CHARM CITY CONFIDENTIAL

The Baltimore Sun

Jim Magruder took a deep breath, swung back his arm, and threw his wedding band as far as he could into the audience. That's how he knew he was finally free.

"Telling this story has taken the hex off this wedding ring that I haven't known what to do with for ten years," Magruder told the 250 people attending a Stoop Storytelling session in 2006.

"If you caught it, give it to someone you love, or sell it on eBay, but I'M DONE WITH IT!"

Magruder's impulsive ring toss - and the thunderous whoops from the audience that followed - illustrates why the live storytelling series has been selling out its shows since its inception on Feb. 9, 2006.

Telling his story in public proved unexpectedly liberating for the 47-year-old Baltimore playwright and educator.

"I didn't know I was going to throw away the ring until I did it," Magruder says. "It was very, very cathartic. Getting that story off my chest was one of my highlights for 2006."

Held six times a year, and organized around such themes as "My Nemesis"; "What I Did for Love" and "Legends of the Fall: Stories about Failure," Stoop combines the intimacy of group therapy with the drama of live theater.

Seven invited guests, some well known and some not, stand before a microphone and talk for seven minutes about formative events in their lives. After the intermission, three audience members tell their own stories.

The Stoop's "house band," Caleb Stine and the Brakemen, plays at the cocktail hour before each show and during intermissions.

"Baltimore is such a neat, gritty town, and these stories illustrate it," says Phil Meeder, 74, of Annapolis, who spoke at the Stoop about searching for an organ donor after his beloved wife was diagnosed with a hereditary kidney disease.

Some tales are horrifyingly funny: in September, Dana Kollmann, a forensic scientist and former crime scene investigator for the Baltimore County Police Department, relayed the unlikely events that resulted in her having a dead man's fist jammed inside her mouth.

Yup, you read that right.

Look, Kollmann was trying desperately to get the victim's fingerprints so he could be identified and his relatives notified.

It was a dry winter night, and she needed to restore humidity to the man's hand because the prints weren't taking, and - accidents happen.

"I'm screaming and pulling back, and the whole corpse is coming with me," Kollmann told the Stoop audience this past September. "The detectives are bent in half, they're laughing so hard."

Other stories are poignant.

Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, an actress on The Wire, told the Stoop audience about her experiences in prison, and that she was born addicted to crack cocaine in 1980. Shortly after birth, she was placed for adoption.

"I used to wonder if my mom was going to come back and knock on our front door," she said Nov. 5, during a program called "My Theme Song."

"I used to dream about her face. I used to wonder what she smelled like."

And some stories could have only happened in Baltimore.

One audience member, whose name was never recorded, got up in early 2006 and told the audience about learning that her boyfriend had been unfaithful.

She jumped out of his car, ran across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard - and into a backyard barbecue. Though startled, the family listened to the stranger's tale of woe, welcomed her warmly and gave her something to eat.

Charm City certainly comes by its moniker honestly.

And so does the Stoop, whose name evokes the quintessential Baltimore image of neighbors chatting on a fine summer's day, while sitting on the marble steps fronting their rowhouses.

Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin, the two longtime friends who founded the Stoop, intended their title to be an homage to their series' predecessors nationwide: the Moth in New York, and the Porchlight in San Francisco.

"The moth is drawn to the porch light, which shines on the stoop," says Wexler, 36, a senior editor at Style magazine and writing instructor.

The series' popularity, their organizers say, refutes the myth that the proliferation of large and small screens is resulting in an exclusively visual culture.

"Laura and I are both into This American Life," Henkin says, referring to the public radio show created by Baltimore native Ira Glass. "I think aural storytelling will always have an audience. Because we have a dearth of visuals, someone could literally close their eyes for the whole show and still get the full experience."

The Stoop started life in the 250-seat Patterson Theater at the Creative Alliance. But the demand for tickets was so great that the series moved this fall to Center Stage's 540-seat Pearlstone Theater.

The Stoop has put on 12 shows to date; 11 have sold out. The exception was last year's Nov. 5 show, which conflicted with the nationally televised Monday Night Football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Even then, we sold about 500 of our 540 seats," said Henkin, 33, an autism specialist for Baltimore County.

