The art of ordinary life: Why storytelling nights are suddenly everywhere


It’s seven o’clock on a Wednesday night, and a crowd of about 75 people has gathered at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood. They’ve come to hear TOLD Cleveland, a regular storytelling night that launched this year.
 
Host David Sabol kicks things off by introducing the featured storytellers, none of whom are professional performers. An affable guy with a dark, neatly trimmed beard and glasses, Sabol himself is an amateur, as well. He teaches math at the all-boys Saint Ignatius High School and lives in the quiet suburb of Fairview Park.
 
As the storytelling night gets going, a social worker tells a story about a client who’d given him a severed chicken foot as a gift. A librarian talks about living next to “Murder City,” the Flats housing projects visited by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1937 and now infamous for crime. A teacher talks about an unusual home invasion – trying to rid her living room of a squirrel before a house guest arrived.

The audience loves it, and more people sign up to share stories. Colorfully rendered with the dramatic arc of a short story, the tales told that night are enough to make you laugh, cry or feel something powerful. They turn ordinary experiences into shared ones, making people's lives meaningful to strangers.

Storytelling nights are gaining popularity in cities. Until recently, Cleveland didn’t have a storytelling event, but now it’s got two. Detroit has The Moth StorySLAM, a monthly event that’s been generating standing-room-only crowds for five years. Pittsburgh has a storytelling night that launched this spring. And in Chicago, birthplace of the poetry slam, you can flit around listening to tales of the city at various storytelling events that take place every night of the month.
 
“There’s something about the directness of ... sitting in a dark room with your phone off and listening to stories with your neighbors."
Everywhere, it seems, storytelling is enjoying a revival, its popularity fueled by radio shows and podcasts like Risk!, This American Life, and The Moth. Why are people returning to this elemental art form? Catherine Burns, artistic director of the New York City-based nonprofit The Moth, says it’s a backlash against our impersonal, digital world. “There’s something about the directness of these nights, sitting in a dark room with your phone off and listening to stories with your neighbors,” she says. “People need this in a very fundamental way.”
 
When The Moth first launched in 1997, the shows were only in New York. Now, instead of doing ten shows a year just in that city, Burns says, the group does forty shows around the country and internationally. The Moth StorySLAMs are now happening in twenty cities and two foreign countries. And then there’s the popular radio show and podcast.
 
Whether they adopt The Moth’s format or not, most storytelling nights have a couple of featured storytellers and open mic slots for additional participants. The stories must be true, and presenters are asked to adhere to themes like “Home” or “Foreign Territory” and keep stories under five to ten minutes. At story slams, the pieces are judged and winners have the chance to participate in higher-level competitions.
 
Building an audience
 
Part of the genius of storytelling nights is their simplicity. All you really need is a venue, a host, storytellers, and an audience. Many of the storytelling hosts I spoke to decided to start their events after listening to The Moth. Others learned about storytelling events in other cities and then decided to create one where they lived.   
 
Sabol decided to launch Told after participating in Cleveland Bridge Builders, a program that engages nonprofit, business, and government leaders in civic life. He pitched his idea to his cohorts in the program, and they encouraged him to go for it. Sabol launched Told a few months later, and the events have attracted crowds.
 
Sabol usually warms up the audience by telling a story himself. Like the time when he was working as a social worker helping homeless people and individuals in recovery to find jobs, his first real job out of college, and he found himself sitting across from a six-foot-six-inch, 350-pound transgender man. Oh yeah, the guy also had multiple personality disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder. When it looked like he might morph into someone else, Sabol had to keep it together. As it turned out, the man stayed himself, but it makes a great story. When the audience hears stories like this, Sabol says, they begin reaching into their own memory banks.      
 
“If you hear a good story, not only do you appreciate it, you remember some of the stories you have.”
“If you hear a good story, not only do you appreciate it, but you remember some of the stories you have,” he says. Thanks to this triggering effect, Sabol typically ends up with a waiting list for Told open mic slots.

Cleveland comedian Zachariah Durr started his storytelling night, Keep Talking, to provide an outlet for comedians and other people to tell stories that weren’t being voiced at comedy open mics. Durr asks his presenters to submit their story ideas in advance of the show and helps them shape the stories, which tend to be eight to ten minutes in length.

His favorite moments are when people who have never stood up to tell a story get in front of the mic. “They’re always very nervous and worry about how they’re going to come across,” he says. “Every time, people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘This was great. I didn’t think it was going to go so well, but thank you for letting me do this.’”
 
Just a few months old, Keep Talking is now attracting “fire hazard level” crowds to the Underdog, the basement bar of a popular beer and hot dog joint called the Happy Dog.
 
Megan McGee of Ex Fabula, a five-year-old nonprofit in Milwaukee, uses workshops to help people hone their stories before they get onstage. She also uses two other formats: the “Duo,” where two people tell a story together, and the “Terkel” (named after famous oral historian Studs Terkel), which uses an interview format to tell a story.
 
Ex Fabula performerEx Fabula monthly nights take place at bars and theatres, but the group holds special events at places like barber shops, farmers markets and beaches. A five-minute time limit prevents storytellers from monopolizing the mic, and if someone bombs, which is rare, it’s mercifully brief. The organization also holds juried events and produces a “best of” event once a year.
 
Other storytelling nights incorporate paid performers. Dana Norris, executive director of Story Club Chicago, says she created her series because she didn’t see anything like it in the open mic scene. Story Club events bring together paid storytellers and open mic performers, which she says “makes for a really interesting night.” 
 
Far-reaching impact
 
Norris and others involved in storytelling will tell you these events are more than just interesting nights. According to Dave Sabol, they are transformative experiences.
 
