Stand Up and Tell Your Story

By Paul Williams
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 10, 2008

I was nervous about telling my story.

I had done it before, of course. Casually, to friends, co-workers, that kind of thing. But telling one in front of a roomful of people, into a microphone, following some very funny, well-trained speakers was, well, a different story altogether.

On the second Tuesday of every month, SpeakeasyDC organizes an open-mike night in the upstairs lounge at Station 9, where folks like me tell their stories.

At the monthly sessions, speakers sign up ahead of time and have up to seven minutes to tell a story around a theme, which changes every month. This night's theme was "Rock Bottom: Stories About Falling Flat, Bottoming Out and Bouncing Back." Without going into detail, my story involved my first day at my first full-time job, an outdoor staff meeting, an unfortunate choice of seats and an impressive amount of bird droppings.

Before the open mike, all speakers have to call story coach Stephanie Garibaldi and tell her their stories. She offers feedback and helps shape and improve the story. This usually happens about a week before the show; I had made my call the night before. And she suggested a lot of good changes -- dropping much of the middle part and my weak conclusion, refining the focus to one event and developing the details of that event.

Incorporating all those changes on short notice meant I had only a rough outline of the story in my head, even as I was about to go on. To keep from losing my place, I had broken my story down into a series of mental pictures to focus on rather than trying to memorize a script. Talking to Speakeasy director Amy Saidman before the show, her advice about what makes a good storyteller encouraged me.

"I think the best storytellers connect with their audiences, and connect with their story," she says. "They connect with the images in their own head, and they're telling rather than reciting."

The show that night filled the lounge, drawing a crowd of both U Street hipsters and older suburban types. The events draw a lot of academics, librarians, poets and comics. Speakers range in age from their 20s to 83. (Speakeasy also hosts similar events. Tonight, comedienne Vijai Nathan will perform her one-woman show "McGoddess: Big Macs, Karma & the American Dream" at the True Reformer Building, 1200 U St.)

Despite the "rock bottom" theme, or maybe because of it, most of the stories on my night kept the crowd laughing, even when they were about recovering from a divorce, public humiliation or battling depression.

Saidman says a good story will entertain an audience, even if it's about an emotional topic. Speakeasy, she says, isn't a support group where people can just open up their journals. She has had to tell people she didn't think they were ready to tell a story if they were still too close to the events.

"If you want to tell something serious, people can swallow something much easier if there's some humor in it," Saidman says. "Once you have that distance, you can find some humor in it, you can build humor around it, even if it's serious in the middle."

There was a brief intermission after the first four storytellers, then I went on. I managed to keep from knocking over the microphone stand or stumbling into the lights, and I got some laughs early on, which helped settle my nerves. I relaxed and got through the rest of my story just fine and got lots of "good jobs" from the supportive crowd on the way back to my seat.

Susan Pilch was another first-time storyteller that night. Unlike me, she attended a Speakeasy workshop and spent more than 40 hours working on her story of divorce, infidelity and falling on her face at a party.

"Many of my friends had encouraged me to write a book, but I didn't really think my stories were suitable for a memoir. Stand-up comedy seemed closer. But not everything I've experienced had a punch line," Pilch says. "The type of storytelling that SpeakeasyDC promotes seemed like an ideal fit."

She said the workshop and the individual coaching helped her to turn a set of loosely related experiences into a structured and funny story with a real narrative arc. That arc, says Saidman, is a key difference between an anecdote you tell friends over drinks and a story an audience can relate to.

"The traits of a good story -- for me, there are two key elements," Saidman says. "Something has to happen, there has to be an event that unfolds, and it has to mean something. It can't just be 'I got so drunk and this happened and that happened.' There's a whole lot happening, but it doesn't mean anything."

SpeakeasyDC Open Mike Station 9, 1438 U St., NW Phone:240-888-9751 When: Second Tuesday of the month Admission:$10

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