When the oral storytelling organization now known as Story District started hosting open-mic events, Columbia Heights didn’t have a Metro stop. There were busboys and poets, but no Busboys and Poets. The 9:30 Club had moved from its original site but had only been in its current digs on V Street NW for about a year.
It was 1997, the year of Titanic (the movie, not the disaster). And though storytelling had been around since the dawn of language, the word was blighted by connotations of juvenilia.
“No one knew what storytelling meant,” says Amy Saidman. “I was half naked on these”— she gestures to a stack of postcards she’s just pulled from her purse, which notably bear no discernible nudity, unlike the ones from back in the day—”just so people would understand this wasn’t for kids.”
These days Saidman—the artistic executive director of Story District, formerly SpeakeasyDC, formerly Washington Storytellers Theatre, who started as the group’s program coordinator in 1999 and began running it in 2005—doesn’t usually need to drop postcards to fill seats. Story District’s two dozen annual performances bring in about 11,000 ticket buyers per year. She only has postcards tonight because the Sept. 23 show her organization is billing as its 20th anniversary celebration (with 20 performers in the lineup) will be at the 1,225-seat Lincoln Theatre. This will be the group’s sixth time in the storied venue, but some tickets are priced slightly higher than in the past, at $25 and $40. Saidman confesses to some nervousness about filling the place—the house is only about one-fifth sold, she says, though with 24 days until the show, that doesn’t seem like any cause for alarm.
On this particular Wednesday night in late August, she’s at the bar of a new French restaurant in Shaw, where a dozen students—11 women and one man, racially mixed and all looking to be in their twenties or thirties—have just had their raconteurial cherries popped. The sixth and final session of their five-week, 15-hour Storytelling 101 class has just ended. Their course finale takes the form of a seven-minute performance in front of their classmates, teachers, and whomever else they can persuade to show up.
The evening’s penultimate performer, Brittany Aguilar, regales all present with a story from when she was “a baby neuroscientist” working with dementia patients and charged with removing their brains for examination after they die. The only man in the lineup, Yoav Magid, closes the show with a story about how a cycling tour of Cambodia helped him get over his fear of traveling alone. After a short recess for hugs and congratulations, the performers reconvene with instructors Stephanie Garibaldi and Joseph Price for a debriefing.
Saidman and Ben Thomas, Story District’s Program and Communications Coordinator, form the entirety of its full-time staff. Client Services Coordinatior Vijai Nathan, who is also a storyteller and instructor, works part time, but everyone else is a contractor, including Garibaldi and Price.
Price started teaching in 2010, a little more than two years after stage storytelling gradually began to replace the snatches of a memoir he once wrote in emails to his friends. “For me, telling a story is about taking a moment in my life and putting a nice, neat package around it,” he says. “I feel like it becomes an object then—a little more than a memory. And it makes my life feel more well-lived.”
After telling dozens of seven-minute stories, he wrote and performed two feature-length monologues. He says these more ambitious, less formulaic tales are where his interests now lie. Next year, he’ll begin teaching an intensive workshop, with a maximum enrollment of six, aimed at helping his students create long-form solo shows.
Garibaldi, whose formal title is Education Director, has worked with Story District since 2005, the year Saidman took the reins. When she and I catch up by phone a few nights later, she’s just come from a long tech rehearsal for a story show she’s directing that features a half-dozen stories by breast cancer survivors and their spouses, commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control. Associations and professionals have begun to see storytelling as a practical skill. In 2007, Story District made its evolutionary leap from a monthly open-mic night to an outfit that offers classes in tale-telling while putting on an ever-growing number of story showcases at ever-larger venues.
“We used to high-five one another if we got 50 people,” says Garibaldi. Story District’s first shows took place at the old Black Cat space and initially attracted crowds of 25 or 30.
In those days, before the classes, the crowd was older, Garibaldi recalls. Saidman had asked her and some of their other friends from the improv scene to show up to give the event an infusion of youthful irreverence and energy. The more formal definition of storytelling as a first-person account of one’s own experience hadn’t yet taken hold.
“A lot of them were telling folk tales instead of first-person stories, and there wasn’t as much humor,” Garibaldi says. “I just had no interest in that. I can read that. I thought, ‘If you’re not going to put something of yourself into it, if you’re just going to perform the voices, what’s the point?’”
Organizers didn’t ban folk tales, exactly. But natural selection took its course, and over time the ratio of once-upon-a-time to confessional testimony shrunk, then vanished. At the same time, Garibaldi and Saidman were reverse-engineering what seemed to work on stage into a kind of ethos. They had to figure out what distinguishes an anecdote from a story. Usually: a specific time and place. Always: some kind of transformation, profound or trivial, within the narrator. “You have to be vulnerable,” Saidman says.
Sure, some people are just more innately comfortable and magnetic in front of a crowd than others. But there’s still a blueprint for commanding a room that anyone can learn. Garibaldi believes it’s an essential skill. She teaches an elective storytelling class at the University of Maryland, but she thinks that making it a mandatory subject for high schoolers would give them a leg up in their careers and in life.
How to Talk About Yourself Without Being Boring, you might call it.
The first rule of talking about yourself is that you have to talk about yourself.
“We get a lot of journalists and lawyers, people who are good at telling other people’s stories and trained to keep themselves out of it,” says Garibaldi. That leads to plot-heavy tales with no emotional stakes. She’s used to having to slow her students down, and prodding them to insert moments of reaction or reflection. She says that even if you’re talking about someone more accomplished or interesting than yourself, the audience’s curiosity will incline toward the person standing in front of them. “It’s a self-indulgent art.”
