Telling stories

storytellers.jpgCollage by Iris Schneider. Click to enlarge

Left to right in each row, from top left: Leon Martell and Ashley Steed, Brenda Petrakos and Bill Ratner; Eric Lawson, Christine Blackburn and Baron Vaughn; Suzanne Averitt, Kerry Armstrong and Vaughn choosing names from The Moth hat, Colleen Wainright; Kahshanna Evans; Noel Mariano, Tom O'Connor and Brenda Varda.

For those of you who got shut out of tickets for Ira Glass at UCLA this weekend, take heart. Storytellers abound in Los Angeles. I recently was invited to explore some storytelling options around town and there are many. They range from serious nonfiction to Get Mortified, which I'm told consists of people reading from their actual junior high and high school diaries.

First I sat in on an evening at Son of Semele, a tiny theater almost hidden behind lots of street constuction on Beverly Boulevard just east of Commonwealth. Brenda Varda, the force behind Wordspace, an organization of writers and actors and teachers which promotes the written and spoken word, organized an evening of storytelling called "[Breaking the] Wordspace" that was enchanting, engrossing and entertaining.

Bill Ratner, an accomplished voiceover artist, was participating and brought me along. His daughter told me: "My mom says it's his midlife crisis." To my mind, this beats a Harley by a mile.

Varda is fascinated by the way words and ideas connect and has tried to promote the creative use of words since she founded her collective of writers and teachers in 2005. "I love doing events and finding different ways of seeing how words operate. That's my underlying mission," she says. She teaches writing on the university level as well as classes in creative and critical writing for ESL graduates.

In a recent undergraduate university level class she asked how many people had read a book in the past 6 months. One person raised their hand. "These are smart people," she said. But she acknowledges that the way we read has changed. As she embarks on a new venture — a community space in Atwater in which to promote the spoken word — she hopes she can continue to provide a way for storytellers to find their audience.

The evening of original stories included one by Colleen Wainright. who referred to a story on "This American Life" about people who bought items abandoned in storage units. Many in the audience chuckled with familiarity, remembering the tale that was at turns poignant and funny. "Well, that was my family. My mom lost her job and we lost everything, every shred of my childhood: my journals, my toys. All of it." She took us on a bittersweet journey that reminded me that many stories don't start with a character, but rather a person.

The Moth is a whole other kind of event. The Moth first began in a New York living room as friends who love to listen gathered to entertain each other by telling stories. Now a nationwide happening held monthly in public venues, The Moth has added another element to their evening readings: competition.

Besides storytelling evenings, there are now thrice-monthly StorySlams in Los Angeles and other cities, in which storytellers are judged by ad hoc groups of audience judges and rated, Olympics-style, after their performance. At the end of the evening, scores are tallied and the winner is announced. There are groundrules: all stories must be true. They must be told, not read. They must adhere to an announced theme. And there is a 5-minute time limit. When you throw your name in a hat for an opportunity to tell your story, you have no idea whether you will be chosen to perform that night or not.

A recent Storyslam winner, Christine Blackburn — competing on an evening whose theme was "Rules" — told a story about her days as an airline stewardess. It involved a series of improbable but probably possible situations that one might have encountered as a flight attendant: making weight, knowing uniform protocol, and how to deal with a 100-year old passenger who passed away in flight. (The answer to the last one is involved, but there is indeed an entry in the airline rulebook for this very circumstance. A friendly voice and an oxygen mask figure prominently).

After the show, Blackburn talked about telling stories. "No matter who you are, or where you are," she said, "everyone has a story." Check The Moth website and come to listen, or to weave your own special tale. But beware: maybe because we've become so used to electronic contact, something about these shared human experiences will resonate and it may well become addictive.


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