Editor’s note: Listen Up is a Q&A featuring locals in the arts and culture community.
This week: Ken Szymanski, an English teacher at Delong Middle School. He’s performing with Derick Black in a literary event called “Searching for Mike Teclaw: An Unauthorized Biography” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St.
What exactly is this event about?
This event is hard to explain, but that’s what I like about it.
Simply put, it’s the life story of Mike Teclaw, a deceased World War I veteran from Thorp.
The way we present it, though, is part mystery, part memoir, part spiritual quest, part eulogy and part concert revival.
Where did the idea for it come from?
Mike Teclaw was actually my maternal grandfather. He was with my mother and two brothers when he had a heart attack and died in a movie theater, several years before I was born.
Since his unexpected death seemed like a morose subject, I never asked questions about him but I was always curious about who he was.
A few years ago, I decided to make it my business to get to know him better. I gave myself this writing assignment and I interviewed relatives until I had enough stories and information to recreate his life.
After enough revisions and feedback, it became clear that this was more than a family project.
Everyone who has grandparents or unanswered questions about their ancestors can relate to it on multiple levels.
What did you learn about Mike Teclaw?
He was a World War I veteran who lived a life that was both ordinary and extraordinary.
In addition to having a large family, he ran a grocery store out of his living room and a cheese factory out of his basement — which he later tore out and replaced with a popular country tavern.
But he was also a regular guy who made a long-term impact in a quiet way by being a husband, a father, a grandfather and active community member.
Why did you want to tell this story in such a unique way (combining spoken word, guitar and vocals)?
Originally, the songs were meant to break up the story, which would be 30 minutes if read straight through.
But, as we put it together, the music became an inseparable part of the story itself.
Derick’s instrumental interludes set the right tone and give the audience time to reflect on the story and, probably, about their own relatives. The full songs with lyrics really bring out the themes of the story.
By the end, we have everyone join in and sing along, and it feels like the audience is really part of the show.
We picked out songs that were in my headphones on repeat while writing the story, and made them into the soundtrack.
How does the story benefit from using adynamic format?
It’s a different kind of show. It’s difficult for a reading to have the energy of a concert, and sometimes when a guitarist is playing solo at a coffee shop, people have their own conversations and treat the musician as background music.
This format keeps the energy up and keeps the audience focused.
The music makes everyone feel the highs and lows of the story more.
That’s why music is a universal language — you don’t have to understand it to feel it.
What do you hope people take away from this event?
It brings up questions about everyone’s ancestors, and how even those long gone can still have stories to tell.
I was surprised, when we performed this in November at the Galaudet Gallery, how many people talked to me afterward about their own grandparents.
The older generations lived radically different lives.
They had to struggle a lot more, and it’s important to honor the sacrifices they made and the lives they lived.
My grandfather’s story is the example put forward here, but people leave thinking about their own families and their stories.
To us, that’s success.
— Katy Macek