Creative Writing at The New School

Interview with TNS After Hours Coordinators by Carissa Chesanek

Virginia “Vinny” Valenzuela and Alex Vara open up about the off-campus reading series, the literary bar it’s held at, and the welcoming writing community 

The New School (TNS) After Hours reading series is a cool and comfortable space to share your writing aloud for others to hear. Of course, that last part can seem absolutely terrifying to any writer. I should know. I was completely freaked out for my first reading at After Hours, but it was unlike anything I ever constructed in my head (stiff audience, blaring florescent lights, you know what I’m talking about). But the environment was relaxed and the lighting was dim. And most of all, people were drinking and having good time. Once I stepped into that space, I was able to relax, drink, and have a good time, too. And hey, my reading wasn’t terrible either.

I sat down with the After Hours coordinators, Virginia “Vinny” Valenzuela and Alex Vara to talk about the creation of the reading series, the importance of reading work aloud, and how the pandemic impacted the way we now share our work.

Carissa Chesanek: Can you tell us a little bit about how After Hours got started?

Virginia “Vinny” Valenzuela: The New School After Hours was founded by Hillary Adler in the fall of 2015, during her first semester as a student in the MFA. She wanted to create a space where students could perform without the stress of being at school at a departmental event. Many readers confess that the After Hours reading is their performance debut, which tells me that the series’ original mission continues to thrive, both in person and online.

Alex Vara: It’s another event for current students to show off their stuff and be off-campus together. I’ve heard some readers say they feel more comfortable at KGB than at school. There’s nicer lighting and hard liquor which helps some.

CC: Glad you brought up school readings. Talk to us about the differences (besides the cool lighting and on-point drink menu) between school readings and After Hours.

VV: The biggest difference, for me, is that TNS After Hours is a more relaxed setting and much more flexible. People usually read from the genre they are studying at school at the department readings, but students have been known to perform outside of their chosen genre at After Hours, encompassing music and theater as well. I also think that the allure of performing in a world-famous East Village bar adds something that feels special and professional, especially for writers who have moved to New York to join the program.

AV: It’s off-campus for one. It’s also open to the public. Friends and family, as well as strangers stumbling into the Red Room, can take a peek and watch our writers read. And while mostly current students read, it’s open to the entire New School Writing Community. We’ve had alumni, faculty (Lori Lynn Turner), and staff (Alexandra Kleeman) all read in the series.

CC: Why do you think it's important for writers (especially students) to read their work aloud?

VV: I have encountered dozens of people who confess to me that they have never read their work aloud, and those are the people I would encourage to read more than anyone else. Learning how to read your work aloud, and more importantly, learning how to perform, is an integral skill for writers. It not only allows you to get immediate and honest feedback on your writing (an audience never lies!), but it is also vital to how you will be able to communicate with audiences, impress agents, and find the kind of confidence that translates into better writing and a more successful career.

AV: After Hours is a supportive environment to practice your reading skills before hitting open mics and other more high-stakes readings. Plus, you make friends reading. Some of my best friends from the program have come from hearing them read and falling in love with their stories. After Hours and the on-campus Student Reading are the two events where students can be together as a community.

CC: I know from my own experience as a reader the audience is incredibly welcoming and kind. How in the world do you have such a cool audience time and time again?

VV: Most people who come to the After Hours readings are frequent readers and friends of the event, alumni and current students, which makes the event very community-oriented, friendly and relaxed. Something I dedicated myself to doing when I was the curator of the event, was to introduce myself to every person that walked into the space. Alex does the same thing. After Hours is about connecting people across the board to share stories, go on journeys, and to find inspiration from people around us.

AV: It’s crazy sweet. The New School Community feels special in the way we are supportive of each other. Maybe all MFA programs are like that, I don’t know. The last reading over Zoom was a love fest. It was our annual thesis reading and graduating students read from their projects and brought their best stuff. New School writers feel raw. We write about things we really care about and are brutally honest and vulnerable. I cried multiple times that night.

CC: I cried too. It was a glorious mushy love fest I will cherish forever.What will you cherish the most by managing After Hours?

VV: For me personally, I have been able to network with professors and alumni who I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to meet. I was able to learn about how the program has changed over the last two decades, and how alumni have been able to create their careers since leaving the program. And it’s not only motivational for me but also for the audience, who are mostly current students just dipping their toes into the literary world. The act of meeting new students on a monthly basis and being able to encourage them and help them make friends and learn about other opportunities to read, has been an extremely rewarding experience that has stuck with me after graduation.

