In a crowded coffee shop, an unassuming microphone stands alone on stage.
As 20-somethings huddle in groups, others sit isolated, sipping espressos and reading paperbacks. The lights suddenly dim, chatter stops and music begins to play.
Two female students take the stage and perform an original song. Next, a male student sits on a stool and plays the guitar.
The evening continues with a piano piece followed by a comedian and a poet.
No, this isn’t a night at a trendy Silver Lake, Calif. hangout, but just another successful Open Mic Night at Ground Zero Performance Café.
Every Monday night, Ground Zero, the on-campus coffee shop that resembles an underground club with its black walls and plush couches, is taken over by performers of all kinds.
At 9:30 p.m. the show begins and performers take the stage for slots of seven minutes each. The performances include guitarists, singers, pianists, comedians and poets. Some weeks it is all regulars, other weeks there is a new group of performers. There are a few non-USC performers who come for the atmosphere and to test new material. Students, however, make up the majority of the audience and performers.
“It’s really interesting to see the way other students express themselves,” said Wesley Fulkerson, a freshman majoring in business administration.
Open Mic Night draws regular performers because of its amiable environment and receptive crowd.
“It’s a really good place for people to hang out and show their talents,” said Arielle Oh, a sophomore majoring in fine arts and the organizer of Open Mic Night. “Overall, the whole thing is really welcoming, there’s no pressure.”
Open Mic Night has shown that USC has a lot of talented people who love to perform, as these students come back every week to try out their material.
“I really love to write and I wanted to get an audience’s reaction,” Fulkerson said.
Other students perform either on a whim or to settle a bet, which can lead to a range of reactions — everything from cheers to boos — from the audience.
“Sometimes in college you need to do something you wouldn’t do otherwise. So, I just went for it,” said Pierre Tasci, a student comedian majoring in computer engineering and computer science.
Students are not the only performers that grace the stage; each week, non-USC performers come and hope that there will be room on the list to perform their material. These aspiring entertainers sometimes get applause, but are usually received with an awkward silence.
Despite the audience’s reaction, Ground Zero is able to attract a wide variety of musicians and serve all its performers and their needs.
“Out of all the coffeehouse venues, it has the best stage equipment and is just a good environment for a performer,” Oh said.
And the rules of this coffeehouse aren’t like most coffeehouses around. Ground Zero allows its performers a great deal of freedom. Each performer has seven minutes to perform anything he or she wants to.
“We have basic house rules; you just have to have a shirt on,” Oh said. “There were kids who lost a bet and they had to sing a cover of The Fray song. During the song, they took their shirts off. It was really awkward.”
With this carefree attitude it is no surprise that Open Mic Night has had its fair share of outrageous and unexpected performances. Last week, for example, a young boy took the stage and told his life story in seven minutes.
No matter what the people perform or who is performing, an audience of 70 to 80 people fills Ground Zero on Monday nights from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. With a full house, performers come and try to impress the audience and their friends, hoping to gain a following and further themselves in the music world.
After many performances, students and professionals alike plug their name and a website to follow them and their careers.
Although there are a few students who step up to the mic just for fun, most are practicing in hopes of making a living off their talents.
“I like the whole experience — it’s a good way to build confidence and gain experience,” Fulkerson said.
Although Ground Zero is known for its out-of-this-world milkshakes, Open Mic Night deserves the same hype. Each performance is different from the next, and the entertainment is endless.
The next time you go to Ground Zero on a Monday night for a milkshake, you might think about staying for Open Mic Night.