Two weeks ago I got an e-mail from a guy named Terry Fox, a co-founder of Pecha Kucha Charleston (PKC). He asked me if I'd like to be a presenter at their next event. I'd heard of the alien-sounding evening, but I'd never attended. I did know that it involved several presenters who spoke for a short amount of time on a multitude of creative topics. I said yes, and tried to find out more about PKC.
Pecha Kucha means "the sound of conversation" in Japanese. It's designed as an ideas forum, a creative get-together, a drinking man's think-tank, an unorthodox networking opportunity, or as Fox described it, "an instrument for engendering dialogue about the arts." It began seven years ago in Tokyo, spreading like wild rice to 276 cities worldwide.
In 2008, the event was brought to Charleston by a group of locals which included Josh Nissenboim of graphic design company Fuzzco; Beth Meredith of New Carolina, a statewide council on competitiveness; and Patrick Bryant and Robert Prioleau, co-chairs of a creativity committee called Parliament. "We don't have any titles," says Fox, "but we do have specific roles, like choosing presenters, finding venues, furniture rentals, and AV rentals."
Over the past four Kuchas, Fox helped recruit an eclectic bunch of speakers — an urban designer, a book store owner, a conservationist, a fashion designer, actors, chefs, and artists. Their common ground: they're all creative people.
"There's such a diverse group of people from all over the community doing all kinds of things," says Fox. "We provide a forum for their diverse and perverse ideas."
I visited technical wiz Prioleau, who explained the rules of the night to me. The venue is kept secret until a few days before the event. Each of the eight presenters has six minutes and 40 seconds to say their piece. A countdown clock is projected behind them to make sure they don't waffle on. A series of pictures, videos, or animated clips stream in parallel with their talk, with the images switching every 20 seconds. Once the clock and the slideshow have started, stopping is not an option.
I didn't feel nervous about speaking at PKC until Prioleau said, "It can make you nervous, standing up in front of all those people." Exactly how many people was he expecting? Quite a few as it turned out. The venue was announced: the Terrace Hippodrome on Concord Street, with a 74-foot screen and 400 luxury-size stadium seats. According to Fox, the $5 tickets sold out in two and half days with people looking for spare tix on Craigslist. No pressure.
The popularity of the event owed a lot to the caliber of my fellow presenters. The proceedings were led by artist and motivational speaker Michael Gray, who soon relaxed the crowd with some self-effacing banter. The first presenter was architect Kevan Hoertdoerfer, who showed pictures of natural construction, from bird nests to termite mounds. He compared them unfavorably to our own flawed urban planning. The crux of his talk was that we have to plan for the future, not just the present.
Painter Nathan Durfee discussed his process, observing the world around him to get ideas, drinking lots of coffee to keep himself awake, creating unique portraits out of seemingly abstract shapes and imbuing them with his own personality. Nikki Hardin, founder and editor of Skirt magazine, was just as entertaining. She wasn't afraid to share her fears, her failures, and her beliefs with us. She made us feel like we were right to break the mold and try something different. These speakers set a high benchmark for the rest of us. Now I was nervous.
As the night progressed, we were introduced to a number of erudite, experienced Charlestonians — photographer Peter Frank Edwards, tattoo guru Jason Eisenberg, webzine editor Caroline Nuttall, and Al Fasola of Current Electric Vehicles. They all had inspiring things to say and found different ways to say them.
About halfway through I stood up to talk about moviemaking, my nervousness gone. Despite the large venue and the cold bright spotlight shining in my face, I could feel the warm atmosphere in the theater. I didn't recognize a lot of the people there, but I knew we were all brought together by a willingness to be inspired and encouraged by our peers.