The Arts

Today the Union, Tomorrow the World

The UW’s Open Mic Night can be a stepping stone to the big time.

A guitarist sits facing the audience on the Union Terrace stage

“It’s fun to watch somebody being brave.” BRYCE RICHTER

Since it began in the early 1960s, the Memorial Union’s weekly Open Mic Night has featured both the boldly professional and the barely experienced. And, sometimes, the merely bare. One confident character took the stage wearing his guitar and little else.

That’s certainly a way to get more, um, exposure, but most of the performers use the opportunity to polish their craft for a tolerant UW audience. For some, it’s a stepping stone to the big time. In the 1960s, Steve Miller x’67, Boz Scaggs x’66, and Ben Sidran ’67 tested out songs at the Union before Top 40 stardom. In the 1980s, guitarist Stanley Jordan perfected his two-handed tapping technique and went on to conquer the jazz world. More recently, Madison singer-guitarist Raine Stern graduated from the open mic to NBC’s The Voice. What do all these performers have in common?

In a word: guts.

“Unlike TikTok, the open mic gives performers a real opportunity to get in front of an audience,” says Susan Dibbell ’84, MS’02, deputy director of the Wisconsin Union. “They are courageous. They learn how to work with sound technicians and handle audience feedback. It’s a lot harder than sitting in your bedroom having your friend video you.”

The Union’s open mic takes place outdoors on the Terrace and, when it’s too cold for clothing-optional guitar playing, inside at the Rathskeller. Hosts run the show — and sometimes steal it. On an August night at the Terrace, Alexia Normington x’25 introduced the acts with low-key professionalism, and then, to the crowd’s whooping delight, joined Rija Ratsimihah x’25 for “Tennessee Whiskey,” nailing the country-fried harmony. Who knew she could sing?

“That was very spontaneous,” Normington said, laughing, before introducing a yo-yo specialist.

Ratsimihah goes by Rija! on Spotify, and no one would begrudge him the exclamation mark. With his American Idol–ready upper register, the music education major is destined for bigger stages. While it’s fun to discover such talent at the open mic, it’s just as enjoyable to watch less-ambitious individuals go up on a lark. That night, budding accordionist Kate Forer MFAx’24 played a creditable rendition of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” inspiring a sing-along. A barefoot Chani Danforth ’23 admitted that her performance was just for fun but then sang Carole King’s “So Far Away” with a dreamy sweetness that made audience members put down their brats. No one guessed that she’d cap her 10-minute slot with a blazing four-mallet marimba solo.

Comedian Kristine Marie Gallagher ’91, MS’93 told a fantastical story about shoplifting, wearing a black-and-white-striped prisoner’s costume that she accessorized with a plastic ball-and-chain around her ankle. At the end of the night, as the performers chatted with new fans, she summed up the open mic’s enduring appeal.

“It’s fun to watch somebody being brave.”

Published in the Winter 2023 issue


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