There’s an evolution going on in the dark at Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew on King Street in downtown Hillsborough. A writer has become a reader, and then a performer. Witnesses, crime, shady detectives, and shadowy settings thicken the room. Heroes are absent, but an audience is there, hanging on every word of the story being read and performed by its author. For about 10 minutes, and then the next writer/reader steps onto the stage and ducks into character.
Some of the acting may be amateurish, and the reading might also have stumbles, but the writing is top-shelf, conjured from the basement of the author’s creativity. These writers have been published, and some even have future movies deals, or streaming networks series. But for this evening, this small group of writers wants their art to wrap their audience in shadows, and pull it into a noctivagant adventure.
Welcome to Noir At the Bar, a raucous mix of literature, liquor and release. Eryk Pruitt, who co-owns Yonder with his wife, Lana Pierce, has hosted the events almost quarterly, bringing more than a half-dozen writers to share and perform their stories. In a town where “read my book” is as commonly uttered as “see you tomorrow,” Noir At the Bar has managed to take a book reading and tuck a shiv between the pages.
“The readers don’t necessarily just get up and read it like your average bookstore presentation,” Pruitt said. “They’re performing for an audience, they’re not just reading their own stuff. They are very aware that the audience has an expectation.”
Peter Rozovsky, a Philadelphia-based writer started Noir At the Bar during Noir Con, as an interview series with a single author. Two other noir writers — Scott Phillips and Jed Ayres — both from St. Louis, came along and stole the Noir At the Bar idea and turned it into an almost circus-like atmosphere with crime readings. Not long after that, another incarnation of Noir At the Bar popped up in New York, and then other larger towns.
“I wrote to Jed when I published my first novel “Dirtbags,” and asked him how I could get Noir At the Bar in Durham where I live,” Pruitt said. “He was like, ‘Dude, you got to start it,’ and he told me what it was all about, introduced me to a couple of readers and what they’re doing. And we started one in Durham. When I took over here (in Hillsborough), it was a no-brainer that it would come here.”
The response from customers has been strong. Pruitt said the Noir At the Bar events are always among the busiest, with crowds coming in expecting to be entertained and have a few laughs. Readers typically know within the first few minutes if they’ll have the audience wrapped around their finger, or looking on to the next story.
“You can’t go longer than eight to 10 minutes,” Pruitt said. “You want to get in, do your dirty work and get out.”
He said a diverse lineup of story tellers is important for the event, bringing in minorities and women as often as possible. And there’s never a shortage of talent. Rob Hart, who will be at the July 15 Noir At the Bar, wrote “The Warehouse,” and eerily prescient novel about a horrible version of Amazon. Mega-successful director Ron Howard purchased the film rights for the novel.
“He’s coming and he’s telling me that he’s doing Noir At the Bar Mad Libs, and I have no idea what that is. So, we’re gonna find out.”
Also appearing is SA Cosby, who wrote “Blacktop Wasteland” last year and “Razor Blade Tears” is coming this year. Paramount Studios has already purchased the rights to the new work, while Netflix bought the rights for the first one.
“He’s been to every (Noir At the Bar) here and steals the show every time. Everybody’s always loves him. This dude is the real deal.”
Pruitt said being in a literary haven is an advantage, but he credits Hillsborough’s support for all things creative. “If you can give them something and especially if it’s something you don’t see every day, this is a place that seems to appreciate it.”
Pruitt, who is himself an accomplished writer of the noir genre, also gets his eight to 10 minutes for reading his work. He said he particularly enjoys becoming his characters for the performances. He admits, though, the performance side can affect the way he writes.
“Unfortunately, yeah, sometimes I wish I could go back to writing without thinking there’s a chance I’m gonna stand in front of a microphone and read something,” he said. “So, yes, when I’m trying to think of a story for Noir At the Bar, I’m conscious of, like, I’ll need a laugh here or I’ll lose people. I need this reaction from the audience here.”
Still, Pruitt believes the opportunity to perform his stories has helped establish himself as a writer. One of his stories, called “Knacker,” is about a Texan who ends up homeless and on the streets in Dublin, Ireland. The main character has to do bare-knuckle fighting in order to make money, and he comes up against a unique challenger, named ‘Ballsy.’ In his performance of the story, Pruitt employed five different Irish accents along with the narrator’s Texas accent.
Pruitt first read and performed “Knacker” at a Noir At the Bar in Manhattan. By the end of the evening, he had received an offer for a book deal from someone who saw his performance.
“That’s one of the good luck stories, the good fortune stories and that happened,” he said.
Noir At the Bar will be at Yonder Southern Cocktails and Brew on July 15 at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Yonder is at 114 W. King St. in downtown Hillsborough.