Photograph by Michael Amsler
Gallows Humor: Pamela Gray tells her story, 'Life with a Death Salesman.'
Telling It Like It Is
Sebastopol venue revives age-old tradition of storytelling
By Molly T. Jackel
'OK. So. My story is really un-PC," a man says before launching into a tale about a prostitute he got to know in Malaysia. "Promise no one will tell my girlfriend or my mother about this?" Standing before an audience, the man pleads at Back Porch: Storytime for Grownups, a monthly storytelling event in Sebastopol.
On the night his story unfolded, the theme was "Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll" and the personal narratives ranged from the recounting of a Vietnam vet's drug- and sex-addled homecoming to one woman's first orgasm, to Occidental Arts and Ecology Center's James Pelican and his quest to find the angelic new love whom he'd let slip through his fingers on a purple bus. Back Porch is one of many venues around the country where local folks get onstage in a revival of the age-old entertainment of intimate yarn-spinning. In this incarnation, six storytellers have 10 minutes each to tell their personal tales on the month's theme with no notes, no memorized monologues. The more personal, revealing and real, the better.
The revival of urban storytelling started in New York in 1997 with the Moth, which began in the living room of George Dawes Green, a poet and novelist who missed the bourbon-fueled stories told on his porch among friends in the Georgia evenings under the moth-fluttery porch light. He feared the art form was being lost to the loneliness of high-tech communication. Green explained to the Washington Post, "People watch TV for four hours a night, and that's just story after story. . . . But oral storytelling, the most beautiful and moving of the arts, has been allowed to atrophy, and that's a great shame." With a national tour and story slams in multiple cities, the Moth has told stories to over 60,000 people. The tradition continued with Porchlight, which kicked off in San Francisco in 2003, and now Sebastopol's own Back Porch packs the house in an old milk barn off Gravenstein Highway.
Eli Kilner and Heidi Lewis brought the idea to Sebastopol with an event premiering this last Valentine's Day. The initial theme, "Stories of Love & Lust," brought out storytellers like local luminaries Michele Anna Jordan and Shepherd Bliss. There has been no advertising, and yet they turn folks away each month.
The organizers, both relatively new to the area, had access to a 1904 milk barn in Sebastopol. They both say that the space inspired the event, and Kilner, who moved to Sebastopol to work for KRCB from Marin (where she was a self-described "cultural activist"), says, "It's a chance to bring people together in a way that's sincere, and it's about meeting people and creating community." Lewis had connections to Porchlight in San Francisco, and after a couple of forays to that event in the city, they borrowed the format and launched Back Porch. With some help from friends, they remodeled the barn, building a funky stage, dragging in comfy chairs and couches, and softening the overhead lighting with draped material, sort of bivouac style. The result is a very comfortable and intimate venue of about 55 seats. The storyteller sits in a rocking chair and there's no mic and no spotlight. Lewis says of the venue, "[San Francisco's] Porchlight is more of a show. You're sitting in the dark and the teller's miked and in a spotlight. I kind of like the living room feel of our event better. I'm not a Luddite about it. I just think it works well this way."
According to Kilner and Lewis, the best stories are the ones that are the most authentic and revealing. "I like the stories to walk the line between standup and therapy, where people really spill their guts onstage," Kilner says. Lewis has learned that "just because someone's a professional performer or writer, doesn't always mean [they'll tell] a good story; the best ones are the most personal. But I'm not sure I know what the magic is yet." It seems, for the most successful stories, personal narratives are imperative, along with a classic story arc; and even if the story isn't entirely true, coming to an emotional truth is where it's at.
Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte, who launched Porchlight in San Francisco, agree. They make sure to have a few well-known tellers each time, like politico Matt Gonzalez, KRON 4's Bay Café host Joey Altman and even the singer Donovan, who stopped by after a gig to tell about a long-ago evening in Paris when he helped some famous friends name their new song, "Help!" But they say that the best stories come from regular folks in the audience. They also recommend that tellers rehearse, not so much that it becomes a memorized monologue or a standup routine—you've got to stay in the moment— but enough that they aren't sweating it out onstage or getting cut off by the time limit. But what makes these events especially engaging— one step beyond live theater, even— is that nobody knows what's going to happen, not even the storyteller. This of course means that not every story will be a winner. Green, of the Moth, says, "'There is always one dud, and we wouldn't want it to be any other way."
In the face of such an overload of information, media, technology and the way it seems to isolate us, there appears to be a general nesting movement in this country, a movement toward a simpler life: eating locally, learning how to knit, growing one's own food. And even in the media, real life takes center stage to fiction—witness the number of reality and DIY shows. It doesn't seem to be the case that people are suffering from short attention spans at Back Porch. Lewis says of the event, "What surprised me is that it really works. People really listen to the stories and there's this vibe in the room when everyone gets it."
When asked what's next for the at-capacity event, Lewis says, "It's already exceeded my expectations in the buzz and vibe that it has. It's so alive during intermission and after the show. I almost hesitate to think about its next outgrowth."
When you see a performer like the writer and NPR regular David Sedaris onstage, he's become so well known and so professional that he's essentially impersonating a normal person. The humorous stories at Back Porch seem so much funnier—the laughs so much heartier—because everyone knows that the people and the stories are real. The audience can relate to the teller who is nervous onstage; they can see past the "ums" and "you knows" because that person could be you.
If you're interested in telling a story (or hearing some), Kilner and Lewis are always on the lookout; go to www.storytimeforgrownups.org or e-mail Eli Kilner with your story idea at email@example.com. When you attend the event and realize you've got a story in you that must come out, you can throw your name in the hat at intermission and at the end of the night you might be picked to tell a story on the spot.
After all, everyone's got a story to tell, right?
Back Porch is slated for the fourth Saturday of every month at 7:30pm. $10 donation. For details on upcoming events and for the address, go to www.storytimeforgrownups.org.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.