Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin Start Up a Charm City Storytelling Series
“I was like, ‘Storytelling, whoa, let me remove my lace doily,’” she recalls, laughing. “‘That sounds musty and old-fashioned and so not hip, and why do you think I would like that?’ I was pretty dubious about it.”
Despite her initial misgivings, Wexler went along and attended the third anniversary show of San Fran’s acclaimed Porchlight Storytelling Series, one of several groups nationwide that hands microphones to performers, writers, and everyday folks, asking them to tell a story on a set theme within a limited amount of time to an intimate, beer-drinking audience. New York’s the Moth is a bona fide phenomenon, attracting big-name stars such as Steve Martin and Frank McCourt to perform at its monthly standing-room-only showcases. Porchlight is a smaller, lesser-known organization, but Wexler was still impressed by what she saw and heard.
“We showed up, and there was a huge, huge crowd,” she says. “We barely got in. And the show was the furthest thing from musty or staid. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, in the sense that it’s not using new media—it’s a person standing onstage, talking. But it was such an intimate, exciting vibe, being in that room. It had the excitement of improv, that adrenaline, but it was also artful, because these people were presenting stories that were crafted and worked over and shaped—not scripted, but really consciously shaped. It was one of the best evenings out I’d had in a while. And, you know, total cliché, I walked out and was like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done anything like that in Baltimore?’”
Upon returning to Mobtown, Wexler called her friend Jessica Henkin, an alum of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational theater group who is currently working as an autism specialist in Baltimore County, and told her all about that night in San Francisco and how a similar storytelling salon would be a great addition to Baltimore’s weekend arts to-do list. Caught up in Wexler’s enthusiasm, Henkin came up with a name, and the Stoop Storytelling Series was born.
The concept is deceptively simple—seven Baltimoreans have seven minutes each to tell a story on a set theme. For the Stoop’s inaugural outing at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson Feb. 9, that theme is Failure, and the storytellers include a veritable who’s who of local media: WJZ-TV morning host Marty Bass, documentary filmmaker (and City Paper contributing writer) Charles Cohen, Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan, mystery author Laura Lippman, and Max Weiss, senior editor of Baltimore magazine, are all tapped to tell tales, as are musical guest kataStatik, freelance writer Shannon Dunn, and stay-at-home mom Valarie Perez-Schere, creating a balance between known and unknown that Wexler and Henkin hope to foster in future showcases.
“The main prerequisite is that they live in Baltimore—not that they’re notable,” Henkin says. “For the first show, we wanted to combine notables with lesser-known people, just to get momentum going. We want to get to the point where it’s word-of-mouth, and people will start soliciting us, instead of us soliciting them.”
“We hope that audience members from one show could be potential storytellers for the next show,” Wexler adds. “We’re literally open to anyone, as long as they have a good idea. We’d love to have a taxi driver.”
“Laura’s kind of fixated on that archetype of the everyman, and she thinks it should be a taxi driver,” Henkin says. “We’ll know we’ve been successful when we get a she-male from Calvert Street and a taxi driver onstage, if any of you are reading this.”
Which isn’t to say that the ladies behind Stoop expect all their performers to be storytelling experts first shot out of the barrel. In addition to establishing a web site and running grass-roots publicity, the duo has diligently groomed its first batch of storytellers via phone and e-mail, helping each guest decide how to articulate his or her personal failure experience. Before the storytellers’ one-time-only performance, Wexler and Henkin, both experienced critics and editors, talk them through a rehearsal/workshop, further honing the stories to ensure that the careful sense of craft Wexler felt in San Francisco is re-created on the Baltimore stage.
“They all seem energized and terrified,” Henkin says. “All of them. It’s sort of amazing. People who are well-established in the community are saying, ‘What if I’m shitty?’ There’s genuine fear there, which is great, because it means they’re taking it seriously.”
“What we’ve told the storytellers in terms of performing this as opposed to writing is to think about a strong narrative and action,” Wexler says. “So the fundamentals of storytelling, which, to me, are less in play in writing these days, are going to take center stage here. Characters, dialogue, all of those really, really fundamental craft storytelling things, these are what’s going to carry each story.”
Why storytelling, though? Why listen to a stranger tell a story, instead of going to a bar, or a rock show, or, hell, staying home to gorge on reality TV? Why should we turn off CNN and C-Span to listen to complete amateurs talk about their everyday lives? Isn’t the whole concept of “oral tradition” all, well, lace doilies, firesides, and hot tea?
“I think that one of the things that’s happened in our lifetime is people are less inclined to talk about their own history and more inclined to talk about current events,” Henkin says. “We’re so bombarded with current events, we’re so aware of them, that has superseded storytelling. But telling a story is more acceptable and more intuitive to a greater number of people. It’s easier to hear, it’s easier to comprehend, you don’t have to be of a certain age or have a certain vocabulary—it’s just more accessible than writing.”
“To say that we’ve lost the oral tradition—maybe we have,” Wexler admits. “It is in some ways a lost art, but go to a cocktail party, go to a dinner party, what are people doing? Telling stories. People tell stories. They just do. People who don’t even know they’re storytellers are storytellers. We think in stories. That’s how we understand the world. We’re just asking people to be conscious about it.”
It took but a few short months for Wexler and Henkin to make the Stoop Storytelling Series a reality, but they’re eagerly thinking ahead. Performance poet Jah Hipster, dog walker Matt Fisher, and Shattered Wig’s Rupert Wondolowski are slated for future shows. Upcoming story themes may include “Under One Roof: Tales of Living Together (or Trying to)” and a series of travel tales from “The Road.” Beyond the standard show format, Henkin and Wexler have already discussed eventually bringing storytelling workshops to Baltimore senior homes, community schools, juvenile halls, and other local venues—all in an effort to tap into the unexpectedly transformative effect that telling a story, your own personal story, can have.
“Not to sound grandiose, but we believe in the power of stories, and the power of telling your own story, and how important that is for people,” Wexler says. “Especially for people who are often ignored in society and considered not to be important or not to have a story. So many people think, Oh, memoir, that’s just about therapy, but it starts with therapy and ends with art. Storytelling is powerful and therapeutic and artistic. It’s like claiming your existence: ‘I tell my story, therefore I am.’”
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