“Do it for the story.” It’s our rationale for risky behavior when we want material for dynamic dinner parties and dynamite dates. But it probably hadn’t yet occurred to Evan Roberts when, at age 11, he made a jarringly real-looking 9mm pistol out of black Legos and aimed it at his little brother.
“Mom, it’s Legos – I made it!” Roberts remembers telling his horrified mother, who insisted he throw it out. Back then, he thought her reaction was overblown. But in retelling it at The Storyline Collective event in Downtown Phoenix last summer – at the peak of Black Lives Matter – Roberts, a 29-year-old black man, said, “I get it now.”
Roberts, who works in marketing, isn’t a professional storyteller or actor or journalist. No matter: The Valley is full of amateur raconteurs like Roberts, who take the stage about once a month in live storytelling events like Storyline, Phoenix New Times’ Bar Flies and The Arizona Republic’s Arizona Storytellers Project. The latter event in particular has been so successful, landing such lucrative sponsorship deals (creator Megan Finnerty says a sponsorship in Phoenix can garner up to $120,000 from businesses that in turn get print and digital campaigns and event collateral), that Republic parent company Gannett recently expanded it to eight other markets, tapping Finnerty to direct its new Storytellers Brand Studio. Storytelling (and story-listening), it seems, is all the rage.
As the non-rhythmic cousin of open-mic slam poetry nights, a typical storyteller event is based on a general theme – e.g. “All American,” “Firsts” – with a curated lineup of old pros and young blood such as local entrepreneurs or baristas. While Storytellers and Storyline are spoken performances, Bar Flies participants read personal essays on stage. Tickets range from $5 to $10 and venues often sell out – sometimes upward of 350 seats. The confessional, nonfiction stories performed or read at each event are not crafted and sourced like news stories, rather, they’re frequently full of non sequiturs and rambling side notes a hardened newspaper editor would cut immediately. “There’s a real sincerity to these shows,” says Storyline creator Dan Hull. It’s most important, he says, for the story to “be something the audience connects to.”
Amy Silverman, New Times managing editor and Bar Flies creator, says, “I think it’s picking up on a national trend,” pointing to the long-running popularity of national storytelling programs like The Moth, founded in New York in 1997. Arguably, the trend has been overfed by a plethora of media now available for anyone to broadcast their innermost thoughts. Like podcasts, tweets and other citizen-journalist offerings, the quality of the story itself varies greatly from teller to teller. As anyone who’s read an error-riddled Facebook rant knows, perhaps not every story is worth telling. The difference, Silverman says, is in the workshopping.
Bar Flies co-curator Katie Johnson says in the process, newbies improve their writing skills while established writers learn to eliminate their “verbosity” or “subtle metaphors” that don’t work on a live audience.
They may not be trained journalists, Finnerty says, but her event ensures tellers adhere to a journalistic code. “There’s news judgment that goes into selecting themes, figuring out diversity of voices,” she says. “It’s just like we do in the paper every day.”
Her project partner, director Liz Warren of the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, says that in America, where everyone comes from everywhere else, we don’t connect like other cultures do through old folktales and legends. We tell small personal stories, she says, so others can relate: “We’ve all had a grandmother, good, bad or indifferent. If you tell a story about your bad grandma, it makes us happy for our good grandma.”
Empathy is why Evan Roberts has shared his Legos-gone-wrong cautionary tale at several events. His goal, he says, was to help people “see things from another’s perspective.” As for his stage fright or unpolished delivery? “Who wants perfection anyway?” he asks. “That’s boring.”
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