If you're seeking a form of family entertainment that doesn't involve endless ticket lines and crowded theaters, yet offers as much escape from your daily life as that blockbuster movie or sizzling stage show, try storytelling. Almost an underground cult, there is a surprising amount of this art form going on in the Washington area. It's hard to find, but not if you know where to look.
One place to start your search is at Washington Storytellers Theatre, which has been presenting performances of the leading storytellers from across the country and around the world since 1990. WST mounts monthly shows, occasional festivals, classes and workshops, a monthly open-mike night, and an annual storytelling competition called Story Slam. Attending any one of these events could get you hooked.
Jon Spelman, 60, is one of WST's premier storytellers. He's been a professional teller and teacher of the craft since 1980. Although he's well aware that the public's perception of storytelling is "little old ladies reading fairy tales to children in libraries," roughly half of Spelman's riveting solo performances are targeted to adult audiences. His repertoire includes oral histories, stories from newspapers, and classic literary works such as "Frankenstein." "Most people don't really know Mary Shelley's book, they just think of Boris Karloff." Spelman's version takes 85 minutes and is told from the Creature's point of view.
At WST, Spelman teaches workshops and ongoing eight-week classes in beginning and intermediate storytelling. "I help the student find his or her personality," he explains. He also indirectly helps the audience focus, stressing to his students the importance of firmly setting place and character with details. As he puts it, "The audience can't imagine until the storyteller imagines."
Spelman's classes convene in the back room of a Takoma Park gift shop. The students gather their folding chairs in a circle, and each is granted 15 minutes. Some choose to tell stories they are preparing to perform elsewhere, others simply want no-holds-barred criticism. Since much of their preparatory work is done alone, feedback is important. Even Spelman, winner of three local Emmys for his TV show "Three Stories Tall," which aired in the late '80s and early '90s, pays a coach to listen to him.
WST's Speak Easy open-mike night starts promptly at 8 and ends sharply at 10, which is why each storyteller has exactly seven minutes in the spotlight. "Every good story should have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end," says Amy Saidman, WST's program coordinator and the evening's emcee. Three featured tellers, who get paid $50 each for their appearances, start off the proceedings.
The venue is akin to a comedy club, but the ambiance is kinder and gentler. "Storytelling has a much more generous audience than stand-up comedy," Saidman says. "They are appreciative of a whole range of emotions, and not just looking to laugh. That gives the teller a wider range of emotions to explore."
On a recent night, the evening's entertainment proved erratic, yet even the most novice teller offered an experience worthy of the $5 admission charge. Susan Gordon, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, held everyone spellbound with a Grimm fairy tale, "The Golden Goose."
Like many of her colleagues, Gordon primarily draws from the oral tradition. She believes telling a story is the quickest way to awaken wonder and help a person transform his own life story. "In the typical folk or fairy tale genre, the protagonist has a difficulty to overcome, or he wants something he can't have, or can't find at home; the object is always to overcome obstacles." Gordon did her graduate study in the use of storytelling in therapeutic settings, and counsels recovering alcoholics. "I tell them a story, and that elicits their stories. The story is a metaphor for moving ahead in life. It opens people up, and they get real."
Another door to the world of storytelling is an association, Voices in the Glen. An evening of storytelling organized by this group was recently held at Glen Echo Town Hall. For about two hours, the audience was treated to a succession of short stories told by six different tellers, with a short intermission allowing everyone to enjoy cider, tea and homemade cookies, and to chat with the performers. Most of the stories that night had a gruesome edge, but the audience, including other storytellers, was transfixed. VITG is a guild, offering two levels of membership. To become a performing member, you must be heard by three members. If you are a fan, an "informed public" membership will get you the VITG bimonthly newsletter, with the most complete listing of related events in the area. Nonmembers may attend any event.
The First Art
Storytelling is humankind's very first art, says Margaret Yocom, a folklorist and teacher of traditional narrative and storytelling at George Mason University. "It's an act that happens regularly in life; in fact, not a day goes by without us telling a story or listening to one." Sadly, the art has been pigeonholed as one For Kids Only and largely ignored by adults, who continue to search for stories most often on TV, at the movies, or onstage.
Why is that? One explanation, and a clue as to what makes storytelling exciting, is that movies are easier on the audience. As Yocom says, "Moviegoing is a much more passive experience. Storytelling involves the audience." Not to mention the fact that the storyteller can see you, making it much harder to fall asleep or talk to your friends during the performance.
Spelman echoed that sentiment, describing how his process is directly impacted by audience response. "Unlike conventional theater, where there's an invisible barrier between the audience and the performers, storytelling is a very direct, intimate, human-to-human communication, filled with emotional and imaginative content."
So the next time you find that TV is serving up reruns and the movies are Dumber and Dumberer, opt for an evening of comedy, drama, pathos, and horror all rolled into one. Go hear a story.