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By Popular Demand: Santiago

BY POPULAR DEMAND features interviews with contestants our audiences loved, and an audio clip of their story. 

An 8th-grade romance moves from rumor to reality only to be permanently interrupted by the SWAT team.

SL: So you convinced your whole school you were going to marry an Argentine princess? How did you do that?

Well, it helped that my family went back to Argentina at Christmas and New Year’s, but, you know, kids are dumb and they just believed it.

SL: But then you got a real girlfriend and the SWAT team broke it all up. Tell me about that day.

That was a weird day. I’m in the bathroom getting dressed for our school play. I’m wearing a pair of boxers and this robe that sort of looks like the grim reaper. I don’t even have shoes on.

Then the school goes on lockdown and we’re rushed into the nurse’s bathroom. Suddenly there’s a cop with a massive gun patting me down and putting me in the back of a cop car. I learned later they thought I might have been part of something because of how I was dressed. After I was cleared, they took us to an elementary school nearby where the kids were having lunch. I’m barefoot in a robe. It was just awkward.

SL: When you talked to Sarah, what did she say?

She was upset. She was thinking, “Where is my boyfriend?”

SL: And what were you thinking?

That I had to pee.

SL: Any detail you left out?

I don’t think I did justice to how mean the girl with the back brace was. She was like Regina George at the end of Mean Girls. I’m kicking myself for not getting back at her.

SL: For not getting back at the disabled girl?

I mean, for not having a good retort.

SL: Santiago, here’s your Truly Random Question: Fill in the blank. The Academy Award for Most Pointless Actor goes to ______.

Just one? Well. I don’t know why Casey Affleck comes to mind. I mean – poor him, right?  Or David Schwimmer. He was the worst Friend.

Star Prog

By Popular Demand: Natalie

BY POPULAR DEMAND features interviews with contestants our audiences loved, and an audio clip of their story. 

A casual misunderstanding between friends turns a local news reporter into the shadowy agent of a condiment empire.

Natalie is a local reporter who lives in Washington, DC, and also does stand up comedy.

 

Natalie – in this story you’re a mild-mannered reporter turned stealthy prankster — is this true to form?

No. No, it’s not. It was my first time ever doing a prank. And it’s not because I think pranks are cruel, it’s just I never had the time to come up with a really good one.

You went from zero to expert really fast. It was so simple and creepy – that’s brilliant.

Thanks. Yeah, I guess my thought behind it was simple: The only brand of soy sauce I knew was Kikkoman, I knew I was going to do this around the holidays, and well, phantoms are stealthy.

I can’t decide if you’re an evil genius or the hero here. Any other pranks planned?

No. But I’m still friends with the “victim” in this story and she has promised revenge. I see her all the time and I keep waiting for it to hit me.

But she only suspected you once?

I think she was running out of options. She had already questioned everybody who worked next to her. I had to put on my best poker face and lie. In my head I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”

And no one else in your office thought it was you?

No. Our other coworkers were shocked that it got to that level. It wasn’t just a simple gum-on-a-chair prank. Somehow it became much more. The people we worked with still remember it.

Any details you left off?

Yes. I got the soy sauce from a Chinese takeout place at a strip mall. I thought they would give me them for free, but the lady charged me 70 cents. I almost didn’t buy them. The random dude behind me in line asked me what I wanted them for. I said, “Uhh… a project.”

OK, Natalie, here’s your Truly Random Question: What is the worst city MTV could put the next Real World in?

This will probably piss people off: Maybe Cleveland. I feel like that would be really depressing. I mean, you’re in a place that’s been ravaged by the economy and the absence of LeBron James.

Star Prog

Meet the Bad Boys & Girls of SLS3

Story League Sings & Tells Again at Black Cat DC!

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“Pure brilliance!” is how one Story League fan described the concept behind the Story League Sings series. May 30, the wild fun rages on at legendary rock venue Black Cat, in #3 of this unique show where Story League rock stars tell a funny story and then rip into a pop song that cleverly ties in. Theme: BAD BOYS. Backed by DC’s beloved HariKaraoke Band. A co-production with NYC’s The Soundtrack Series. TICKETS RIGHT HERE.

