As opening night glitches go, this was a good problem.
The back room at Lakeview gastropub The Dog's Bollox was jammed with people squeezing in for the debut of Story Sessions, yet another yarn-spinning event to add to Chicago's already-packed storytelling/live literature calendar, and the organizers, regretfully, were turning people away.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
What an unfortunate fate, to miss Tom Wolferman describe, heartbreakingly and hilariously, giving a bath to his Alzheimer's-stricken mother, and to not hear Barrie Cole explain, gut-splittingly, the ways in which a one-night stand is nothing like a nightstand.
But if anything is certain of the city's consistently crammed live lit events, it's that you can probably catch another one tomorrow.
"I think it just proved that there is always room for more storytelling in the world," said Jill Howe, who co-produced Story Sessions with pal and fellow storyteller Rachael Smith, and has since gotten permission to spread out into the whole bar.
Telling stories, a pastime as old as the species, began seeing a modern-day revival as art form and entertainment some 40 years ago, when the National Storytelling Festival debuted in the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tenn., featuring mostly folk tales.
But in the past several years a wave of short-form true-tale-telling has surged in popularity among a young, bar-going crowd, carving a niche separate from improv, stand-up comedy, spoken word and poetry slams while also drawing from their influences.
"I feel like live lit is in the Beatles-in-Hamburg phase of its development," said Ian Belknap, founder of Write Club, referring to the band's pre-fame formative years. "I think it's going to explode in a way that it will be a cultural force."
Belknap insists on the term "live lit," rather than "storytelling," for the burgeoning scene in order to encompass the varied manifestations of the word-spewing genre, from the popular personal narrative to essay competitions.
Write Club, for example, is "literature as blood sport," wherein two people argue in defense of opposing ideas as the clock counts down their seven-minute time limit, and the audience votes by applause. The prize is money donated to a charity of the victor's choice.
Belknap, a former actor and stand-up comedian, launched Write Club at The Hideout in 2010, around the same time a handful of other live literature shows were starting to crop up in Chicago, because "I wanted a show that would be fast, loud, feature original writing and have actual stakes." He has since opened chapters in Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto, and locally launched another monthly show at Space, in Evanston, so the under-21 crowd could join in.
Belknap believes the hunger driving audiences to hear live stories stems from our distinctly modern condition.
"My theory is that it's largely in response to the screen-based isolation in which many of us function all the time," Belknap said. "There's something irreducible and irreplaceable about being in a shared space in real time with other humans, sharing an experience."
Scott Whitehair, who produces several storytelling shows in Chicago, agrees the desire for connection is feeding the trend, though he adds: "My pessimistic perspective is that we've become so confessional as a society that it's one more layer beyond a Facebook post."
For Howe, who got involved in storytelling after she got laid off from her job as an English teacher at Chicago Public Schools and entered "a very dark time in my life," the growing community isn't so much a scene as "a way of looking at life and connecting with other people," she said. "It's about living more openly and honestly and creatively and vulnerably."
Howe, who deals in storytelling even in her day job as events producer for Leadership Story Lab, a consulting firm that helps business people use stories to promote themselves and their causes, found in storytelling "my urban tribe, my artistic family," and an important outlet for expression. She recalls telling one story about a former student who was killed because his brother was in a gang.
"Before I found storytelling, I would push that under the rug and not think about it again," Howe said. "I took that story out to not only help myself deal with it, but to help people focus on what's important, and that's the kids."
One of the most appealing aspects of the storytelling movement is that anyone can do it — though it takes a particular set of writing and performance skills to do it very well — and it is fiercely inclusive.
While some shows are curated and feature tellers who have proven their chops, others encourage newcomers.
At Grown Folks Stories, host Cara Brigandi plucks names from a jar at random, and anyone is free to tell whatever story they wish, the only rules being that it be under five minutes and that they not read off paper. That encourages an unrehearsed, off-the-cuff telling.