AV: Beneficial to me? I get to invite my favorite writers to read and listen to their stories. I love watching writers read. As for the community, it brings us together for the purpose of supporting our readers and seeing each other’s faces. After Hours gives us an excuse to come together for a couple of hours every month. Nine to twelve writers share their work, and we are there for them, but also for the community.

CC: All this talk about the audience and community helps bring me to my next question about KGB. How did you snag such a cool spot?

VV: I think Hillary just liked the spot, and went in and asked if they had any open nights in their calendar. Lori Schwarz has been our contact from the very beginning, and she is just the coolest person to work with. She bartends the event every once in a while, and she always makes a point to be supportive. I learned from this experience that starting a reading series in New York City is not as hard as you would think. If you pick a neighborhood that you enjoy or a bar or restaurant that you would like to use as your space, it really is just a matter of walking in and asking if there are any nights that you could fill the space with a reading. Bars are usually really happy to host readings because it gives them business and a link to a new community.

AV: KGB host many other readings too, including other MFA student readings like NYU’s Creative Writing Program’s reading.  Laura Cronk used to host the Monday Night Poetry Readings. 

CC: Clearly, KGB is the place to be.But what’s your favorite thing about it?

VV: I grew up in the East Village so KGB has always been a place on my radar. I was always drawn to the fact that they support so many different kinds of live entertainment, from readings to jazz nights, to theater. I have also been drawn to their history as the only place for Ukrainian socialists to meet in secret in the 1950’s. The whole point of writing, and sharing it, is to have a voice, to go against the grain, to question society, and to innovate. KGB’s history stands as a strong metaphor for the job we have been tasked with as writers.

AV: My favorite is the mic. I feel crazy cool talking into it. All readers should practice on it before their reading. When we host in-person readings at KGB, we usually have time to practice with the mic. You have to be closer to it than you’d imagine. So when we return to the Red Room, I’ll be sure to have sanitary wipes on hand to use between readings. Another cool thing folks should know: The bathtub really works. I’ve turned it on. And I’ve recently been told about an elderberry martini that I’ve been missing out for two years. That will be my first drink when back in the Red Room.

CC: Speaking of sanitary wipes. You know where this is going. Let’s talk COVID-19. What’s been the biggest challenge switching from in-person readings to online due to this pandemic? 

VV: I think the hardest part has been learning how to make an event feel “life-like” even though it’s taking place on a screen. Alex has been an inspiring director, spending time with readers the day before to make sure they have the right camera angles, lighting, and volume. She has also experimented with many different formats to allow for applause, smooth transitions between readers, and fun social mixers in between acts.

AV: The biggest challenge has been not having the physical space to hang out in after the reading. You can only be on Zoom for so long and how many times can you be put in a breakout room with strangers? I miss the after-party in the Red Room. The sound of the crowd jabbering together in the red booths or at the bar. That’s how I would gage a good reading by that sound. How loud and excited people were. I miss being with everyone in one space. And, not being able to take photos of the readers for our Instagram Account! Screenshots aren’t flattering.

CC: No, screenshots are not flattering. Did you see mine from the thesis reading? I looked like a deer in headlights, which was fitting since I read about them. But enough about me. And deer. Let’s end by talking about your hopes and dreams for the series in the future. Any advice to those who will host next?

VV: It’s hard to say, since I am not involved the way I used to be, but I will say that I am so happy that I picked Alex to take over for me when I graduated. She is an entertaining host, a competent leader, and genuinely cares about the event and its participants. I can’t wait to see what she does with it, and I can’t wait to be back in the Red Room with friends new and old.

AV: I feel super lucky I get to host for another year. I’m a dual student so will still be around. Hope we will get to return to KGB! But my advice to whoever will take over is know you aren’t alone. I will always support After Hours. Vinny has been a tremendous help this past year. Whenever I had a question or concern, she was only a text away. She was the one who reached out to me to get the reading on Zoom when the bars closed. As the world was in March, I was overwhelmed and couldn’t pull myself together to get the reading back on. Without Vinny’s push, I’m not sure we would have had a reading in May. Whoever will host next, you will never be alone in putting the reading together.

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Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.