Storytelling sweeps the District

December 21, 2011

The impolite truth revealed itself in a small room full of strangers seeking a good laugh.

Liz Richardson stood on stage before them, bathed in the spotlight. In less than seven minutes, she spilled a true story on the theme “unsolved mysteries” — just one act in the District’s emerging storytelling scene.

The mystery: Had she imagined a childhood memory that her father once rented the wrong version of “Cinderella” — an adult version — that she and a sibling watched for five minutes before her father realized his mistake?

“In my mom’s version of events, we saw nothing,” Richardson said before an audience of about 70. “I needed to know I wasn’t making this up.”

By day, the Columbia Heights resident has a very serious job at a think tank. On this evening at Busboys & Poets in the U Street corridor, she simply had a story to tell. For the first time. In front of an audience.

“I love listening to live storytelling and wanted to try it out for myself,’’ Richardson said. “And I’m new to town, so I’m looking for people who like it as much as I do.’’

It used to be that the only place to hear a live storytelling performance was at monthly events sponsored by SpeakeasyDC, which has hosted them across the city since 1997. Now, hardly a week goes by without a storytelling event in the region.

Here and across the country, people are taking to the stage to reveal stories about themselves and their families. Most cite the same reason: In these days of reality TV confessionals and online status updates, a generation has grown comfortable with the idea of publicly laying souls bare.

This is true even in the District, where such gregarious spirits as Richardson can feel inhibited by the sanctity of their business cards. As the region continues to transform with an influx of young people, live storytelling is a prime pursuit for those searching for an emerging creative class.

“In D.C., we have a lot of people who want the city to be seen as a place that offers more than politics,’’ said Natalie Illum, a 35-year-old travel agent for the federal government who was at last month’s event at Busboys & Poets.

“A lot of people are in jobs at nonprofits or with the government and just can’t express themselves,” Illum said. “Now there are places that we can.”

SM Shrake organized the event as a part of a new storytelling organization, Story League. The stories ranged from comedic to somber to sexual, sometimes mixing all three.

“Storytelling is the world’s second-oldest profession,’’ Shrake said. “But it’s making a comeback now because we’ve become more narcissistic and confessional and we love to hear about other people.”

Shrake said he started the group to broaden the region’s pool of storytellers. In Story League, anyone can get on stage after providing a 100-word advance summary about the topic. Other area groups include Fan-Freaking-Tastic, which requires that stories be funny, and Better Said Than Done, a group recently formed in Northern Virginia.

“We’re for the people who want to go out and do fun stuff but don’t want to drive to D.C.,’’ said Jessica Piscitelli, who founded Better Said Than Done. “We’re growing with each event, and with each event, fewer people are asking, ‘What’s storyelling?’ ”

Storytelling has been around as long as there have been campfires. Live storytelling, as practiced in bars and coffee shops, fuses traditions of Homer and hipster.

In smoky clubs, the beatniks spat esoteric thoughts to snaps of applause. Later, the spoken-word poet spoke rhythmically about social issues. Then came live storytelling, glorifying the emotive experience of the everyman. Call it Talk Therapy 3.0.

Storytelling has become more popular with the radio show “This American Life” and work promoted by the Moth, a New York-based group that hosts live events and a radio show.

Catherine Burns, the Moth’s artistic director, said she has seen interest in the form explode over the past two years. When the nonprofit group began selling recordings in the mid-1990s, success meant selling 1,000 CDs. Now some podcasts are downloaded 500,000 times.

“People really want to connect with each other and have a space where they aren’t just staring at little devices and tweeting all day,” Burns said. As more people listen, more people want to perform. Most are under 40, although there is often a smattering of people in their 50s and 60s.

But while most groups seek out the eager and uninitiated, Speakeasy, the District’s original storytelling group, prides itself on being more polished. Its performers are required to attend a rehearsal, where a storytelling expert helps the speaker select anecdotes and identify plot points. If you’re interested, you’ll have to join the waitlist.

Amy Saidman, Speakeasy’s artistic executive director, acknowledges that there is some fear that the interest will fade. Her group, which offers classes on storytelling, was once cool because it was selective. Now, it seems, everybody fancies themselves a storyteller. “We are working to make sure to stay fresh and stand out,’’ Saidman said. “We’re gaining interest, but we want to make sure it doesn’t putter out as a fad.”

At a Speakeasy event at a Northwest club last week, a newcomer told about his fears of not being Jewish enough to go on his birthright trip to Israel. Under a pink glow of light, another newbie told about 250 people how she flew to Paris to meet a man she had met on the Internet.

“It was like an out-of-body experience being up there’’ on stage, said Radha Kuppalli, 33, who works for an environmental finance company. “But then I looked around me and noticed that now I really have a community of storytellers that support me and want me to do well.’’

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local