"It forces you to make eye contact," she said. "It's like being at a dinner party without the dinner."
People often come in with no intention of telling a story, and within half an hour they are slipping their name into the jar, she said.
Brigandi co-founded Grown Folks Stories three years ago with Eric Williams, owner of the Silver Room, the Wicker Park jewelry store where the monthly event is held, in hopes of getting people to emerge from behind their glowing screens to talk to each other. They had no idea at the time that similar events existed.
Brigandi is proud of the diverse cross-section of the city that attends her events, where the applause is as loud for a struggling performer as an excellent one.
"It's such an environment of warmth and acceptance that I'm just blown away every time," she said.
Sometimes the best tellers have the least experience.
Shannon Cason had recently been laid off from his job at a plumbing wholesale company when he attended a Chicago Moth event, a themed storytelling contest where participants' five-minute true tales are judged with Olympic-style scores (The Moth, founded in New York in 1997, was a pioneer of the modern storytelling format).
Cason, who wrote short stories in his spare time, hadn't planned to participate, but upon arriving and learning the theme was "neighborhoods," he submitted his name to tell a story about walking around the South Side.
He won, and as a result was invited to compete in The Moth's GrandSLAM championship, where he won again. Cason is now a regularly featured teller at events nationwide and hopes to make a career of it, though that's difficult when most gigs pay little or nothing.
"You have to do it from a love standpoint," said Cason, who tells many stories about growing up in Detroit, his divorce, his gambling problem and child custody issues. He refrains from studying proper storytelling techniques because what's most important, he says, is "that realness."
Storytelling draws plenty of crossover talent.
Monte LaMonte, co-host of the show I S— You Not, which features true confessions about bodily functions, said "many failed comedians" end up doing well as storytellers because their style better lends itself to weaving a longer narrative people can relate to.
"When you do comedy, those jokes are more rapid fire and mentally you come prepared for zingers," said LaMonte, who describes himself as an ex-comedian. "A lot of the laughs you get in storytelling are through the connection."
Storytellers with different backgrounds bring different elements to their tales. A journalist might include statistics, a comedian might try to find the humor, a playwright might emphasize dialogue, said Cole, the teller at Story Sessions whose story about the dashed expectations of a one-night stand had people falling out of their chairs.
Cole, herself a playwright and writer of short stories and fiction, said she focuses most on language and structure — big writing — whereas others might care more about plot or characters. She often uses the live audiences as focus groups on whom she can test her work before she submits it for publication, "and it almost always leads to some insight on what's working and not."
Cole is excited for the myriad ways in which the storytelling scene can grow: in parks, in museums, in nursing homes. She wants to organize tellers to spontaneously spout stories on the "L" train, "like a very quiet flash mob."
The room storytelling permits for different styles, trial and error and experimentation "reminds me of jazz," Cole said. "Jazz for many years has had its own self-regulating excellence, and I think storytelling will get like that."
For the old guard of storytellers, many of whom have been attending storytelling festivals for decades and tend to be a generation ahead, the rising popularity of the craft is welcome. Sixteen years ago, when Judith Heineman started producing the Chicago version of Tellabration, a global storytelling event on the Saturday before Thanksgiving every year, it was a "semi-lost art" and most people associated storytelling only with children, she said.
Storytelling has always been about connection: Unlike in most theaters, where the lights are dimmed for performance, storytellers traditionally keep the lights up to see audience members' eyes, as the dynamic between teller and audience can reshape the story, said Heineman, founder of the Chicago Storytelling Guild.
She embraces the new short-format tale-telling that is all the rage at bar and bookstore events — she herself won at The Moth a few years ago — though isn't sure the new guard is as embracing of the old ways.
"We're very excited about this other format, and we wonder if those kids who attend the Moths and Second Story wouldn't enjoy coming to our conferences and see how the five minutes can expand to 20 minutes," Heineman said.
As the scene swells, there are plentiful opportunities for people to hone their craft.
