Why Do We Love Storytelling on Stage?

Portlanders are flocking to live storytelling events, with five local organizations offering them up. This month, RISK! comes to town to vie with the homegrown options for your confessional throw-downs. So what’s to gain from public humiliation?

By Rene Bermudez March 26, 2015

Arthur Bradford tells his story at Back Fence PDX. (Photo credit: Jennie Baker Photography)

Live storytelling—where people recount their most embarrassing or significant life moments under a hot spotlight—is enjoying a boom. Portlanders’ hunger for truth and confession supports no fewer than five live local storytelling organizations and, this month, RISK! adds New York sketch comic Kevin Allison's extreme, often sexually-infused, take on truth-telling to the mix.           

These events take the gleeful quirkiness of niche specialization—arguably the backbone of zeitgeist-defining media like Twitter, Netflix, and YouTube—and circuit it through more traditional art-forms like theatre, stand-up comedy, improv, and radio. No big data required; storytelling mines the lives of normal people and is fueled by the human urge to connect through face-to-face rituals.

"It's a cathartic experience for the audience members because it's funny, its relatable, it's crazy, it's heartbreaking." says Susan Danehy, producer of the Portland chapter of Mortified, where adults share their childhood writings and art as their storytelling tools. "There are a lot of different reasons people relate to it, not just for the funny but for the feelings."

Sheer audience hunger has made true storytelling powerhouse The Moth one of the most popular podcasts in the world and sustained a growing rainbow of subgenera: Locally-grown Back Fence PDX invented a new sub-genre called "Russian Roulette" which specializes in quick, improv-heavy authenticity, as well as regular nights of longer format stories; The Moth Mainstage PDX is a bit more crafted, but less immediate; Mortified mines the journals of adolescents and, thus, specializes in sweaty-palmed hilarity; and RISK! aggressively pursues stories so extreme that they can’t be told anywhere else.

Allison, creator and host of RISK!, began his true storytelling career terrified that audiences wouldn’t “get” him: “I am a lot of odd things that I think Hollywood won’t get: a little too gay, and yet too Midwestern. But I found that it was such a relief to be able to speak right into the eyes of listeners, and actually kind of converse--it's a very conversational art form.”

It’s not just for professional performers like Allison either. Anyone can pitch a story to live storytelling events and, if chosen, she will receive help with shaping and perfecting it—plus access to a ready-made audience. Anything goes, from "Here's how my gambling addiction almost ruined my life" to "That time my sister grew a tail…"

Leather Storrs, a local writer and radio host, told a live audience at Back Fence PDX about his experience of crabs, contracted on the night he lost his virginity and later diagnosed by a dermatologist who just happened to be his mother. He won that night’s Russian Roulette contest. “There's a gladiatorial vibe to it,” says Storrs, who has had more than one onstage foray into storytelling. “It’s a little more visceral than a lot of the communal sharing we do these days.”

Collaboration is built in to live storytelling, but it’s not just between performer and audience; producers leave a big thumbprint. Danehy recently produced a piece by local storyteller and comedian Shelley McLendon about, in Danehy's words, "an epically atrocious poem" McLendon wrote when she was 19, which dove to the depths of adolescent fantasies about romance.

"When I sent it to Susan," McLendon recalls, "I actually didn't think it was very interesting, but Susan called me after she read it and left me a voicemail. The entire voicemail was her struggling to speak because she was laughing so hard." She adds, wryly, "I was a really late bloomer.”

Shelley McLendon and Wendi McLendon-Covey at Back Fence PDX from Back Fence PDX on Vimeo.

Simply put, going through an emotional sprint like this brings people together and helps performers create narratives about difficult episodes in their past that they can be proud of. “I think it's healing,” Danehy told me. “I'm a therapist and I wish my clients could get on stage and do this.”

 RISK! will be performed for a sold out audience at Mississippi Studios on Sunday, March 29th. Tickets for a storytelling workshop taught by Kevin Allison are still available, to be held at 3pm on the same day as the show. More information at mississippistudios.com 

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