Every available seat already has been snapped up for the Feb. 11 show on family secrets. That's remarkable, considering the series is held on Monday nights.

Moreover, the series attracts an unusually diverse audience.

Seniors sit arm to arm with the multiple-piercings crowd.

Credit for the series' success belongs to Wexler and Henkin. Henkin, slender and delicate with straight, blond hair, is relaxed and zany. The curvaceous Wexler, with a mop of red curls, is an organizational fanatic. When they get together, the two play off one another like a seasoned comedy duo.

Wexler first came up with the idea for the Stoop while searching for a creative outlet after publishing a nonfiction book in 2003.

"After my book came out, I was looking for an activity that involved stories but was less solitary than writing," Wexler says.

"Then I attended the Porchlight in San Francisco and decided to do something similar here. With her improvisation skills, I knew that Jess would be the perfect partner."

Given the Stoop's popularity, it's tempting to consider expanding the series, but that turns out to be complicated.

A larger theater would sacrifice the intimacy crucial to the series' success. Plus, much of the Stoop's charm is that it is fleeting. It's important for Wexler and Henkin that the storytellers not memorize their tales and not read from scripts. There is just one rehearsal.

"Unfortunately, you can't do each program more than once," Magruder says. "If you told the same story a second time, you'd start performing it."

Wexler and Henkin are brainstorming creative ways to bring the Stoop to more people. Perhaps they could put together a storytelling workshop for the public schools.

"Telling a story in the first person requires being critical about your own life," Wexler says. "It's educational and empowering and enlightening."

And you just never know where it might lead.

On Sept. 24, the final speaker was a woman named Karen Weeks. In her hand, she held something round and shiny, something gold and onyx with an opal stone.

She held Magruder's wedding band.

"Since I caught this ring, my romantic relationships have been tumultuous," Weeks told the crowd. "I struggled with the question: 'Could an object be cursed?' I thought about throwing it away at an earlier show, but it was raining, and I didn't come. I figured the ring orchestrated it.

"But I'm here now.

"Whoever catches this ring, it will have an impact on your life. If you pick it up, part of your responsibility will be to come back here and tell us how it has affected you."

Then Weeks wound up, and pitched her version of a curveball into the crowd.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Stoop founders

Who:

Laura Wexler

Current accomplishment:

Co-founder of the Stoop Storytelling Series

Age:

36

Lives:

Baltimore

Day jobs:

A senior editor of Style magazine. Also teaches creative nonfiction at Goucher College.

Education:

Bachelor's degree in English and creative writing from Pennsylvania State University; Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of Kansas

Other achievements:

Wrote Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (Scribner, 2003).

Personal:

Married to Mike Subelsky.

Who:

Jessica Henkin

Current accomplishment:

Co-founder of Stoop

Age:

33

Lives:

Baltimore

Day job:

Autism specialist for Baltimore County

Education:

Bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park; master's degree in autism and special education from the Johns Hopkins University

Other achievements:

Honed her improvisational comedy skills with the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Baltimore Improv Group.

Personal:

Married to Aaron Henkin. A daughter, Abigail, 18 months; and a son, Charlie, 4 months

Come, sit on the Stoop

Stoop Storytelling's motto is "Everyone has a story. What's yours?" The three remaining shows this season will be held at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Doors open at 7 p.m., with a cash bar and live music, and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Call 410-332-0033 or go to stoopstorytelling.com.

Feb. 11: Family Secrets: Stories About the Fibs, Tall Tales and Outright Lies that Bind Us Together -- and Keep Us Apart. The show is sold out, but a limited number of standing-room-only tickets will be sold for $15 the day of the show. They must be picked up in person.

April 7: Coming to America: Immigrant Stories. This show is being co-produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Each of the seven invited storytellers will represent a different ethnic group.

June 9: Campfire Tales: Stories of Panty Raids, Bug Juice and Wet, Hot American Summers.

An article in Sunday's Arts & Life Today section about The Stoop Storytelling Series misquoted one of the speakers. Karen Weeks spoke about her tumultuous relationship with a ring she had picked up at a Stoop show. She was not referring to her personal relationships.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
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