"A show is born every 30 seconds in Chicago now," Whitehair said. " I'm waiting for the time when a show comes in the intermission of another show."
Live storytelling will be featured at Printers Row Lit Fest Saturday. Visit printersrowlitfest.org for details. Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is a Tribune lifestyles reporter and editor.
Live literature: Book a date
That's All She Wrote: every second Sunday at Swim Cafe, 1357 W. Chicago Ave. Featured tellers, no theme, non-competitive. Free, BYOB.
The Moth: every second Monday at Haymarket Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St.; last Tuesday at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. Names are drawn at random to read five-minute stories around a set theme. Judges give Olympic-style scores. $8. (quarterly Grand Slam at Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., June 27, $17).
Write Club: first Mondays of the month at Space, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; third Tuesdays of the month at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. Featured readers go head-to-head arguing in defense of set themes, audience votes for winner of each bout. $10 cover goes mostly to charities chosen by winners.
Second Story: Second Sunday and following Monday at Webster Wine Bar, 1480 W. Webster Ave.; last Saturday at the Underground Wonder Bar, 710 N. Clark St. Featured tellers, selected by audition. $15 online, $20 at door.
Story Club: First Thursdays at Holiday Club, 4000 N. Sheridan. Featured tellers around a set theme, non-competitive, plus open mic. Free ($5 suggested donation).
Guts and Glory: Third Wednesdays at Powell's Bookstore, 2850 N. Lincoln Ave. Featured tellers, challenged to delve deep and take personal risks. Non-competitive, no theme. Donations collected for charity. BYOB.
Grown Folks Stories: Third Thursdays, Silver Room, 1442 N. Milwaukee Ave. Names drawn from a jar to read five-minute stories, no theme, no competition. Free, BYOB.
Stoop-Style Stories: Last Thursdays, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave. Featured tellers and open mic. No theme, no competition. Free.
Encyclopedia Show: First Thursdays, Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St. Variety show of art, music, comedy and spoken word themed around an encyclopedia entry. $6-$9, BYOB.
Essay Fiesta: Third Mondays at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. Featured artists read personal essays, no theme, no competition. Donations benefit 826CHI. BYOB.
This Much is True: Second Tuesdays, Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro, 3905 N. Lincoln Ave. Curated show of three regular tellers plus three guests. Free.
Shame That Tune: Second Fridays at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. Featured tellers tell embarrassing personal stories which are then turned into a song. $7 at door.
Paper Machete: Every Saturday at The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway. Comedians, journalists and storytellers comment on current events and pop culture. Free.
Story Lab: Third Wednesdays at the Black Rock Pub & Kitchen, 3614 N. Damen Ave. Showcase for new tellers. No theme, not competitive. Free.
I S— You Not: Last Thursdays at the Township, 2200 N. California Ave. Featured performers tell stories of bodily functions. $5.
Reading Under the Influence: First Wednesdays, Sheffield's, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave. Featured readers read excerpts from original short stories, plus trivia contest. $3.
Here's the Story: First Sundays, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Five featured tellers plus open mic contest. $9 for potluck (free if you bring food).
Sunday Night Sex Show Reading Series: Every last Sunday at The Burlington, 3425 W. Fullerton Ave. True confessions about sex and sexuality, plus trivia. Free.
The Blackout Diaries: Every Saturday at the Lincoln Lodge, 4008 N. Lincoln Ave. Featured tellers tell true tales of drunkenness, the answer questions from the audience. $10.
Story Sessions: June 30 at the Dog's Bollox, 3210 N. Lincoln Ave. (monthly, check storysessionschicago.com for dates) Featured tellers around a set theme, non-competitive. $7.
Chicago Storytelling Guild: Third Tuesdays at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1155 E. 58th St. Hone your craft with established storytellers. Free.
Do Not Submit: Last Mondays at Powell's Bookstore, 2850 N. Lincoln Ave. Open mic to practice or test out new ideas. Free, BYOB.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun