By Molly Each
Just over a year ago, local writers Amanda Snyder, Julia Borcherts, Joe Tower, Rob Duffer and Carly Huegelmann began the reading series RUI: Reading Under the Influence. Taking place the first Wednesday of each month at Sheffield’s (owned by fellow writer Ric Hess), the format is this: local writers are invited to read two pieces—one of their original work and one previously published piece. Before and after reading the published material, readers drink a shot of their choice, and end with four-to-six trivia questions related to the author and/or the work. Trivia winners receive a free book. Though RUI began as a fundraiser for a more formal reading, the unique format seemed to stick.
“The first time we held it, eleven people showed up,” Borcherts says. “But it was more fun than the formal readings, so we kept it going. We slashed the cover charge, expanded the trivia component and decided to add ‘special guests’ as a way to bring more of the literary community into the readings.” And it was working. Attendance was regularly reaching as high as seventy-five people, and local writers Gina Frangello, Jonathan Messinger and Brian Costello were among the participants.
Then last February the Chicago Tribune Magazine printed an erroneous four-paragraph piece on RUI. In explaining the trivia component, it incorrectly stated, “Whoever answers the most questions right wins a book and a free drink.” Six weeks later, Hess was served with a summons, stating he was to appear in front of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission for violation of the Illinois Liquor Act, a charge based solely on the Tribune article.
“The original position of the state was that because it was a trivia contest, we were giving away shots in a game of skill, which is illegal,” Hess says. “But the article was factually wrong. The people who win the trivia aren’t getting a drink. The shots have nothing to do with the trivia.” As for the shots that are consumed before and after published pieces? They’re taken care of by RUI’s $3 cover. “They run a tab, just like anyone else, and at the end of the day they settle the bill. Only the space is free.”
Hess and his lawyer, Ron Rosenblum, assumed the charges would be easy to dispute. “I wrote a couple pages where I went through point by point and showed exactly what was factually wrong. I emphasized that we do not give away liquor and we do not provide free drinks for a game of skill,” Hess says. But instead of dropping the accusations, the State of Illinois changed tactics. They accused RUI of “promoting the irresponsible abuse of alcohol,” a charge that Hess is still confused about. “It was a general charge, no specifics. It was a one-paragraph summary and it just said that’s what you do because we interpret it that way.” The creators were shocked at the charge as well. “The irony is that many of our guests don’t even drink liquor,” Borcherts says. “Sometimes I’ll drink shots of Diet Coke. Some of our guest readers just drink shots of Red Bull.” Snyder agrees, noting that the alcohol is hardly the focal point of the evening. “The drinking theme is just shtick, really. It’s a way to show potential audience members that it’s a laidback event, that we’re not the uptight, snore-a-thon that most readings are.”
Who knows if it was the letters written by RUI devotees that Rosenblum presented, or just a lack of concrete evidence, but finally the state agreed to dismiss the charges with prejudice (meaning Sheffield’s can never be accused of the same thing again). But only after Hess paid up. “At that point I thought fine, it doesn’t go down as a mark on our liquor license. I just had to give them $500. For what, I don’t know. To make the whole thing go away.”
Thankfully, it has. With the legal fiasco behind them, the creators of RUI and Hess are looking to the future. “RUI is 100 percent safe,” Hess says, adding that the event will be held at his bar as long as they want it there. The creators are looking to evolve the series—talks of traveling RUI and a possible anthology abound—but are committed to staying true to its roots. “Our audience is heavily composed of writers and literature lovers,” Borcherts says, “and they like that we treat literature as something that’s alive and interactive, as opposed to stuffy and pretentious.”
RUI: Reading Under the Influence (readingundertheinfluence.com) takes place the first Wednesday of each month at Sheffield’s, 3258 North Sheffield, from 7pm-10pm. September 6 features Todd Dills from THE2NDHAND and “Sons of the Rapture.” $3.