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.