Catching up with Odd Salon

Every other Tuesday, things get a little odd here at Public Works. Odd Salon is a biweekly gathering of storytellers and speakers, united around a common theme — a contemporary twist on the French salons of yore.

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Now in its fourth year running, Odd Salon is the rare gathering that is as educational as it is entertaining. Each event features 6 short talks and lectures, presented by recurring Odd Salon veterans (known as Fellows) and newcomers alike. In addition to Odd Salon’s bimonthly events at Public Works, they’ve hosted pop-ups and one-offs with the Long Now Foundation, the California Academy of Sciences, and they produced a sold-out special series on San Francisco history for the California Historical Society.

We caught up with one of Odd Salon’s co-founders and primary curators, Annetta Black, to learn more about what makes Odd Salons … odd, and why you should come visit. Read on!


How did Odd Salon begin? “Salons,” of course, are an old and storied tradition — but where did the concept for the “odd” salon come from? Was there a particular story or event that kicked off the whole concept?

The idea of Odd Salon really does harken back to those ideas from earlier generations (my great-great grandfather was a lyceum circuit speaker). There is still something special about coming together in person to explore ideas and share knowledge, maybe even more so in an era where community and conversations are increasingly online. There were plenty of other lecture series out there, but what we wanted was something a little more participatory and accessible, and that gave us a chance to dig into all the really great, really strange under-told stories that rarely make it to those kinds of stages. History is just full of amazingly weird stories that we never, ever hear.

So, I think like a lot of things, what really kicked it off was looking around wanting to go be a part of something like this, but not finding it, and ultimately we realized that if this is what we wanted, we had to make it happen. We had to be the weird we wanted to see in the world.

Odd Salon features “short talks illuminating extraordinary and unusual chapters from history, science, art, and adventure” — but, could you tell us a little bit more about what a newcomer to Odd Salon can expect? Are there any particular Odd Salon stories or moments that really stand out in your mind and capture the experience?

Odd Salon is stand-up style storytelling for strange-but-true stories from history. We intentionally invite both experts and enthusiastic amateurs to get up and share stories — and more often than not, the experts end up telling stories that have nothing to do with their expertise.

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Expect lots of toasts and a rowdier-than-average lecture audience, an irreverent approach to beloved historical figures, bawdy and strange and sometime alarming true stories, stick figure histories, and the occasional unexpected use of cat gifs to explain complicated points of physics.

We pride ourselves on digging up stories of history’s badasses and jerks, bad ideas and harebrained schemes; giving voice to opera singing sword fighters, occultist rocket scientists, enterprising con men, clever saboteurs, and to tales of artistic revenge, terrible inventions, ill-fated expeditions, extremely large explosions, and upsetting animals facts.

Each Odd Salon is structured around a certain theme — some past themes included Revenge, Grift, Genius, Logic, and Cosmos. What makes a good Odd Salon theme? How do you pick them? Do you ever tie them into current events, or is there a different process at work?

The themes are brainstormed by the Odd Salon fellowship, and then chosen by the partners. We try to find a cadence to the themes where each theme has the opportunity to inform the upcoming stories, and we find amazing unexpected overlaps and synergies all the time.

We anchor most of our stories in the past (mostly before WWII) but we make exceptions, in particular when someone has personal experience or expertise in a specific subject. But one of the great things about looking to stories from that past is that first of all, it takes us away from recirculating the same stories that everyone already knows, and it gives us an excuse to do research. It also means that when we want to talk about the present, we have to find ways to use parallels from the past — which is surprisingly easy. We humans are slow learners, and pretty much anything political or societal that is going on now has echoes going way into the past.

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On that note, what makes a good storyteller? Of course, this is a question that people spend their entire lives thinking about, but having worked on Odd Salon for several years running, you’ve no doubt seen some great storytellers come through the door. What are some elements of a great story that really grab people’s attention, in your opinion? 

Storytelling is definitely a craft, and we’ve really learned that an amazing subject does not mean a great story and sometimes a topic that seems ordinary or unspectacular ends up being the one that really grabs you – because it’s all in how the story is told. We teach workshops for our speakers on the elements of narrative structure, and we are all constantly playing with the form.

At the same time, there are definitely natural born storytellers out there, and there may be nothing better than getting to watch someone just really shine. Our guidelines for shaping a story starts with finding the arc, the points of tension, and a narrow, specific subject to care about. There are a lot of ways to play with that arc, but sometimes its about remembering what not to do: Never tell a list. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Don’t bury the lede.

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Last but certainly not least, let’s dream big — if you could get any lineup of guest speakers for any topic, who would they be (and what would the topic be)?

Perhaps my favorite part of this project is that it’s participatory by its nature, and our stage is open to everyone. You don’t need to be a historian or scientist, or have a related degree or book under your belt to tell a story on our stage. I love it when we have special guests and speakers with a background of storytelling or expertise in a unusual subject, and I love it when someone in a totally unrelated field shares an unexpected favorite story.

So I already have my dream lineup in a way, in that it potentially includes pretty much anyone – but I would definitely extend an invitation to people who work with interesting stories but who rarely get a chance to tell them: people doing unusual field research, librarians and archivists and people working in preservation, working artists, museum professionals, tinkerers, thinkers, and curious minded storytellers of all stripes.

Odd Salon occurs every other Tuesday evening from 6:30 p.m.-10 p.m here at Public Works. Their next event is Sept. 5: Odd Salon Epidemic. All photos (except top header) courtesy Jonathan Pirro for Odd Salon.

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