Sticking with the Storytelling Scene

Recently in a packed lecture hall at the Museum of Vancouver, a senior citizen described how she once angrily fired a gun while stuck driving behind a slow-moving bus along a treacherous route through the Andes known as the Highway of Death. Later, a normally sedentary musician had the audience laughing at his recap of his first and final attempt at completing an Ironman. Then a marketing strategist sent chills throughout the hall when describing the night he thought his new bride was going to die after her tongue turned black while on a river rafting expedition in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest.

The stories kept coming—a seduction attempt thwarted by repeated shoulder dislocations, what raw sheep testicles taste like, why it isn’t a good idea to serenade a stranger in smalltown Mexico, and how best to handle it when bees are trapped in your shirt and you’re unable to move.

Welcome to a Rain City Chronicles event. Vancouver’s newest storytelling soiree, held every few months in different venues throughout the city, has already attracted a cult-like following largely (and perhaps fittingly) through word of mouth. The vibe is somewhere between a stand-up comedy night without as many jokes, an audition for an non-existent casting director and an AA meeting without the alcoholics or anonymity.

Rain City Chronicles began after two Toronto transplants — Lizzy Karp, an account manager for an ad firm, and Karen Pinchin, editor of the online news site OpenFile Vancouver — met at a writer’s group and cooked up the idea for a new storytelling night that would be different from the established story slam scene by removing the competitive element of having audiences pick a winner and throwing in a dash of live music for extra flavour.

Rain City Chronicles founders Lizzy Karp (left) and Karen Pinchin met at a writer’s group. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

At each event, nine storytellers step up on a bare stage in front of a pack of jaded urbanites and launch noteless into personal stories that they might’ve only rehearsed in front of a mirror, a partner or perhaps a pet.

Given that the fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, you might think it would be hard to find willing Rain City raconteurs, but Karp said that isn’t the case. Quite the opposite, actually.

“It’s not hard to find the volunteers, it’s hard to select them,” she said. “What is interesting about it is that not everybody is Type A performer types. I know for a fact that about four of those nine people at the last one were absolutely terrified and didn’t have any experience with performing at all.”

She said some chroniclers require a little coaxing and coaching to get them onstage, but so far nobody has reported regretting stepping up to the microphone.

“This might sound a bit cheesy, but it can be really empowering if you’re not a performer to tell a personal story on the stage. The audience is always really supportive, too.”

The first Rain City fell at Little Mountain Gallery in December 2009 and the forecast is for many more to come. In fact, Karp said the response has been so overwhelmingly positive it’s becoming tough to narrow the list down to just nine people.

“The difficulty for us is making sure there is a wide diversity in every show. We take care to find people from all different backgrounds and it helps that we have themes. For example, our next show is called ‘Behind the Scenes’ and we don’t want nine stories about working backstage in a theatre company. We want someone who, say, has worked as a baggage claim guy or someone who has been working in radio for 50 years.”

While not all storytellers are necessarily performers by nature or trade, it certainly helps to have a seasoned pro or two in the lineup.

Helen May, for example, not only lived to tell the tale of her dangerous drive via Volkswagen with her husband through the Andes Mountains back in the early ’60s, but telling tales is something she lives for in general.

Storyteller Helen May on the WISE Hall stage. (Dan Toulgoet photo)

A longtime member of the Vancouver Society of Storytelling, the energetic 70-year-old native of South Africa regularly donates her time and mellifluous, lightly accented speaking voice to spin yarns at community centres, old folks homes and at special group gatherings they call Cric Crak nights. “It’s from a Haitian call to story,” May explained. “The storyteller would go ‘cric’ and the audience would go ‘crak’ and then she would begin. We do this once a month—usually on a theme or sometimes just whatever—four or five tellers will tell their story to audiences. So that’s one way the tradition has been kept alive.”

Unlike most of the members of her group, however, May enjoys sharing her own personal stories as well as those of other people. “There are different kinds of tellers. Many tellers are tellers of fables or legends, but there are only two or three of us in the society that I know of that tell personal stories. And that really is a very big difference.”

May said she is pleased to see a younger generation keeping the ancient art form alive. “I think this is so important in this digital age, that people have the opportunity to share their personal stories, even if it is in a performance venue or setting. I think it is important to keep our humanity alive at that level. It’s not just intergenerational but is also interpersonal and intercultural. That’s what I love about stories—it’s the key thing that we have as a humans, our experiences. Stories provide a sense of companionship, identity, purpose and meaning to our lives.”

Joel Wirkkunen, one of the founders of another of the city’s new narration nights, couldn’t agree more.

The Flame, held the first Wednesday of every month at the Cottage Bistro on Main Street, has been drawing audiences like wildfire and is set to return again in September after its second summer hiatus.

“It’s kind of funny that the storytelling scene has caught on fire over what’s really only the last few years because it is so primal, so basic, and goes back to the days when we would just sit around a fire and tell each other stories,” said Wirkkunen. “It is so deep in our DNA.”

The name The Flame came as a tip of the hat to The Moth story slam series, which began 14 years ago in New York City and deserves much of the credit for making storytelling cool again in a hyper digital age.

Novelist George Dawes Green, who wrote The Juror and more recently Ravens, came up with the title because it reminded him of his front porch in Georgia where likeminded souls would gather to swap stories. The insects were drawn to the light of his porch like people were to storytelling and the movement has since spread to several other cities across North America.

But while Moth speakers are randomly chosen by picking names from a hat and nights also have pre-announced themes, Flame storytellers are free to tell whatever tale they choose. “Our mantra and only rule is it has to be true, it has to be about you and it has to be told in a few, meaning in 10 minutes or less.”

Wirkkunen is also an actor performing in Richard III and Henry VI at this year’s Bard on the Beach Festival. He admits that many Flame storytellers tend to be fellow performers but, in a city as stacked with actors as Vancouver, this is almost inevitable. He added that he and fellow Flame facilitators Deb Williams and Gary Jones make every effort to ensure anyone who wants a shot has a chance to step into the spotlight, and they even offer people a chance to workshop their ideas beforehand.

“We encourage everybody, especially the non-performers, to get up there. We have a Facebook page where people can pitch their stories and we turn no one down. Sometimes people pitch something they think would make a good story but are really more of an anecdote, and we’ll still try to work with them. It’s funny, sometimes we’ll be sitting with them and they say, ‘Oh God, I could never go up there’ but then we work with them, help them construct it, and then they get up there, they just tell their story off the cuff and it just blows the doors off the house.”

The Flame isn’t the only local spin on a more famous story-spinning institution. On Aug. 19, the Museum of Vancouver debuts the KEN Talks, a light-hearted take on the Technology Entertainment and Design conferences better known as the TED Talks, where hundreds of the world’s main movers and shakers share their passions through 18-minute speeches available via a free online database.

Hanna Cho is the museum’s curator of engagement and dialogue, which is a fancy way of saying she’s responsible for helping tell Vancouverites’ stories. She said the KEN’s premier, which features laughable lectures by Charlie Demers, Kaitlin Fontana, Craig Anderson, Emmett Hall and Alfredo “El Garzita” Garza, is an opportunity to highlight the community-building power of funny ideas.

Alfredo “El Garzita” Garza onstage at a Rain City Chronicles night. (Christine McAvoy photo)

“The tagline for KEN is ‘thoughts worth thinking,’ which kind of pokes fun at TED with its ‘ideas worth spreading,’” said Cho. “This is a way of localizing that by taking a little bit of the puff out of what has become a very grandiose movement. I mean, the TED series is fantastic, but sometimes it feels a little divorced from your local reality. Even though it is amazing that people connect to these stories that are global, I think what we sometimes don’t pay enough attention to local issues.”

She added that KEN Talks isn’t simply another night of stand-up comedy, but is intended to be more of a mirror held up to the city that just happens to be held by some funny people. “It’s more a contemplation of people who are more like you and me who live in the same city. What do they care about, what are they thinking about and how do they frame it? It’s stories about Vancouver told by Vancouverites.”

Ordinary people flapping their gums about their lives might not seem an obvious big draw in an age when the latest CGI-laden Hollywood blockbuster is just a mouse click away, but based on the anecdotal evidence, it seems to tap a primal human need that could mark the beginning of a new post-celebrity form of entertainment.

(This story was first published Aug. 5, 2011. © Copyright (c) Vancouver Courier)

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