SLS3: Bad BoysHosts: Dana Rossi and Shrake … Performers include: Andrew Bucket, Amanda Duarte, Derek Hills, James Martin, Heather Mills from District Karaoke, Sasha Sinclair, Shawn Westfall … Plus an onstage bad-boy surprise that will make you lose your marbles.

Let’s meet these sexy bad boys and girls!

Click their pics for videos and such

Bucket

ANDREW BUCKET: Story League Star, Comedian, Writer

Amanda

AMANDA DUARTE: Writer, Actor, Voiceover Talent, Host: Dead Darlings (NYC)

dana

DANA ROSSI: Creator/Producer/Host: Soundtrack Series (NYC)

Derek

DEREK HILLS: Story League Favorite, Creator: No Sex, Please!

heather

HEATHER MILLS: Story League Sings 1 and 2, District Karaoke

James

JAMES MARTIN: Singer, District Karaoke: BIG DK

Sasha

SASHA SINCLAIR: Story League Sings 1 and 2, Creator: Self-Portrait, a Solo Play

shrake

SHRAKE: Story League Creator, The Moth, This American Life

westfall

SHAWN WESTFALL: DC Improv, Co-Creator: ShawnMikael

Star Prog

WATCH VIDEOS FROM SLS1: BAD ROMANCE

WATCH VIDEOS FROM SLS2: BAD GIRLS

SLS2: Bad Girls

SEE PHOTOS FROM SLS1: BAD ROMANCE

SLS1: Bad Romance

SEE PHOTOS FROM SLS2: BAD GIRLS

SLS2: Bad Girls

 

By Popular Demand: Josh

BY POPULAR DEMAND features interviews with contestants our audiences loved, and an audio clip of their story.

When an American loses his gaydar in Mexico City, he becomes an Old World conquistador of c*ck.

Josh is a therapist who lives and works in Washington, DC.

[Note: TL is our abbreviation for Josh’s creatively nicknamed hookup.]

SL: Josh, your story ends like an episode of Scandal. You’re in the dark, covered in blood. I need to know what happened next.

Not surprisingly, it got super awkward. There’s never a good time to be covered in blood when you want to have sex (unless that’s your thing), but this was an especially awkward moment. There wasn’t any water. You had to buy it in 5-gallon jugs. So we just sort of wiped up.

SL: Were you able to recover? Did you ever see TL again?

It petered out the way you would expect when you’ve just bled all over someone. I don’t think I saw him again. It was too awkward. I was bad at Spanish. He was bad at English. We couldn’t communicate and now we couldn’t have sex – so what was the point?

SL: OK, the other thing we have to talk about is the naked painting. Who was that guy and did he really have a naked painting of himself in his house?

He was a random American expat teacher. He was gorgeous, tall and blonde. Definitely somebody who you’d want to paint naked and hang for everyone to see. I met TL that night and I really wanted to sleep with him then but he ended up with the gorgeous blond.

SL: Now this is really sounding like a telenovela.

Haha. Yes.

SL: Any detail you left out that you’re dying to tell?

Funny enough, despite how apathetic I was about going to Mexico, when I came back home two years later, I finished college with a degree in Latin American studies. I ended up caring a great deal about Mexico, but I guess when you bleed all over somewhere…

SL: Finally, Josh, its your truly random question (TRQ): If you could strangle a Muppet, which one would you eliminate?

Oh, wow. So many choices. I don’t want to pick an easy one. How about the one that juggles fish? He’s sort of a Renaissance dog and he juggles fish. What’s the point of that?

Star Prog

By Popular Demand: Erika

BY POPULAR DEMAND features interviews with contestants our audiences loved, and an audio clip of their story. 

When an a cappella songstress gets sexually adventurous with one of the choir boys, they both learn the dangers of having too many things in your mouth at one time.

Erika is an online dating expert and the Founder and CEO of A Little Nudge.

SL: Erika, that was quite a story. This is your second time on the Story League stage, right?

Yes. My last story was about a texting disaster, but this felt like a story I had to tell.

SL: Absolutely. So of course I have to ask – what flavor of gum was it?

It was minty. I don’t remember exactly, but it was brighter than regular green. It was neon.

SL: And has this turned you off to gum completely?

No, but I had a boyfriend a few years ago who thought it would be cool to do it with a mint in his mouth and I had to make sure it wasn’t sticky first!

SL: You’ve given your ex-boyfriends some classic nicknames. Does Sam have a nickname?

