The age-old art of storytelling is undergoing a revival — and audiences are in the mood to listen.
It is 1998 or '99. Tyler Clark is a pudgy teenager with a secret crush on Janelle Greene, a petite brunette who, like Tyler, attends Kokomo High School, in Indiana. Tyler and Janelle spend hours chatting over
During some of these chats, Tyler drops not-so-subtle hints about his feelings for Janelle, which she assiduously ignores. Sadly for Tyler, Janelle just isn't that into him. And he knows it. But for reasons Tyler doesn't quite understand, he saves every one of those high school chat sessions. It comes out to about 200 pages of text.
Fast-forward 13 years. It's a Saturday night in Chicago. Tyler, now 27, and Janelle, 28, are at Schubas Tavern, a cozy venue in Lakeview known for great live music. Standing side by side, they're reciting some of the exact same words they once typed to each other over AOL years ago. But now they're saying them onstage, in front of a rapt audience.
No, it's not what you think — they weren't getting married, and the two never became more than "just good friends." But using those old AOL chats as their script, Tyler and Janelle were taking part in "Mortified," a show where people get onstage to tell stories based on the embarrassing things they wrote during their childhood and teen years.
The crowd at Schubas loved it. They laughed, they groaned, they winced in empathy as Tyler shared pictures of his former orange-haired self (he'd tried to bleach it blond to impress Janelle, with less-than-successful results). Neither Tyler nor Janelle had ever hit the stage to do anything like this before, but when they were done, all either of them could think about was how soon could they do it again. They'd been bit by the storytelling bug.
Lucky for them, Tyler and Janelle won't have any trouble finding other venues in which to tell stories. They're in the right city at the right time — Chicago's live storytelling scene is booming.
Each month, you can usually find 15 or so different story nights in neighborhood bars and clubs, put on by groups with names such as Story Club, Essay Fiesta, Here's the Story and This Much Is True. Some are free (though you should expect polite donation requests of around 5 bucks or so); others might charge between $8-$15 a person.
The format of most story nights is pretty straightforward: People tell stories from their own lives. These tales are generally around 5 to 10 minutes long, they tend to be humorous, contain liberal amounts of profanity and are usually based on the teller's personal experience. When it comes to the storytelling crowd, "oversharing" is a virtue — which is why these events are most definitely adults-only. It's also why many people prefer the term "live lit" over "storytelling," which has childhood connotations.
Many storytelling events take the form of "story slams," which are basically open-mic nights for aspiring raconteurs. Slam rules vary: Sometimes you're allowed to read your story from the page, other times it's no notes allowed. But one rule is sacrosanct: Audiences must be supportive and enthusiastic — lots of clapping, no heckling. (And talking on cellphones during the performance is a huge faux pas).
In some ways, the storytelling world is a kinder, gentler version of stand-up comedy, although there's a lot of flow between the two scenes, especially when it comes to open-mic nights. Allison Keller, a legal secretary and sketch comedy writer, participates in both the stand-up and storytelling circuits. She recently braved the stage at one of the twice-monthly story slams put on by the Chicago chapter of The Moth, the well-known NYC-based organization that produces live storytelling events along with a radio program and podcast. (Take note: Moth events are extremely popular and almost always sell out).
Keller sees similarities and differences between the two modes of performance. "The jokes I'm telling when I'm doing stand-up are more like stories," Keller explained. According to her, stand-up is "more cutthroat. … if you die, you die." But with storytelling, "you're given the permission to bring the audience with you on an emotional journey."
Most people have at least one great story in them. The trick is figuring out how best to tell it. Moth Executive Director Joan Firestone advises storytellers to strive for narratives that "have shape, that have a beginning and an end and an arc, that have an element of surprise." No matter how short the story is, "something has to happen."
Dana Norris, the founder and host of Story Club, a Chicago-based storytelling open mic that takes place monthly at Holiday Club, a lounge in
She says storytellers should begin by telling audiences what's happening and where. "You have a couple of seconds to get the audience rooted, so you can move forward." And generally, she adds, you want to give audiences a sense of "what was learned."
Norris founded Story Club in 2009 because she couldn't find a venue for the kind of material she herself was interested in performing. At the time, most open-mic events in Chicago were geared toward poetry, stand-up and "people with guitars." Around the same time Norris started Story Club, a number of like-minded people launched similar storytelling groups and lo and behold — a scene was born.
Some, like Story Club, mix open-mic formats with scheduled "featured performers" with slightly more storytelling experience under their belt. Others offer workshops or put on
Norris thinks the storytelling scene is booming in part because of Chicago's long-standing history of oral narratives in the
And that, she adds, is what makes the stories told onstage by ordinary people "the opposite of reality TV."
Norris says that newbies can often be the best storytellers of the evening. "I think it's because they're nervous and they don't know if they're going to get to go (onstage), and that energy shifts when they get up on the microphone. They use it in their performance. And it's fantastic. The audience is on their side."
Shay DeGrandis, who produces Mortified's Chicago shows, says that, at least when it comes to her events, it can be tough to find people who are willing to bare it all onstage, emotionally speaking. When folks do take the plunge, it's often because it gives them "a chance to be eccentric."
"We get people who are writing-oriented, theater-oriented, people who like to be up onstage, but sometimes, the most satisfying are the everyday people who don't normally get up in front of others to do this kind of stuff," DeGrandis says. "I've had people perform who are truck drivers, who work in an office, who have no hand in the creative world."
Mortified's events aren't open mic — the performers tell "directed stories," which are edited with DeGrandis' help and heavily rehearsed for a more polished (and concise) delivery. DeGrandis works closely with her storytellers, often meeting with them three or four times before they go onstage. The process can be psychologically intense.
"It involves me asking them really poignant questions — 'Why were you so attached to that boy.' 'Why did you feel it was necessary to treat women that way?' These are 'I should be making $250 an hour'-type questions," she says, only half-jokingly.
But what really sets the storytelling scene apart from other forms of live entertainment is the permeable space between performer and audience. One week, you're watching someone tell their story — the next week, it could easily be you onstage, telling yours.
Tyler Clark, for his part, is already mulling over other Mortified-type story ideas. "Sadly, there are a lot. There wasn't a lot to do in Indiana 10 years ago."
Says Norris of the thriving scene she's helped foster: "It's theater, it's entertaining, but it also builds community. And it's catching — it's viral. People come to a show and don't believe they can tell a story, and at the end, they'll come up to me and say, 'I want to do this!'
"And then they go home, write a story and come back and tell it."