Hear the word “storytelling” and you might picture a guy with an acoustic guitar in the children’s section of the local bookstore. But true, personal narratives performed by adults for adults with poignancy and humor is a huge trend.
The late Spalding Gray took storytelling to a new level in the ‘80s and ‘90s with his one-man shows Swimming To Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy, which both became movies, and one could argue that the current storytelling movement was popularized by Chicago-based This American Life, and by The Moth, a non-profit drawing raconteurs to the stage with their drop-your-name-in-the-hat style story slams in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. (The Moth is also broadcast on National Public Radio, home of This American Life.)
Several live shows have popped up in recent years, forging a community by spotlighting writers, performers, and everyday people. Philadelphia has First Person Arts and Tell Me A Story, and there’s Washington D.C.’s The Story League. In New York, How I Learned, an oft-raucous monthly series built on rotating “how I learned” themes, was created in 2009 by Blaise Allysen Kearsley, who also spawned Best In Show. While How I Learned is heavily curated (its roster has included Kevin Allison from MTV’s The State, award-winning author Sam Lipsyte, musician Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing, and actor/comedian Taylor Negron from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Curb Your Enthusiasm), Best In Show is an open mic where anyone with a prepared five-minute story has a chance to tell it live. Sounds a lot like The Moth, but the hook is the panel of three seasoned storytellers who offer constructive feedback.
Named one of the Best Storytelling Series of 2012, How I Learned took place at the swanky Happy Ending lounge until the popular spot known not only for How I Learned, but for its salacious dance parties in a former massage parlor, was sold by its owner after more than 12 years on the scene. As of this writing, the How I Learned series is looking for a new permanent home, but still packing them in at such venerable New York venues as Union Hall and Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe in the meantime, and their podcast is available on iTunes and elsewhere.
Other favored shows include the multi-city RISK! and The Story Collider, featuring stories about science. If you’re not a science person, it’s way more entertaining than it sounds.