True Tales

The Odyssey Storytelling Series gets regular folks to share a bit of themselves with a live audience

Greek bards did it while swigging watered-down wine. Boy Scouts do it around a campfire. Penelope Simmons does it with six partners at a time, in public.

Storytelling, that is.

Simmons organizes the Odyssey Storytelling Series, held the first Thursday of each month at Wilde Playhouse. She recruits ordinary people--not actors, not stand-up comedians--to tell 10-minute tales drawn from their own experiences, revolving around a different theme for every show. And up to 95 people--Wilde's seating capacity--pay to see this.

"It's spoken-word performance rather than theater," she says. "Spontaneity is a really big part of it. I consider storytelling an oral art, as opposed to a written art or acting. I'm trying to promote that feeling of sitting in your living room and talking to your friends." To that end, Simmons prohibits her volunteer storytellers from reading scripts or even outlines, or memorizing their tales.

Simmons started the series in March by cajoling friends to participate. Nine months later, "I'm running out of friends, I'll tell you," she says. That's OK, because plenty of strangers are starting to come forward.

There aren't many rules. You have to aim for a 10-minute spiel, but Simmons is a little lenient with the stopwatch. You have to tell a story relating to the month's theme, but the theme leaves lots of room for maneuverability--"Indecision," "Things I Meant to Do," "Creepy," "My Brilliant Career." You speak from personal experience. ("Part of personal storytelling is telling the truth about your life," says Simmons, "but I'm not a censor, and I'm not a fact checker.") You improvise, but you don't rant. That's about it.

Contrast this with the Monolog Cabin series at Club Congress, whose participants are mostly writers more comfortable reading from scripts, who often workshop their stories together before going public and are more fond of fiction, or at least high embellishment.

Last month, the Odyssey theme was "stuck," and Wilde was packed. Some participants, like writer Arthur Naiman and artist Janet K. Miller, sat placidly on a high stool while they talked. Others, like pacifist Bill Luce, took the microphone in hand and paced the stage. PR guy Isaac Ruiz literally jumped around and occasionally had to put down the mike so he could gesticulate more freely.

"Sometimes people are messy or uneven," Simmons admits, "but that's what life is like, and I love that whole uncertainty of not knowing what they're going to do."

Cold feet are part of life, too, but when participants back out, it's usually because they've been overwhelmed by other commitments, not because they're scared. "I've seen a lot get cold feet, but they do it anyway," says Simmons. "My friend Alice Nealon was so nervous that she couldn't eat; she was pacing; she wanted to go first to get it over with, and then she got on stage and told a brilliant story. She gave me a hug as she was leaving and said, 'Don't you ever ask me to do that again.' But I went to a party a couple of months later and there she was, talking about how she'd love to do it again."

Artist Janet Miller says she'd gladly do it again, too. She says she likes "knowing that my story is alive in people that I don't know, and that it's going to affect them in ways I'll never know, and it will live on outside of me." Last month, Miller's "stuck" story was about literally getting stuck on back-road trips deep into the desert; rather than fear, she recounted, she got a "euphoric feeling of being free of the plan."

Says Miller, "I like stories that are particular but reveal something larger and more universal than their particularity. As an audience member, I've always enjoyed the nonprofessional storytellers the best because they're so unpredictable and alive."

Miller says that despite the artificiality of the public venue, an Odyssey performance shouldn't be drastically different from chatting with friends.

"On the stage when I told my story, they had a kitchen sink that was part of the play they were doing in the theater," she says. "I would love to have been able to give people a pile of dishes to wash as they told stories. On stage, you think more about the story you're going to tell than you do at the kitchen sink, but I love language and stories so much that even my kitchen-sink stories can be thought out or considered, in a way."

According to psychologist George Goldman, one of the other "stuck" storytellers, "The tradition of listening to stories is as old as humans. The notion of stories and snaking your point through themes permeates everything. That's what movies and plays are, and TV programs--they're all themed stories presented in what the tellers hope to be an attractive way. We can do that in a low-tech way with just one person standing up there and saying something. I think we're almost built to appreciate and accept something like that."

Says Simmons, "Storytelling is entertainment, but it's very empowering for the people who do it, and the audience really relates to the storytellers. I'm trying to get a diverse mix of people from the community, so sometimes you'll learn something completely new and unusual about other people's lives."

As a spectator rather than a storyteller, Miller would like the Odyssey series to thrive. "I want to encourage other people to do it and not be scared," she says, "because the audience is so receptive and kind, and it's a great forum. People are patient and willing to let you stumble along, because it's real and it's live."

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