“On the surface, it’s an entertainment thing,” Sabol says of Told. “Yet below the surface, we’re bringing people together, building a sense of community, building up Cleveland in different ways, and giving voices to people who don’t have voices.” 
 
That sounds pretty bold, but Sabol’s counterparts support his assertion. To illustrate the far-reaching impact of storytelling, The Moth’s Catherine Burns shares a recent example of an email she received. A woman heard a Moth story told by an Indian doctor contrasting American and Indian burial practices. After learning how people in India wash and prepare the bodies of family and loved ones, the woman went to the hospital where her father was on his deathbed and asked doctors if she could wash and prepare her father’s body.
 
“It turned out that the lead doctor grew up in India, so she was able to sit and prepare the body,” Burns relates. “She sent The Moth an email saying how meaningful this was, how she’d never have known to do that if she hadn’t heard the story. Then the hospital contacted her and said, ‘Please help us convince the administration to let us do this with others.’”
 
Storytelling not only helps people access their own stories, Burns says, but also fosters empathy with others. The outcomes can extend far beyond the individual venue and have a ripple effect in the community. 
 
Keep Talking’s Zachariah Durr agrees that storytelling can build bridges between individuals.
 
“Sometimes we have people say, ‘I’ve never told this story before,’” Durr says. “When you have someone share something about their lives, the barrier is broken. You see audience members go up and connect with each other, or old friends say, ‘I never knew that about you. I can’t believe it.’”
 
Norris says the best Story Club events foster unexpected revelations.
 
“I always try to speak a previously unspoken truth in some way. I want to justify a stranger’s time for listening.”
“I always try to speak a previously unspoken truth in some way,” she says. “That’s a pretty high bar, and I don’t always reach it. But I want to justify a stranger’s time for listening.”
 
In Milwaukee, McGee has been organizing storytelling events to bring different parts of the community together. She recently organized a storytelling night for the Hispanic community in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, about an hour north of the city.
 
“It was a cool thing for that community because there’s never been anything like that,” McGee says. “We were able to then bring some of them to Milwaukee to tell a story here.”
 
Alex Trajano, a musician, DJ, and public radio host who runs The Moth StorySLAM at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit, says storytelling helps ordinary people overcome what is often their biggest fear – public speaking.
 
Alex Trajano“Telling a themed story with no notes in front of strangers, it turns out to be such a communal experience,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
 
Such experiences provide an important outlet for Detroiters, argues Phreddy Wischusen. Wischusen is a Detroit writer who recently won The Moth StorySLAM. He says storytelling helps people become “arbiters of their own narratives.” By starting with personal stories rooted in place, storytelling builds a narrative of what’s happening in the city. Ultimately, storytelling may help Detroiters talk about the racial division that has plagued the city for decades.
 
“I hope and believe that in the long-term this can lead to the type of honest conversation we need,” Wischusen says.
 
Satori Shakoor agrees. Shakoor is founder of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, a monthly storytelling night at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
 
“I come from a long line of storytellers, old black women from the South,” says Shakoor. “That’s how they talked – they scolded, warned, and entertained with stories. They were just masters at using words to provoke images, creating little movies in my mind. At its highest level, I believe storytelling can be transformative."

Connecting with each other
 
Like Catherine Burns, nearly everyone I spoke with pointed to the Internet when explaining the renewed interest in storytelling but not necessarily for the reasons you’d think. Ironically, while social media make DIY events possible, our virtual lives can also make us feel lonely and disconnected. We hunger for real connections, the communal experience of sitting around and talking about real things, and that’s what storytelling is all about.
 
"Our brains are hardwired for narrative. These events take everything that’s good about stories and amps them up.”
“Loneliness is a new social plague. If you don’t connect, life feels empty,” says McGee. “Human beings are hardwired for connection. Our brains are hardwired for narrative. These events take everything that’s good about stories and amps them up.”
 
Norris says storytelling has reinvigorated the open mic scene in Chicago, which invented the poetry slam at The Green Mill in the 1980s. The problem with many readings and literary events is that they’re not really geared towards audiences, she says. After she became frustrated with poorly run, disorganized open mics that started late, Norris took a friend’s advice to “stop bitching and start the thing you want.”
 
“I want the reader to meet the audience more than halfway,” she says. “People show up ready to do their best performances. It’s not a closed loop. Every month, it’s growing.”
 
Amanda Delheimer DimondThe Chicago storytelling scene has embraced the term “live lit,” encompassing multiple genres including storytelling, debate, and persuasive essays. In a way, Norris says, this broader tent has reinvigorated the live literary scene across the city, helping to connect artists with audiences who might not otherwise be exposed to them.

Amanda Dimond, executive director of 2nd Story, another Chicago storytelling event which launched in 1999, describes the scene this way: “You could not swing a dead cat without hitting a literary series in Chicago. I think that growth is because people really crave creative participation. It’s not always satisfactory to just show up and be the audience member. With storytelling, it’s often like, ‘Oh, I want to do this too.’”
 
Storytelling nights are not staid events where you listen passively. Even if audience members don’t sign up to tell a story, hosts have found ways to get them engaged. For example, The Moth StorySLAMs feature cocktail hours prior to the events where audience members can swap stories with other people at the bar. People don’t want to leave after the slams are over, so then there’s another round of drinks and stories. 
 
Trajano says audiences like watching other people talk about their mistakes and emerge at the end with a lesson or takeaway, as heroes of their own ordinary lives.
 
“People like watching other people tackle their fears, but it’s also how people connect with each other,” he says. “It’s such a weirdly simple formula, but it works and people come out in gangbusters. It’s a human connection thing.”
 
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