights, and to purposefully try to put together performers and people from all different backgrounds and scenes to really make it work. It’s an outreach project of sorts.
It would be really cool to have different cities sending the weirdos to one another’s cities. We could exchange weirdos through Cheap Seats. If I got to that point, I could quit Cheap Seats and go on tour with all of the local weirdos. It would be like my own personal fight club.
Could you describe the energy of the audience before a show gets going?
There’s always a lot of confusion. It’s generally pretty relaxed because there’s no door person. A lot of people are unsure why there are chairs and ladders thrown around the room. There’s always this moment when I go backstage, turn out all the lights, then suddenly there will be dead silence. There’s total chaos, at least on my end, trying to get everyone set up and then once the show starts it’s all go, go, go.
It’s more like the storm before the calm. It’s hard for me to enjoy the show because as soon as I get a performer going, I’m onto the next guy. I’ve got to get backstage with flashlights to bring the lights up on the next performer. I can’t ever sit in one place. I’m always running around backstage to keep things moving.
As one person managing, recruiting acts, and keeping the audio and visual aspects of the show going at all times.. it definitely sounds like a ton of work. What motivates you to keep putting on this show month after month?
It’s fun! For a while I thought it was stupid that I had access to this space and didn’t create something within it. This show is very unique and it’s a lot of fun to put on. I do shows all the time anyways. All I do with my life is put on events so it’s really cool to have complete control over a show, even if my version of control is actually giving up total control. I set up the framework, but then I want everyone to be able to interact with the show in their own way. It’s really cool to meet just about anybody who will tell me about their performance art and then be able to get them involved the show. I tell them, “yes, that! come to my show, and do it there!” It’s my personality type to want people to get involved.
There’s always something I figure out last minute that makes the show really fun for me. Last time it was BLKBX. During the National Poetry Slam, I booked a bunch of my favorite poets to perform at my show. Each time, there’s at least one thing that I’m super excited about and I try to just focus on that. If it ever gets to the point where it just becomes a hassle for me and becomes a total pain in the butt, I’ll try to find someone else to do it or I just wont do it anymore. But right now, I have access to this space, it’s a lot of fun, and there are so many people that want to be a part of it. It’s really cool to hear people talking about it on the streets and have them be unaware that I’m a part of it. I hope that Cheap Seats feels indispensable or feels like it’s just always been there as a resource. Weird-ass performance-stuff- that’s-all-mixed-up. Yeah, that’s Cheap Seats!
How would you write your byline Erich? At the moment, it seems like you’re wearing quite a few hats.
I make events happen. That’s what I do. I coordinate events for a youth literary non-profit called Books of Hope. I coach 826 Boston’s youth poetry slam team out of the O’Bryant High School. I’m a workshop facilitator, outreach speaker and poet laureate for The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. I do fancy audio engineering gigs where I have to wear a tie. Each role is unique but I’m used to every show being completely different anyway. I just try to figure out what role is needed within each event, and then fulfill that function and make it all happen.
To contact Haygun about Cheap Seats or any of his other work, get in touch through email or Facebook