Jeremy Ashley Owens: Being “Your Youest You” and Eliminating​ the Judgement in Writing and Performance

Jeremy Ashley Owens found the reading series You’re Being Ridiculous in 2010 and has produced and hosted ever since. Each show is led by a theme and people get together to share stories about their lives. Their motto, “Good stories are better than good times.”

From a previous interview for Windy City TimesOwens explained YBR came from wanting, “to be onstage talking about what I wanted to talk about.” He also desired a “safe, happy place” where he could be in charge of what he wanted to say and have other people with him.

Originally from Stuttgart, Arkansas, “the rice and duck capital OF THE WORLD,” Owens resides in Rogers Park. He’s a co-editor for Heauxs Chicagoand his work has appeared in Oy!Chicago, Role RebootThreadThe Daily Dotand Story Club Magazine. He’s also been featured in live-lit shows Essay Fiesta, Fillet of Solo Theatre Festival, Guts & Glory, Story Club Chicago, Story Sessions, The Paper Machete, This Much Is True, and That’s All She Wrote.

I reached out to Owens to ask about his writing process, advice for nonfiction/performing newcomers, what he looks for when reading YBR submissions and more!

What was it like to transition to writing from theatre?

I went to school for theatre, but I’ve always been interested in writing. Though… originally I started as a journalism major… I always forget that. I tried to do both for a while, but the theatre thing won me over. I liked getting to work with with a bunch of people to tell stories and I like how theatre makes you give all of yourself. You have to be fully committed and invested to do theatre well. I finally switched to theatre full time because the journalism people were way less fun at parties than the theatre people. So really I guess I was always doing some writing. I like to think it was a seamless transition. I think the hardest part was giving myself permission to try and fail. It’s easy to get trapped in the idea that if you haven’t gone to school for something and don’t have some sort of diploma as a stamp of approval then you can’t try anything new or different, but it’s just not true.

What is your writing process like? Has it changed from when you first started?

I’m not one of those people who writes every single day. With YBR I set a theme for each of the shows and right now that’s a lot of my writing process. I have to figure out how to connect to whatever the theme is. So I guess it’s mostly about those deadlines for me. A deadline can be very motivating. I like to start with a general idea of what story I’m going to tell. I don’t have an outline or anything that serious. I don’t want to be too locked into anything, so once I start I can sorta see where inspiration takes me. I’m pretty slow, I think, but I think I’m getting faster. Maybe I’m a little less precious about the whole thing now? There’s a lot of yelling at the wall and staring at the ceiling.

Are there other genres you enjoy writing?

I’m working an idea for a YA novel, but I don’t have it super solid yet. I’ve never really written fiction, but I want to try.

Courtesy of Jeremy Ashley Owens

For those who are interested in nonfiction, performing, or both, but might be hesitant, what are a few things you’d want them to know? 

I think everyone is looking for inspiration and permission all the time, and I believe that someone is waiting for your story. Somebody desperately needs what you have to say. They need what you have, told the way only you can tell it. What that means is … you owe it to that person (and yourself, and everyone you come into contact with) to be authentic and true and brave. You have to tell your story with your volume turned all the way up. Think of the person you most admire in the world, picture that person … YOU ARE THAT FOR SOMEONE, SO BE IT! That doesn’t mean be someone else. It means be your YOUEST YOU. You’re enough and someone needs you! That’s maybe a little theatrical, but I believe that and try to live by it. You have to be committed to telling your truth with all the flavor you have as a person. I think that goes for writing nonfiction AND performing it. Otherwise, what’s the point? Be brave! Share your story or ANY story! We need it and we need you!

You said part of creating You’re Being Ridiculous came from wanting to be on stage talking about what you wanted and not being alone. What has the sense of community done for you and the series? Along with the diversity?  

Theatre is super collaborative which is great, but that can be a little cagey. You’re always directed by someone, so ultimately somebody else is in charge of what you do … at least in a way. What I wanted originally was to write monologues and remove that outside director thing. I wanted to take away the judgment. I’d write something and read it the way I wanted to read it. I didn’t want to ask permission or get anyone’s approval. I just wanted to do it and feel good about it. I think what I’m really doing here is explaining to you how much of a control freak I am. Obviously I want approval, I want everyone everywhere to like me and to be good, but I didn’t want to hear NO … do this instead. I thought this whole way of doing things might be new and fun and different, but I knew that if I had a show I couldn’t do all the talking myself. AND I figured there must be other people who wanted to share stories without anyone being up in their process. The first time we did the show I asked a bunch of friends to do it with me, and it has grown from there. My friends are pretty bored with it and me at this point I think. I like that YBR is a sort of story collage with all the stories fitting together to comment on whatever the theme is for a particular night. You really just cannot do that without diversity. If everybody looks the same and sounds the same and come from the same background … that’s limited. You need people of color and people with different abilities and ages and genders and sexualities to tell a more complete story. I try very hard to make the show as diverse as possible. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m less successful, but I’m trying all the time to include more people.

Does YBR still offer writing classes? What was it first like to teach without any previous experience?

I’ve taught a couple classes. I’d like to teach more, so if you know somebody … I’m here. Teaching still freaks me out a little. I have to work to turn off that inner voice that says I don’t know what I’m talking about. I also think the hardest part about teaching the first time is finding out you don’t have to be the greatest teacher on Earth with all this knowledge. You don’t have to be Maya Angelou. You just need to offer a safe and open and supportive place where people can come together and work and share.

YBR is submission based and you said the worst part of all has been saying no. What do you look for in the stories you read? 

Oh, God. Saying no to people is the absolute worst. It’s terrible because there are only so many spots and in the end it comes down to the overall feel of a particular show. You just don’t know what submissions you’re going to get, ya know? You can’t have like 25 stories about moms dying or cancer or puppies or clowns or whatever … you have to create a balance and have variety. You might have room for two dying dogs but not three, so you have to pick your most favorite dying dog stories. Why am I talking about dying dogs, this is awful, but you get my point. It’s not necessarily what you write and send to us, it’s about what everyone has written and sent to us. It’s not a fun job at all. When we’re reading submissions, we actually say out loud … BRAVE, BOLD, REVEALING. That’s totally dorky, but that’s what we want. I’d say make sure the story is about YOU … nobody wants to watch you tell a story about somebody else. Also you don’t have much time so this isn’t the place for an epic poem or anything super complicated. Keep it simple. I went to the store, I fell down, Michelle Obama saved me. Simple! Beginning, Middle. End. BUT! Infused with your gorgeous voice and personality.

The next YBR submission deadline is December 7! The theme is OBSESSED … visit to learn more.

Courtesy of Jeremy Ashley Owens

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