On Friday, November 14 and Saturday, November 15, Brown Storytellers will be hosting its Fall Semester Story Slam, a showcase featuring nine performers telling 100% true stories from their lives. The stories range from raucously funny to heartbreakingly tender, and the storytellers are rehearsing in full force in preparation. As one of the performers, I would like to offer a glimpse into the world of oral storytelling.
Brown Storytellers is a club modeled after The Moth, an international storytelling organization with branches in at least nineteen different cities. They host specific storytelling events at quirky venues (read: a lot of cafes) as well as offer storytelling competitions and a radio extension called The Moth Radio Hour. The radio hour has gained a substantial following on over 200 different channels since its debut in 2009, and is probably the most well known aspect of The Moth. Listeners are encouraged to go to The Moth’s website and submit their own stories for consideration. There are few specific requirements. The story must be completely true and must be something the teller has personally experienced (not a recounting of a story from a friend, for example). The website also warns: “Cliffhangers will not be considered.” Beyond that, any subject matter is fair game.
The same rules apply to Brown Storytellers. The group meets every Monday to exchange tales. They can be long or short, wild or calm, funny or serious. The only constant seems to be the familial accepting vibes of the group. During the meetings, everyone is a teller and everyone is a listener. Telling stories to the group gives students an opportunity to express themselves without judgment, to speak their personal truth and get excited about sharing it with others. Currently run by Ezra Nelson, Danny Sobor, and Sarah Weiss (all of whom will be performing in this weekend’s showcase), the club constantly accepts new members. The group dynamic changes every week as new tellers come and go as they please.
As well as week-by-week story presentations, Brown Storytellers builds to their biannual showcases. They host auditions to select the showcase storytellers, some of whom found their start in the club, and some of whom found the club through their audition, such as myself. I must admit, I did not know exactly what I was getting into. My friends had sort of egged me on, telling me that as a writer—and thus a natural storyteller—the obvious next step would be to take some of my experiences off the page and onto the stage. I was hesitant at first, particularly due to some unfortunate failed auditions as a child (I once auditioned for a musical by foolishly singing “Memory,” forgot the words entirely, and left the auditorium in tears). For the record, I am neither an actor nor singer and prefer to keep all potential performance-related hobbies in the safety of my bedroom. But, somehow, there I was, at a 10:00am audition on a Saturday, sharing a highly personal story to a group of strangers.
I received an email a few days later that listed the showcase line-up, giving each performer their own fighter name (I am Sarah “Sucker Punch” Van Cleave), congratulating them on the success of their audition, and inviting them to future rehearsals. The first rehearsal was held two weeks before the showcase, and gave the storytellers the opportunity to debut their stories in front of other members as well as Barbara Tannenbaum, a specialist in public speaking and senior lecturer in the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies department. Professor Tannenbaum gave performance tips to the storytellers in order to help them deliver the perfect punch lines and build suspense properly.
This work is continued at our nightly rehearsals. We meet at one of the coordinators houses, all of which are woefully hip with pop screen-prints and atmospheric Christmas lights and candles stuck in the top of old Jack Daniels bottles. Before we begin storytelling, we play warm-up games, sometimes pretending to be imaginary creatures, or listing off whatever comes into our minds fastest pertaining to a category another member has thrown out. I have had to pretend to be exploring a forest made of candy and nuclear waste. Others have pretended to be raptors out for the kill or chefs disappointed at the deflation of a series of soufflés. But this jovial introduction is always paired with a more serious check-in to see how members are feeling on any particular day. These rituals demonstrate the genuine affection and acceptance members extend to each other. Of course, there is the internal desire to be sharp or funny, but it’s nice to know the group will laugh with you at your flops anyways. There’s no external judgment; it’s all about learning to tell a story in the best and most creative way possible.
I realized at that moment that I had been unknowingly thrown into one of Brown’s treasured underground societies. I wish I could say more, but I’m learning some things just shouldn’t be written.
After a fifteen-minute warm-up, we move into actual workshops of performances. One member stands before the other nine (eight performers, plus our emcee Asa Burroughs) and recounts their story as they see it at that moment. When he or she finishes, everyone claps, then offers criticism. Like most writing workshops, this consists of: “Hey can you change that word?” or “What do you think about moving this part of the story to the beginning?” or “I needed more of this character throughout, make sure they don’t fade away.” But unlike writing workshops, the performance element is also examined. Members suggest different hand motions and advise each other to keep their energy up, or to project, or to make eye contact. I delivered my story yesterday, and my performance aspect was criticized the most, as I was struggling with not telling my story in the way that I would write it. The group comfortingly offered me tricks to keep the audience engaged, and I swear, for a moment there, I almost felt like an actor.
After about four or five workshops a night, the group disperses and everyone goes back to their own individual lives until we see each other again. But before leaving, the coordinators make sure to set up a celebratory brunch for us all to savor the storytelling process and our storyteller family just a little bit more. We walk back to campus together and split off when we must, sharing more stories along the way. When it’s just me and one member left, he lets me in on the secret pre-show rituals. I realized at that moment that I had been unknowingly thrown into one of Brown’s treasured underground societies. I wish I could say more, but I’m learning some things just shouldn’t be written.
If you would like to see for yourself what Brown Storytellers is about, our showcase will be held at 8:00pm on Friday at Kassar Fox and 8:00pm on Saturday at List 120. Stories will be told by Race Archibold, Mark Benz, Haley Moen, Ezra Nelson, Brian Semel, Danny Sobor, Lauren Stone, Sarah Van Cleave, and Sarah Weiss.
For more information on The Moth, please visit: http://themoth.org/