Everyone gets a nickname. That’s what women do. Sometimes it’s just the name of where you met, like different bar names. Or there’s Tinder. I’ve got a lot of guys with the last name Tinder in my phone.

SL: But Sam’s nickname?

Sam doesn’t need a nickname. He’s so notorious.

SL: Any detail you left off that you’re dying to tell?

Yes. I didn’t mention that my journal from 2001 has the best summary of the whole night. It says, “Sam went down on me for the first time. And now I’m bald.”

SL: Finally Erika, you get to inaugurate our first ever Truly Random Question (TRQ). Here goes: If you could write yourself on to any ’90s sitcom, what show would it be?

That’s perfect. I was obsessed with Full House growing up. I’m surprised I didn’t name my dog Comet. I don’t know who I would be, but funny enough, I did meet a guy at the bar the other night who reminded me of a creepy version of Dave Coulier.

Star Prog

Story Pitching Tips

Dec 16, 2013-Story Leauge Debauchery-105

Unlike any other story “slams,” Story League’s contests are semi-curated in the sense that three expert judges pre-select which stories they most want to hear (and those people selected get coached aforehand). Many good stories do not get chosen because A) We get more submissions every month; B) The pitches are not as good as they could be. Here are a few tips to help you convince the judges to pick your idea (Note: The judges do not see the names of the pitchers)

  • Step outside yourself and give it the So What? test. This is more about how you choose what story you want to tell, but: Is it 1) something no one has heard of before; 2) a well-worn subject but you bring a totally fresh angle to it? Those are a good start.
  • Brevity is best. We ask that you keep your pitch to 100 words, and if you do it right, that is enough to entice the judges.
  • Don’t bury the lede: Knock us out with the first line. Make us say, “I HAVE to hear what happens!” Think hard about why you want to tell the story, then put that into words as punchily as you can.

Here are three examples of pitches that got the story selected for inclusion:

You would think that an obese teenage geek girl would be a compassionate protector of fellow geeks. So I thought, as a skinny, uncool, and nerdy Asian geek in high school. But this obese geek turned out to be the villainess of my life in high school. This story recounts that torments she incurred on me, and the story concludes five years later at a bus stop at UC Berkeley. [70 words]

I have a psychic superpower: Everything that I draw happens. It started when I drew myself surrounded by dollar signs and subsequently received a mysterious check for $900, and my salary was doubled. I have successfully drawn numerous engagements, dream jobs, successful childbirth, my arch nemesis getting fired, etc. But I made a dreadful mistake when I drew a friend (who was desperate for money) with dollars coming out of his pants… it caused him an unexpected problem at work. [80 words]

I found myself lying on the pavement in Wuhan, China. It seems the cab I was in collided with a truck. But I didn’t know that. I only knew that my eye—I was sure!—was missing and I couldn’t find it. My eye was fine, but I spend the next 16 days in a Chinese hospital repairing the rest of my face, grappling with police and the media, and trying to remember what happened. The food was BYO. The meds were self-serve. But hey, at least there was booze! [90 words]

Crabb and Shrake: Story Talk

SM Shrake: David! You are especially adept at and well known for bringing to life the “characters” in your stories. How much of that has to do with also being an actor in addition to a storyteller?

David Crabb: A lot. I’ve always performed my anecdotes and stories for people and included characterizations. As a little boy I did this to crack my mom and dad up, playing drunk hobos, foul-mouthed robots and pregnant hookers in makeshift costumes. (My sense of humor was a little blue even as a kid.) That kind of thing led me to acting. And now I suppose I’ve circled back to doing what I did when I was 8 to entertain my family. But I do it onstage without tinfoil hats and pillows shoved up my shirt.

Shrake: You are an avowed homosexual. We’ve seen lots of articles lately about gay standup comedians, how finally a few (mostly males — the lesbians have seemed to have more representation) seem to be getting their due and “representing.” What’s your feeling on that, but also: How does that compare to things for gays/lesbians in the story scene?

Crabb: I think all that coverage is interesting but seems to miss the point. As time moves on and culture progresses, more gays and lesbians are living their lives out of the closet. So it’s only natural that there should be more out, queer comedians and storytellers, just as there are more out, queer writers and parents and accountants and waiters, etc. The only difference is that our jobs as performers are ABOUT sharing our experience, which includes our sexuality.

