Beneath the grind: Inside open mic night at Riverside’s downtown coffee house

To describe the experience of being at a Riverside Underground Performance Organization (RUPO) open mic night would be to describe inhabiting a tight knit, welcoming community of enthusiastic artists. For a $3 cover fee (donated to support local aspiring artists and homeless people), anyone can venture down into the basement of downtown Riverside’s Back to the Grind Coffeehouse — a space in which topics deemed “too controversial” to be performed in a family-friendly venue unfold as passionate songs and poetry readings.

The long, low-ceilinged room, dimly illuminated with a ring of Christmas lights around the stage, provide a cozy feeling, like Christmas in February. The darkness of the room allows the audience to fade into the background, while drawing attention to the stage, the only lighted space in the basement. Across the floor on any given day, seated at hand-painted tables and mismatched benches, a modest audience of 50 patrons chatters amongst themselves, waiting for the show to get underway.

RULES: 1. No Full Frontal Nudity 2. No Raw Meat 3. No Simulated Masturbation

Mario Sandoval is the organizer of this weekly event that attracts so many local artists. He was happy to describe what makes Monday nights in the basement so attractive to these artists.

20 years ago, RUPO was started in the Aurea Vista club as a space for people who wanted to perform poetry readings and musical performances. Since then, it has moved venues, and with the transition came a transformation of the community that brought all the arts together. Music, poetry, theater, dance and comedy are among the welcomed forms of expression, with poetry being the most popular.

Chloe Flores/HIGHLANDER
Rachel “Rae” Reynolds – 21yo – Campus Tour Guide – 4th year UCR student – Founding President of The Verbal Coliseum at UCR

It’s been nine years since Sandoval assumed the mantle of RUPO organizer, who describes the organization as “dedicated to bringing the community together, uncensored.” He explains that the goal of RUPO is not only to be a performance organization, but to give back to the community in a variety of ways. While its primary function is to provide aspiring artists a platform to perform, it also assists in lending them some needed visibility, an audience. No one knows better than artists themselves that their livelihoods depend on having their work consumed. Sandoval energetically describes the passion and courage required from artists to share their work on stage, and that the intention of RUPO is to build artists’ confidence and connections, to launch them onto bigger and better things. He gives the example of Daniel Rosas, a past RUPO performer who eventually featured on “The Voice,” and explains proudly that “he started out performing here.”

But the community efforts of RUPO reach further than artistic expression; on Wednesday nights, some of the members can be found helping out at the First Congregational Church of Riverside, feeding local hungry people. They reach out to the community in order to be more connected to the public, and to give back whatever they can. According to Sandoval, giving back is one of the missions of RUPO.

Chloe Flores/HIGHLANDER
Micah Atasaja – 27yo – teacher – UCR alum 2014

Sandoval clearly takes pride in RUPO as an organization and the community of artists that keep it alive. When asked about a performance he found particularly memorable, he refuses to pick just one. “There’s so many,” he says. “It’s the power that (the artists) put up on stage; the confidence, that makes it memorable.” The future of RUPO is bright, in Sandoval’s opinion, and will only get brighter.

When 9:00 p.m. rolls around, the warm and raucous collective of patrons ushers each performer onto the neon-lit stage.

The first performer, Brendan Creasy, commenced the night, and got the audience’s energy up by telling a story about his adventures in Mexico. This comedic anecdote started with him bruising his groin while watching a luchador match, and ended with him eating from a private taco cart in a locker room with famous luchadores. From then on, the performances ranged from topics like death and renewal, to psychedelics and sex (so much sex).

The individual, personal experience is a popular topic of discussion here. Through the comedy and poetry alike, the audience lives vicariously as the performers speak from experience. Performers evoke schadenfreude and sympathy in the listener through anecdotal sets revolving around bad luck, discomfort and failure. It all helps to create a specific intimacy between artist and audience. Every performance feels personal, like speaking to a friend, and invites the audience to reflect on the dynamic between the open artist and the crowd of strangers. There is a barrier between them in their lack of a proper relationship but the artists express themselves to the audience nonetheless. For some, it’s a way of venting and facilitates bonds based solely on that personal divulgence.

Confidence is a word that could aptly describe RUPO as a whole. Despite the shyness of first-timers shuffling up to the stage, cue cards in-hand to perform from the heart, the environment is suited for them to take the stage and capture attendees’ attention, without the fear of ridicule.

Chloe Flores/HIGHLANDER
Kenji – 26yo – Artist/Piano Teacher – CBU graduate

Nate Ooten, who was performing for the second time at RUPO, explained that he was looking for a place to start performing his music live, and that was how he found RUPO. “I Googled ‘open mic nights in Riverside’, and looked to see what was open. Downtown Riverside attracts lots of local artists, so I thought it would be a good place to start getting exposure.” Additionally, he confides, “I came last week to watch, to get courage, before I decided I wanted to get on stage.”

Stage fright is a valid concern, and several performers announce their nervousness when they step on stage, even the ones who perform often. But the audience facing them is welcoming, and invested in seeing them perform for the sake of performance, for bringing art into the world. One patron, who introduced himself only as James, emphasized the personal draw of RUPO’s laid-back atmosphere. “I’ve read a couple poems,” he said. “And I’ve sat in on RUPO a few times. It’s pretty chill. I’ll come back every so often.”

Performing perfectly or elegantly is not implied to be the impetus behind either the performance, nor is it the end goal. The creative efforts of these artists are all important, and for an hour and a half, everyone’s art is celebrated with equal enthusiasm.

Facebook Comments