.Starry Plough’s Open Mic Night: A Delightful Miscellany

Variety is the spice of nightlife at Berkeley's 50-year-old pub and arts venue

The Tuesday open mic night at the Starry Plough invites acts that defy description: Audience-participation magic with a talking parrot. A contortionist and her trained dog doing card tricks. Belly dancing. A nunchuck demonstration set to the Street Fighter II theme song.

The East Bay is a land of open mics, and it’s possible to find any speciality—singer/songwriters at The Fireside Lounge, poetry at Starting Points, storytelling at StorySlam Oakland and the Empowering People of Color open mic on second Fridays at La Peña—to name just a few. But for sheer variety and delightful miscellany, it’s hard to beat the Starry Plough, which draws everything from guitar ballads to comedy rock bands to stand-up comics to poets to people pioneering new forms of performance.

This mixture is deftly managed by hosts Sara Jayne McDonald and Johnny Mitro, who shower warmth and support on anyone and everyone who gets up on stage. While some open mics cater primarily to performers who are launching careers in music or have some professional training or experience, the Starry Plough welcomes the untrained, the first-timers and people just trying something out, alongside experienced performers and open mic regulars.

“It has a kind of living room vibe,” McDonald says. “The beauty of it is that we take all of it.”

McDonald and Mitro have learned to expect the unexpected. “Nothing can surprise me on the weirdness stuff,” Mitro says. “But I’m constantly surprised by the beauty and the talent of everyone.”

The Starry Plough open mic has been running since the ’90s, and the pub itself has been around for 50 years. The kitchen serves a full menu of pub food, and the bar features local craft beers from Fieldworks, Faction and Alameda Island. And Guinness, of course. Other weekly events include traditional Irish dancing, Celtic music jams and a poetry slam.

Beloved for its sense of community and friendly counterculture vibe, the Starry Plough is decorated with Irish Citizen Army, Che Guevara and other revolutionary flags, alongside disco balls and a chalkboard with an “Irish phrase of the week” like “Ní hé lé gaoihe lá na scolb” (“The windy day is not the day for thatching”). Mitro sums it up as “a lefty, socialist, collectivist family-owned pub that you can even bring your boomer parents to.”

That community focus shapes the open mic.

“Everybody’s welcome,” McDonald says. “There are plenty of people that get up there and say, ‘This is my first time ever performing at an open mic.’ Or, ‘This is my first time performing, ever.’ And there’s just this air of celebration and warmth and openness. If you’re up there sharing a piece of you with us, we are thrilled.” 

At this open mic, the audience wants to root for you and cheer you on. “No one gets more motivation than the first-timer who is scared out of their pants,” Mitro says. “All they have to do is say, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been onstage. Bear with me,’ and the crowd will erupt.”

The open mic also draws many return performers, some of whom participate without fail every week. “It definitely feels like a little tavern family reunion every Tuesday,” McDonald says. 

When Mitro started hosting in 2012, there were about 12-15 acts each Tuesday. Now, the open mic regularly draws 40 performers. A three-year COVID hiatus doesn’t seem to have ruined the momentum; the Starry Plough was able to crowdfund more than $60,000 to survive the pandemic and reopened in April.

According to Mitro, the vibe has only improved since the reopening. Pre-COVID, the open mic saw the occasional rude performer or a bit of diva behavior—but “coming out of the pandemic, that seemed to have been washed away,” Mitro says. “Everyone was so much more grateful to be out, to be in the space. And then it just snowballed into staying like that.”

Part of the open mic’s growth is undoubtedly due to Mitro and McDonald, who are the performers’ biggest cheerleaders. The key to being a good open mic host, according to Mitro, is “being comfortable enough with yourself to make other people feel comfortable.”

They both excel at connecting with each performer—hyping up nervous newcomers, leading the applause and acknowledging the bravery it takes to share one’s music or comedy or poetry or nunchucks in front of a crowd. They play off each other well, each with their own brand of warmth, support and humor.

“Johnny is really good at giving positive, tangible feedback to every performer, without fail,” McDonald says. “Every time he gets up on the stage, he has something to say about the person’s presence or their technique or the audience’s reaction.”

McDonald, in colorful clothes and groovy sunglasses, keeps the night energized and lively. “Sara Jayne is a magical legend,” Mitro says. “I think when people see me, they kind of see ‘Johnny next door.’ But then Sara Jayne flies down from the clouds on a rainbow with harps.”

The open-mic’s motley line-up—its “circus chaos energy,” according to McDonald—creates moments of real magic. McDonald and Mitro love the occasional moments when the audience is rendered speechless.

“We have a pin-drop moment,” McDonald says. “The whole bar is quiet and everyone collectively, of their own accord, just stops talking.”

Mitro adds, “The folks that are able to make the entire audience quiet are something special. It’s not just talent alone.”

Prospective performers should arrive around 7:30pm, when sign-up starts. Performers sign up by writing their names on blank slips of paper and placing the slips in an empty pitcher that sits on the stage. At 8pm, McDonald and Mitro draw names out of the pitcher one by one.

As a name is drawn, that performer gets to pick out their time slot on the order list—they can decide to put their name early and be one of the first to perform, or put their name late and have time to warm up. Everyone gets to perform; the last names drawn will just have fewer time slots to choose from.

McDonald and Mitro are ready to hype up new performers. Their advice is to show up and feel it out. 

“Just walk in the door,” Mitro says. “It probably could be scary to think, ‘I’m going to walk in there and everybody is going to be super talented and handsome and charismatic, and I’m gonna be such a loser.’ No. You walk in, and it’s good people.”

McDonald says, “When you step in, you’re stepping into a very loving community of people. Rest assured that you’re walking into a judgment-free zone.”

For McDonald, it’s always a special night. “I feel so lucky, because no matter what kind of Tuesday I had or how I’m doing, I know that when I go in there my night or day or week is going to automatically be better,” she says.

The Starry Plough is located at the corner of Prince Street and Shattuck Avenue in South Berkeley. Performances begin every Tuesday around 8pm and wrap up between 11:30pm and midnight.

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