inTown: Story League Showcases the Art of Storytelling
Before stories were written, they were spoken. And DC’s own Story League presents shows where telling a story is both art and entertainment. Anyone can tell you about something that happened, but it takes skill to build suspense and keep an audience riveted.
In a little over a year, Story League has made an impression on DC and as Washingtonian magazine observes, a storytelling event “can be a great way to break out of a nightlife rut.” Founded by writer/performer SM Shrake and journalist Cathy Alter, Story League offers people with well-crafted stories and performance chops the chance to get on stage, tell a story, and perhaps even win a cash prize.
We communicated with Story League co-founder SM Shrake via e-mail and found him to be a lively correspondent, so you can only imagine what it would be like to attend a Story League show. (And if you want to dive right in, you can check out a show tonight (5/16/2012) at the Busboys and Poets, 14th Street location. The theme is Psychic Phenomena.)
inReads: How did you get into storytelling?
SM Shrake: Shortly after I discovered storytelling (in the sense we use the word — live, true, adult stories, timed and performed for entertainment purposes), I hit the road and did “slams” in New York, Philly, and Detroit. I found out I’m very competitive. But in my traveling around I experienced a lot of things I did not like about how other groups ran their “slams,” starting with the word “slam” (so ’90s). So I took notes on what I would do differently and was always anxious to do these competitions my way.
inReads: When you started Story League, was it just curated shows?
Shrake: Throughout this Story League journey, I keep arriving at points where I say, “Oh. That’s why they don’t do it that way.” I’ve learned things the hard way.
We started with the very typical story-world protocol of 10 people telling their stories in front of a mic. We workshopped those early shows beforehand, with my friend Jane as our coach. At that time, she was the most-senior producer for This American Life, so her help and her notes were crucial. She helped us with our first three shows, taking the train down from New York for the day and zooming right back up the same night.
We experimented a lot with how to curate the shows. For the first one, we asked people to bring their two best stories, one funny and one serious; no theme given. I had grown tired of themes in the year I had spent in the storytelling world before starting Story League with Cathy [Alter]. My gripe was: These shows are almost 2 hours long, and by minute 50, I am wishing I didn’t have to hear yet another same-themed story about Odd Couples or Cats or worse.
As fate would have it, though, a quasi-theme emerged on its own. Everyone’s story seemed to take place in their childhood and featured them doing something strange or naughty. So we called the show “Sins of Youth.”
For the next one, we “auditioned” people once again, but it got hairy. I was obsessed with being fair and equitable and not hurting anyone’s feelings. I wanted pure meritocracy and democracy. I even wanted all the original dozen or so Story Leaguers to vote on which stories would go in the show. That idea flew like a blimp made of bricks.
So then, our shows became a mixture of people who had auditioned and people we asked to do it. That is pretty much how it works in all the story orgs I know. The producer (such a lofty title for something so basic!) gets the best stories he or she can…any way she or he can. Usually by asking people who they know are solid, and giving a few new people a chance. Oftentimes people flat out ask me if they can be in the show. If they’ve got chops, I say “Of course you can.”
inReads: When did you decide to add the Story Contests?
Shrake: After doing about 10 curated shows, we did our first contest (my word for it), and then the trial-and-error started all over again. Now we’re on our 7th contest and I’m still debugging the process. We just had our first Tournament (what others call a GrandSlam) the other week, and I’m proud to say it was triumphantly good.
So, we will be focusing on the contests and tournaments, and in fact as of early July we are doubling down to two contests a month (at Busboys and Poets’ 14th and V and Shirlington locations), but we still do occasional curated shows. We have a thing called Story Circle, the 3rd or 4th Sunday of the month, where we work on stories as a group. When we have enough good stories, we put on a show. The next one is June 5 at Arts Club of Washington [Theme: Broken Toys: Stories About What Makes Us Damaged Goods] .
inReads: Why did you decide to limit Story Contest stories to seven minutes?
Shrake: Well, the other competitions I know of do five minutes and the reason is, entre nous, that the quality… um, varies… such that they want people to get it over with before the audience starts stabbing themselves in the heart with a dull restaurant fork. But for me, five minutes goes by so fast, that’s really more of an anecdote than a story. So I think those extra two minutes let you flesh things out just enough to have a chance to create a really memorable piece of work.
As with all of this, it’s heavily influenced by my own personal opinions as a performer. I am always under time — I’m German, what can I say — and I do believe you have to respect the time. Comedians know this. You always hear them say “That’s my time” right before they leave and what they mean is, they got the light (literally a flashlight or stoplight in the back of the room, visible only to them) and if they keep going “blah blah blah” they will not be welcome back at that club.
