The Live-Storytelling Movement

“And so I found myself standing in my mother’s rose bushes at 2 in the morning, buck naked and holding a piece of dog poo wrapped in a paper towel, just as my mother and her toy boy were pulling into the driveway…”

Ian, the current storyteller, could hardly finish his sentence as laughter erupted from his thirty-person audience. The theme was animals, and Ian was recounting the fiasco of the late-night kitchen run (in which he slipped on some dog poo, among other things).

He is part of a new trend which we are observing around the country. In a society where the image and the written word has led the way in the arts for years (partially due to a tool you are taking advantage as we speak: the infamous internet!), we have noticed a movement of people who record and pass down personal histories orally. The Moth and NPR’s Storycorps are among those leading the charge, filling up venues with people eager to pay to hear and tell their stories to audiences of hundreds. Hundreds of personal narratives have been recorded in order to create archives of life at this time in history.

And now Colorado Springs has joined in this movement with its own live storytelling initiative called “The Story Project.” Storytelling events are scheduled to occur once a month at the Smokebush Foundation’s building downtown, and selected storytellers are given the opportunity to share a true personal story before a crowd of eager listeners.

Those selected as storytellers beforehand have around 10 minutes to tell a story, and those whose names are drawn for the “story slam” are given around 5 minutes, and they compete against 3 or more people to be judged the “winner” of the slam that night.

However, here’s what makes these stories so interesting: storytellers cannot use notes to tell their stories. The stories must be told from memory and must be live in every sense of the word, giving stories a raw edge and a feeling of real honesty and intimacy. It is as if these storytellers are passing down family lore to their curious grandchildren, eager to know the family secrets.

But why does live-storytelling matter?

Well, for one, it is significant that there are Westerners intent on re-developing something of an oral culture, although, this isn’t the first movement in this direction. The “books on tape” phenomenon probably provoked this live storytelling to some extent.

But what truly strikes me about all of this is the feeling of community that these events recall. In highly oral cultures (particularly in illiterate cultures), stories are passed down orally by necessity and as a means of cultivating and preserving the community and culture. Older members of these societies are revered for their wisdom and memories of the past. These cultures are typically more “group” oriented, and rather than emphasizing the individual, they focus on what is best for the group as a whole. Therefore, their cultural stories passed from generation to generation acts as a means of binding the group (tribe, clan, etc.) together.

However, in highly literate cultures (most Western cultures fall into this classification), group stories are valued less and actually are less common. There are very few events which become part of a shared, cultural memory. Reading and writing are, for the most part, solitary acts, and so the community does not play a large role in determining the stories that are passed down. Similarly, each individual’s experience of life can be unique and individual. There is no shared story.

What is so important, then, about this movement toward live, unrehearsed storytelling is the desire it illuminates for some shared story in our lives. Audiences enjoy hearing stories that remind them that their lives are not as separate from other human beings as they once supposed.

Furthermore, the experience of hearing someone’s story told as if they’d asked you to coffee and were recounting to you their day seems to create a feeling of knowing and being known in both listeners and storytellers. A community is formed, and even if their stories are not identical, they at least know the stories that were told at the event and their memories at least have something in common.

So whatever happened to Ian?

I know you’re still curious about what happened to the naked man in the rose bushes, so I’ll give you my abbreviated version of his tale:

“I hid beneath the bushes, waiting for my mother and her beau to finish canoodling in the parked car, until my mother’s beau walked her to the door, kissed her goodnight, and drove away. At which point, I hopped back over the brick wall to my section of the house, and returned to bed, only to be asked by my wife. ‘What were you doing? It took you quite a while to drink a glass of water.’ To which I replied, ‘Oh, well, nothing really.'”

And with that, Ian won the story slam. He’ll get an opportunity to tell a longer story at the next gathering for Colorado Springs’ “Story Project.”

Come to the next live storytelling event in the Springs!

Come hear Ian and a few others tell more stories on June 3 at the Smokebrush Foundation’s new under-the-bridge location (the Trestle Building, 219 West Colorado Ave., Suite 210) between 6 and 8PM — and come ready to tell a true story of your own! The next storytelling  theme is “together,” which incidentally matches the opening of a painting exhibit at Smokebrush by Sarah Milteer of the same name. Join the community of storytellers and hearers. We hope to see you there.

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