Shrake: What are your top quick-hit tips for a novice storyteller?

Crabb:  1. Look at everyone and “share out.” The moment you stop doing that, it’s over.

2. Ignore any rule you hear that starts with “Never.” (e.g. Never start with saying the year and your age, never end with saying “I learned a lot about…”, never start your story with “So..”) Just tell the story the way only you can.

3. Remember that you don’t ever look as nervous as you might feel. I learned this from years of teaching storytelling and it’s been encouraging to see. I’m still amazed at how much I learn about performing from teaching.

4. Know where you’re driving the car. It’s better to know your ending and be unsure about the middle than to be confident throughout and try to wing your ending. What people remember most is how you leave them.

Shrake: How did Ask Me Stories get started, and what have been some highlights of hosting that show?

Crabb: Cammi Climaco and I took a storytelling class together and wanted to keep performing with that wonderful group. So we put together a show in the basement of a bar and that led to another and another and so on. Getting to hear so many stories while only worrying about hosting and producing is fun.

Shrake: Tell me about it.

Crabb: It’s a different kind of pressure that I like. And working with Cammi this long has been a pleasure. She’s a kindred spirit and nut job of the highest order. I kinda sorta love her.

Shrake: Same question for The Moth.

Crabb: Hosting the Moth is just an amazing gift. Hosting without worrying about any of the production concerns or storytelling myself is quickly becoming my favorite kind of performing experience. It’s probably the time when I feel most like I’m really “with” people in the audience. I feel spoiled and honored to get that opportunity.

Shrake: “Ask me” a question!

Crabb: What is the worst fashion mistake you made in the ’90s?

Shrake:

David Crabb hosts Story Contest: The 1990s at Busboys and Poets 14/V at 9 PM on Wednesday, November 28, 2012.

 

Spell and Shrake: Story Talk

SM Shrake: Hi, Sharon. You have told stories all over New York, at shows like Ask Me, Bare!, My High School Boyfriend Was G*y, and of course The Moth. What makes for a good story?

Sharon Spell: A good story has a point and is relatable to the audience. You may not have gone through the same situation as the storyteller, but as a human being you can identify with feelings and motives behind actions.

Shrake: I think there are “story-stories” where the teller cannot even screw it up because the plot itself, in its raw bones, is so storylicious; and then there are the stories where nothing much really happens but the teller injects so much style and interest into it that it is even better than a story-story.

Apropos of that: Do you agree with my rather black-and-white pronouncement that “You either are an interesting (funny) person with something (funny) to say, or you’re not”? Is that too… harsh?

Sharon: Well, something has to happen in order for it to be a good story, to move that good story forward. I really don’t care to hear anybody’s laundry list of what he or she did during the day, unless that person is Betty White. If that’s the case, then yes I agree.

Shrake: You host The Big Shrink at UCBeast, and you have a comedy podcast called The Sharon Spell Show. What is the essence of being a good show host?

Sharon: Don’t talk too much. Or too little. Don’t talk too much or too little. Figure out how to make sure people still like you by the end of the show, especially the other performers and the booker.

Shrake: I thought hosts were supposed to create a Phil Spector-esque Wall of Sound. No silence.

Sharon: Nobody likes a windbag.

Shrake: Unless it’s Betty White

Sharon: But there is a craft to hosting a show. I try to have enough little somethings to say that can fit in between acts, long or short. You have to be versatile, and I’m OK with cutting my own material if a show is going long.

Shrake: How did you learn the ropes of hosting? What’s been your worst experience at it?

Sharon: I started hosting shows when I lived in Pittsburgh, some of them drag shows. These shows helped me think on my feet. But then I booked myself on a drag show in LA to do stand-up. That was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Totally different energy and I wasn’t prepared for the heckling I received. But afterward, I thought, Next time I’ll be better prepared, because it won’t get worse than that!

“Then I booked myself on a drag show in L.A. to do stand-up. That was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Shrake: You’re hosting our Story Tournament 3 at the legendary Black Cat tomorrow night. What’s your impression of D.C.?

Sharon: I have a lot of things to see on Friday before the show. I want to make sure everything’s still at the Smithsonian and that The Mall is still there. Will let you know how that goes!