As a performer I get bored and antsy onstage anyway, and so you do not have to twist my arm to get me to “rest my case” and get off the stage. When people hear their one-minute warning bell, they need to just wrap up. Some people fall victim to the rookie mistake of thinking, “Oh, no, I failed! I ‘died.’ I’d better keep sloshing around in the blood up here… Maybe if I keep talking, some deus ex machina will come rescue me, maybe I’ll ‘get’ the audience if I keep talking.” No. Please say “Thank You!” and leave the stage.
inReads: How collaborative is it–do audience members actively participate and help tell the stories?
Shrake: Well, again, one of the faults I found with other performance competitions I’ve been to (that includes poetry slams, by the way, which is kind of the model for story slams, though not for Story League Contests) is the free-for-all feeling of things. We charge admission because there is a cash prize. We want people to be serious about it.
We let people pre-submit their story ideas online, and then we use three pre-selected “expert” judges (meaning they have a clue; they’re producers, writers, performers, etc. themselves) to select our winner, but first they select which nine stories they want to hear, from the submissions. It’s a way to try and guarantee some quality.
You can also submit your idea right before the contest begins, at the venue. But you cannot submit during the course of the contest (because that’s just the drinks talking). That’s going to be a disaster. We want people up there who have given some thought to how they’re going to tell their story. Otherwise you’d get all excrement, sex, and booze stories. I’ve seen it and it’s not pretty.
inReads: Are you ever surprised by the stories people tell? What kinds of stories stay with you?
Shrake: I’m pretty jaded at this point, but it’s still distantly possible to “get” me. I think there are two kinds of stories: Ones where the plot is so fantastic that it would not matter how the person delivered it, the content is just unheard-of good; and ones where it’s the telling of it that makes it fascinating. The events could just be ho-hum, but the person is engaging and wins you over with their presentation. The ideal would be both of those at once, of course.
inReads: How have your website, social media and YouTube helped you in reaching new storytellers and listeners?
Shrake: The main principle of all this social media stuff, and the reason we have a professional photographer shoot our shows and then post beautiful photos every month, and the reason we post videos, and all of that, is, in my belief, that people like their egos to be stroked. They like to have a gorgeous photo by a hip young photographer (his name is Ben Droz) splashed across the Web, and that is a large driver of people to our shows and contests, I think. I have to believe that that is the dynamic, and that is why I spend so much time on those aspects of producing. Don’t you like nice photos and videos of yourself that you can show your friends and family? I sure do.
We just passed the 15,000-views mark on YouTube. We pay a lot of money to take video of our shows, and I was always wondering why, whether it was worth it, until those numbers started growing exponentially and I thought about the eyeballs. Thousands of eyeballs.
I use Facebook to promote our stuff. In other words, I don’t care about using it to share my personal life (I don’t have one anyway). I use it for the free publicity. I have multiple specially segmented friend lists that I use to maximize Facebook’s practicality, although many people are saying Facebook has jumped the shark and I kind of agree. You can tell. Back in ’07, when I had 300 friends or something, if I posted something it would get tons of acknowledgments. Now, where everyone has thousands (I have over 2,000, but I wish I had 5,000. Because: It’s free advertising!) you have to do the online equivalent of self-immolation just to get a few cheap Likes and comments. But I am a big reciprocator. For example I’ve gathered an informal group of local show producers and we share our “lists.” We share audiences. I invite “my” people to their shows and vice versa, using FB events.
Twitter is still a little mysterious to me, but what I do with the Story League account is go to shows and take phone pics and post them to Twitter, so it’s like documenting the D.C. performing arts scene in a way.
I also have a several-hundred-person email list that I send a bi-weekly newsletter out to. We collect email addresses the old fashioned way, on paper, at the shows. It works!
InReads: Can you give three quick tips on effective storytelling?
Shrake: Can I give four? For me the necessary ingredients for a winning story are:
1) Stakes/suspense – Audience: “Why should I keep listening?” Doesn’t have to be Hitchcock, but at least some sort of tension.
2) Humor or tragedy – I am a big proponent of being maximally funny — that works 90 percent of the time. If you choose to tell something serious, it has to be absolutely devastating. I’m an extremist. I don’t think it pays to go down the middle.
3) A surprise - unexpected turn in a story.
4) Payoff – the big ending that rewards the audience for listening; not an expressed “moral of the story” — they can figure that out themselves — but rather the biggest possible dose of surprise or humor to finish things off.
Also, and this is my top tip: Always connect with the audience somehow. Break the fourth wall. This is about sharing. Acknowledge them; they’re human beings.