Sherwin Tjia makes Montreal cool. He’s an author of a choose your own adventure type book from a cat’s point of view and has created this incredible CD that features over an hour of a cat purring. But like most artists, Tjia is pretty shy, and most people are more familiar with his quirky events than the brains behind them. Believe it or not, Tjia is the guy who organizes all those crazy sounding events – Porn Karaoke, Group Karaoke, Queer and Straight Slow Dances, Prom Night, Strip Spelling Bee, Cardboard Fort Night, Speed Spooning, Cardboard Tube Fight Night. Those who yield to their curiosity are often delighted by the sheer lunacy and fun that comes with dropping one’s defenses. The curious crowd that turns up includes university students, creative young professionals, and always a few older folk who revel in Montreal’s more quirky offerings. Tjia and I talked about the art of planning events, some of his best moments doing so, and the amount of work and worry that goes into running these events. He also talked about the scene in Toronto and how his events are catching on there.
Rachel Levine (RL): How did you get started planning weird events?
Sherwin Tjia (ST): I started the events for the right reason — they were hilarious to put on. They were questions that I posed in my head and the only way I could answer that question was by putting on the event. That’s why I started. What came from that, and what I didn’t anticipate, was how delighted I would be by all these people coming out. I’m an introvert. I like to write books. Putting on events was my way of being social. I spend most of my time by myself. Putting on an event is a great way to be social. I have a role.
RL: Can you tell me a bit about what it’s like to plan weird events? How do you decide which ones to do?
ST: They’re great if they work because you’re the only person who does this weird thing. You’re the only person offering that sort of thing. When they fail, it’s a social experiment gone wrong. That’s happened a few times. If an event works, I do it again. If it doesn’t, I won’t. When it works… I assess if there was a degree of joy and if it was compelling enough for enough people to come out and make it worth while. I have to want to do it again.
RL: What are your greatest hits? Are the events always the same?
ST: Slow dance and Strip Spelling Bee. Crowd Karaoke is always a great time, but the crowd for that is quite small so I haven’t done that in a while. Porn Karaoke is pretty good and there’s going to be a girl in NY asked me if she could do it there – and I’ll send her everything so she can. Events will tell you what they want to be after you do it once. After you do it a few times, the event transforms radically sometimes in terms of what you have in mind and what it eventually became. At the first slow dance, for example, there were no designated dancers. Initially, the slow dance was for everyone, so everyone comes and mixes and meets. But, it changed [into Queer Slow Dance and Straight Slow Dance] because people came to me and talked about it. One girl came and kept getting asked to dance by guys and she wanted to dance with the girls. One guy came to me and he was asking guys to dance and he kept getting a lot of No’s. So, I saw it as a need to address. The Queer community is about safety, and feeling safe. We live in a very hetero-normative world. Queers like queer events so they can feel safe to be who they are. Although I want everyone to be together, this is also an event where I’m asking people to get physically close, which is intimate, and like it or not, orientation in those situations matter. I may have this idealized world where straights and queers all meet and make new friends, but like I said, the events reveal themselves to you and the people who come to these events shape it. I have to be responsible to that.
RL: Where else have you done these events?
ST: I do it in Toronto and I’ve tried Ottawa. Ottawa is tough. It’s a particular ecosystem. People move to Ottawa for a reason and it’s usually because they’re not too interested in weird things. Toronto has been warm and receptive to my events. This is why I keep doing them there and make the hike every month. I pretty much do the same events in Montreal. But, it’s easier to experiment in Montreal because if it fails, and sometimes it does, the logistics of booking a night here and failing is less arduous than traveling to Toronto, booking a night and having it fail and coming all the way back.
RL: Any thoughts on what it’s like to plan these events?
ST: A lot of being an event planner is stress and the stresses are particular. Whenever I talk to other event planners, it’s what we talk about. Will people come out, is this a good idea, are people having a good time while they’re here. Once it’s over, you stress how I can improve the event so people feel safer and more comfortable for the next one.
Sometimes when I run these events, I feel like a coach on a basketball team. The players have a lot of input even though I’m asking them to do this elaborate thing. I have some power, but at end of the day, they’re the ones who are the stars.
Sherwin Tjia’s (aka Chat Perdu Productions) events can be found here, or better yet sign up for his mailing list HERE. Upcoming events in Montreal include a Strip Spelling Bee on April 3, a Queer Slow Dance on April 4. Both take place at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St. Laurent). He has a Prom Edition of Queer Slow Dance in Toronto on April 12. His purring cat CD can be obtained HERE.