Shrake: Oh, they’re still there, unfortunately. Full of mobs and hordes of lovable tourists! So, speaking of mobs and hordes, what do you find most bothersome and most glorious about living in New York?

Storytellers Michele Carlo and Adam Wade, as sketched in New York by Sharon Spell

Sharon: The subway system. It’s a fantastic way to get through the city until it’s a horrible way to get through the city. Also, wherever you are in New York City the most glorious thing is always this: looking up.

Shrake: So: What made you want to do what you do? When?

Sharon: When I was a kid I wanted to move to New York. My parents let me stay up and watch SNL, and when they said, “Live from New York…” I thought, that looks like a fun place! I grew up in a funny household, so eventually my joy had to spill out on stage. Sorry about that, stage crew.

Shrake: What’s your process (for writing, performing, etc.)?

Sharon: I just put words to my experiences. I try to get out and live life and interact with people, then talk about it. Confirmed eye contact usually leads to better stories.

Shrake: Do you still have stage fright, and if so how do you conquer it?

Sharon: Yes. Every time. Looking my best helps my fright…

Shrake: I huuuuuurd THAT!

Sharon: …but then inevitably right before I get on stage I look down and I have some stain on me. Then I remember everyone in the audience also has some sort of stain on them, somewhere. So then I remember to relax and have fun!

SHARON SPELL hosts Story League Tournament: Tricks on Friday, October 5 at 9PM (Doors 8PM) at Black Cat, 1811 Fourteenth Street NW, Washington, DC. Get tickets here.


Gasiewski and Shrake: Story Talk

Dan Gasiewski is Managing Director of First Person Arts, a storytelling organization in Philadelphia. SM (“Scott”) Shrake is the co-founder and leader of Story League in Washington, D.C.

Dan Gasiewski (L) and SM Shrake (R)

SS: Why do funny stories almost always work better than serious ones?

DG: I think that people use funny stories more often than serious ones in a StorySlam/contest context, but I don’t agree that they always work better. I think that they’re popular because, as a storyteller, when you get up on stage, especially for the first time, it can be very hard to really open up to a room full of strangers. A silent audience can be very scary for a beginning storyteller — you’re not sure if they’re with you or not.

And of course, if you don’t have confidence, it makes it hard to hold the audience’s attention. Whereas if you tell a joke and they laugh, it’s easy to tell where they are. If your story is quieter, or more emotional, it often takes a more experienced storyteller to tell that story with the confidence it can take to get it across.

SS: Even pretty mundane occurrences can be artsified into a great story if you know what you’re doing.

DG: A serious story takes more careful plotting to keep the audience involved and interested for the whole time, even though what you’re telling them might be something that takes longer to sink in.

With a funny story, even if the story didn’t actually go anywhere, the audience still enjoyed the jokes.

SS: Excremental (poop) and bacchanalian (drunk) stories seem to be perennially popular, regardless of how original they are.

DG: I am always impressed when someone has the wherewithal to tell an emotionally charged story really well. The tension in the crowd is so electric when you can sense them hanging on every word, waiting to see what will happen.

SS: People’s first temptation is to tell a story that means a lot to them and those close to them, personally. But no one else cares, usually! So I could tell the story of my bicycle accident where I was scalped, and that is sort of unusual, and the story has a lot of vivid and horrifying details, but… ultimately we’ve all been to the emergency room. It’s just “poor me.”

We’ve also all been in a drunken or sexual misadventure, too. I guess for both you have to have a twist.

DG: To me, that gets to the point that it’s the structure and the telling of the story that makes a great performance. Even if it’s a funny story, if people figure the joke out before you give them the punchline, it’s not funny. If the story is, “I was in a terrible bike accident, and that was not a good day,” there’s no surprise there. There’s no tension or structure to the story. You have to keep them engaged and guessing what’s going to happen, or at least what the emotional payoff of the experience is — throughout the whole story.

SS: So for my accident story, it would have to go to a next level and then flip in the air, much as my body did during the accident!

Like, maybe I fall in love with the person who found my bloody body in the park where it happened… we live happily for a while… then they actually die in their own bicycle accident and I’m not there to save them. That’s not what happened, I’m just using my imagination there.

Speaking of which: How much license can someone in our story business take with the “truth”? The consensus seems to be that there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. This is not sworn testimony in a court case. I think it’s all closer to “Based on a True Story…” Creative non-fiction. Because life is not a movie.

DG: It’s the difference between “memoir” and “History with a capital H” — in a memoir, people are free to tell a story how they remember it — how they want to tell it. History has to stick to the facts, and if it comes down to it, history has to (or at least should) let go of a good story if it can’t be proven. Most of the memoirs that I’ve heard couldn’t possibly be fact-checked. That doesn’t mean that they’re not true, it just means that they’re not history — they are simply a record of one person’s own personal experience.

SS: But the license does not permit you to invent things out of whole cloth. If you never went hiking in the Grand Canyon, you never did and if you say you did you are just lying. No need to make things up!

The license would, though, permit things like consolidating nonessential characters and events: In reality three different people said the same thing to you at once, but one of them said it most interestingly, so you pick that one and the other two people disappear in your final version. Who cares?

DG: I just think that letting people know what the boundaries are is important. I don’t think that we should over-promise that everything said on our stage is the gospel truth; after all, if you asked for all sides of any story, you’ll get different answers from everyone involved. But it’s also important to let people know that it’s not fiction.

SS: Let’s talk about stand-up versus “live true story-telling.” The differences, I think: 1) You must be funny the whole time in stand-up, and 2) you can make things up and just bounce around from topic to topic, which you can’t do in our shows, where it’s one story, on a theme someone gave you, basically true, maybe funny, but laughs are just gravy.

DG: I think you’re right: The differences between stand-up and this “new” kind of storytelling are really about the rules of the form more than they are about how individual performers use them. Sure, there are stand-ups who use their lives as part of their act, but that’s just a style — a performer whose stage show seems to be very personal could, actually, just be constructing an elaborate persona. But that’s OK as long as they make you laugh. That’s what you’re paying for.

But when you go to our style of storytelling show, a lot of people will try to make you laugh, but what’s really electric, what keeps people coming back, is the truth, and I think especially the vulnerability that you display when you get up and share a true story from your life. That’s the sense of connection that people are looking for in our kind of storytelling.

SS: Here’s a question: Will there eventually be Story Clubs — actual brick-and-mortar locations where only “our” type of storytelling takes place — in the same way that there are dedicated stand-up comedy clubs? And will storytelling have the same longevity as a nightlife entertainment activity as stand-up has? And what is next after storytelling?

DG: Who knows? For our part, First Person Arts loves the flexibility of being able to bring these events out to people where they are — whether that’s in different neighborhoods, or in different spaces. We’ve held storytelling events everywhere from bars to museums to Independence Mall in front of the Liberty Bell.

As for longevity: yes. I don’t really think of what we’re doing as “new.” People have been enthralled by true-life stories at least since Augustine in the 4th Century, people have spent their spending money and their leisure time finding out about other people’s autobiographies, and I find it hard to believe that even that didn’t come from some kind of oral tradition — who knows?

I do think that new art forms will come out of this new way of telling them, but I wouldn’t put a limit on people’s creativity by trying to guess now what it will become.

SS: Storytelling: the world’s second-oldest profession. And yet for the nightclub variety, no one has come up with a good name. “Storytelling” is just a terrible descriptor, because it is forever identified with children’s tales about dragons and princesses. Maybe “stand-up storytelling” vs. “stand-up comedy”? We need a visionary to come along here soon and give it a new name.

Wexler and Nathan: Story Talk

LAURA WEXLER, co-director of Baltimore’s The Stoop Storytelling, is one of the judges for Story League’s first Story Contest, and VIJAI NATHAN, storyteller/comedian and the producer of the Fan-Freaking-Tastic series in D.C., is one of the hosts. Here they exchange ideas about the mechanics and ethics, the dualities and necessities of storytelling.

Laura Wexler: Do you think everyone has a least one good story? In other words, can everyone tell a story that others will care about?

Vijai Nathan: I think the only requirement for having a good story is that you are human. (Okay, the bonobos may take offense to that, but they can just write me a letter.) We have all experienced the awkwardness of growing up, falling in love, being part of a family, losing someone close to you — these are things that make you human, that make for great stories, that make for stories we can all relate to. I think each of us has several good stories, but the real challenge is learning how to tell them and trusting yourself.

LW: When did you first realize the power of storytelling?

VN: You just got me to think about something I have never thought of! … I think I first realized its power when I was giving a book report in the 6th grade. The book was “Tuck Everlasting” and I decided to do my report in the first person as a character from the book and I spoke in a Southern, hill-billy dialect — not really sure why I did that, since the setting was in upstate New York, but the story took place in 1909 and I guessed everyone talked like that in “olden times.”

I was a really shy, quiet kid who got picked on, and usually I wanted to blend into the background as much as possible — but when I did that report, the entire class was silent and hanging on my every word. I think that is when I realized that how I communicated my ideas was as important as what I communicated.

How about you? How did you get into storytelling?

LW: I let a friend drag me to a storytelling series called Porchlight in San Francisco. I wasn’t psyched at all about going — it sounded lame to me, calling up visions of overly dramatic storytellers coming to our school to perform folk tales. But when we showed up there was a massive line to get in, and instantly I wanted to, yes, get in. We didn’t have tickets. We were totally stewed. Somebody took pity on us and gave us a few extra tickets.

I walked out a few hours later having had a different experience as an audience member than I’d ever had before. And I said to myself, “I gotta start one a these in Baltimore.”

For me, the impulse was really to create a venue where others could tell their stories — in the 6 years we’ve been doing The Stoop, I’ve never told a story myself. I’m not sure why that is, except that I think I get more out of being midwife to others’ stories than being the teller myself.

VN: Do you have certain personal rules or “must-haves” for what makes a good story?

LW: I think there are lots of shapes and structures of stories that can be successful. I guess the must-have for me is that the storyteller must know what the story means to him or her. I don’t mean that this should be stated explicitly — in fact, I usually hate that. I mean that the storyteller has thought and reflected on the story enough to know why the story is significant in his or her own life. Simply knowing that gives the story a stake.

At The Stoop we want stories that are more than funny anecdotes that make you say, “Wow. Huh,” and then you move on. We want stories that linger… and I think it’s that sense of a deeper meaning, even in a comic story, that allows for that.

Speaking of comedy: Where do you see storytelling in the continuum of stand-up and theatre?

VN: Well, my background is in stand-up, and my evolution as a stand-up who can tell stories has been a long one and it is something I work on constantly. For me, stand-up has a more aggressive energy than storytelling, so fusing the two together skillfully and still keeping an edge is a challenge.

LW: We’ve found that the stand-ups who tell stories at The Stoop really struggle to tell stories — not jokes. Also, because they’re professional performers, the audience senses that, well, it’s a performance (as opposed to a telling) and I think they’re a bit less supportive of that storyteller as a result.

VN: From my perspective, whether I am telling stories or doing set-up/punchline jokes — all of it is comedy. The best stand-up comedians are natural storytellers, though an audience may not notice it is listening to several jokes that make up one story.

So, speaking of dualities: You teach creative writing and creative non-fiction writing. How is writing for the page different from writing for performance?

LW: It’s hugely different, which is why we at The Stoop beg and plead with people not to write their stories out and memorize them. When they do that, the stories sound too… writerly, which is to say, there is too much emphasis on the words, often at the expense of the story. As a reader, I want beautiful language and all that craft, but as a listener, I want a tale that will keep my interest, keep me caring, lets me follow along and create a picture in my mind, and not distract me.

What do you think is the line between authenticity and artifice in storytelling?

VN: I think the most important thing is to be emotionally authentic to the story — it doesn’t have to be word-for-word what happened to you, you can edit the timeline, use hyperbole, fuse two characters into one person…

That’s not to say I want to be lied to: If you tell me a hilarious and gut-wrenching story about growing up biracial in the South, but you are really just a swarthy Irish Catholic dude from Boston — well, that’s just bullshit.

LW: Yes. With oral personal storytelling, I think the most important thing is the intention to be truthful — both factually and emotionally. We always tell people [working on their stories with us] at The Stoop that if you can’t remember what someone’s name is, tell us that and give them a fake name; or just leave it out… etc. Admitting to not knowing actually earns you credibility; it shows the audience you’re not making up stuff.

This is a tricky one because at some level, we must acknowledge that all art is artifice. I guess I would say that my theory for live personal storytelling is that one should use artifice wisely so that it does not detract from authenticity. Both have their power, but they need to balance each other. Too much authenticity and you get a transcript of a life rather than a shaped tale. Too much artifice and you lose the feeling that the story is true and lived.