Context can be a killer, too. You need a lot less than you think you do in general, and the Associated Press dateline format is not your ally when you’re trying to seize the audience’s attention. “My great aunt Matilda would always start a story, ‘Was it 1931 or 1932?’” Garibaldi says, giving Matilda a cartoonish old-lady voice. “And you don’t care. You already want to kill yourself.”
Anyone can pitch a story for Story District’s monthly shows, which typically feature eight storytellers plus an MC, and are organized, à la This American Life, around a theme. (October’s theme is “If They Could See Me Now.” Themes on the docket for 2018 include “Beauty and the Beast—stories about mismatched partnerships, odd couples, or unlikely alliances,” per the published schedule, and “One and Done—stories about something you did once that you can’t or won’t ever do again.”)
Completion of a Story District class is not a prerequisite. Willingness to accept coaching is. Participants must commit to attend a rehearsal, usually about three weeks prior to showtime. Organizers need the time to offer more coaching—especially to shaky performers—or to find a substitute if it’s evident that someone whose pitch they liked isn’t going to work out. Most performers get an individual coaching session by phone in addition to the in-person practice session with their fellow storytellers.
Saidman says this insistence on tutoring, even for experienced storytellers, is the main feature that distinguishes Story District from the diaspora of storytelling clubs it has spawned: Better Said Than Done in Fairfax, Storyfest Short Slam in Bethesda, Perfect Liars Club here in D.C. All were started by people who’ve performed at Story District events.
“I don’t care how many times you’ve told a story. I don’t care how amazing you think you are. I want you to have a coach. I want you to be part of this collaborative process” Saidman says. “I one hundred percent believe it comes out better. I don’t always hear opportunities in what I’m saying. It’s an outside listener who will stop you and tell you, ‘Tell me more about that.’”
She rarely runs into trouble with egotistical performers any more, since Story District’s coaching model is widely known at this point. “For 15 years there was no one but us,” she says. “Now, if you want to get on stage and you think you don’t need coaching, there are other places you can go.”
One of those places is The Moth’s StorySLAM. The Moth is probably the world’s most famous oral storytelling brand, and it has expanded aggressively since its inception in New York 20 years ago. Its programs include a public radio show, popular podcast, and “story slams” in 25 cities, including D.C. It now has a monthly residency at The Howard Theatre, which is located less than a quarter-mile from Story District’s main venue, Town Danceboutique, and holds three times as many people.
Saidman admits she was anxious when The Moth first came to town a couple of years ago, but she says it doesn’t seem to have cut into Story District’s audience.
“The Moth is a role model,” she says. “They have created this whole scene around live storytelling, so [I give them] absolute credit. I think it’s complementary. But what they do [at a StorySLAM] is very different from us. It’s five minutes, they pull names from a hat, people don’t practice in advance, they don’t have coaching. For them, it’s a great, efficient model.”
She laughs, apparently out of exhaustion. “Our model is so inefficient! We have to put in so many hours for every show.” The performers know they’ll be performing; they’ve rehearsed with one another, and the absence of competition results in a more collegial atmosphere, and a more close-knit community.
It’s also “a good fucking night out,” she says. “People leave happy.”
(To be fair, The Moth’s “Mainstage” shows are more or less what Saidman is describing: Curated performances of longer stories by performers who have rehearsed and honed their material.)
Since 2009, Story District’s regular showcase has been held on the second Tuesday of each month at Town, which bills itself as D.C.’s largest gay nightclub. With chairs on the floor, the capacity is about 400, and they typically get at least 300.
It’s going to be a tough venue to replace when Town permanently shuts down next summer to make way for residential development. Midsize venues like that one are hard to come by.
Story District has moved confidently into bigger rooms for its annual showcases, the ones that Price thinks of as the organization’s Easter and Christmas Masses, when an expanded audience of curiosity seekers joins the faithful: In January there’s Top Shelf, the one competition show on the roster, featuring the year’s eight best stories as chosen by a panel of veteran storytellers and guest judges. (Disclosure: I’ve been one.) Sucker for Love, focusing on tales of sex and romance, follows around Valentine’s Day. Out/Spoken highlights stories from the queer community during Pride weekend. And My So-Called Jewish Life, at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is in December.
For these big shows, there are more rehearsals, sometimes as many as half a dozen. But it’s still possible for first-timers to make the cut.
Garibaldi says it’s been her experience that women are more likely to sign up for classes, while men tend to pitch stories for the Tuesday shows without training. “The feminist in me wants to say, ‘Well, women want to do things right,’” she says. “But the more cynical side of me says, ‘Maybe guys are just braver!’ Or more economical, because the class does cost.” Getting a pitch accepted for the Tuesday show gets you the benefit of coaching without the bill. (A six-week session of Storytelling 101 costs $395.)
Garibaldi encourages newbies to choose pieces set in a specific time and place with a clear progression of incident. But as your acumen increases, the need for a plot to hook the audience and create tension melts away. She cites humorist David Sedaris as a master who can spin an absorbing yarn in which almost nothing happens. “It’s a much more advanced skill, to make a story out of very little and have it all be in your head.”
Of course, few of us can be David Sedaris. Stage storytelling—as distinct from standup—is a vocation, but it’s not a living. My childhood friend Jeff Simmeron won several Moth StorySLAM contests before deciding to shift his focus from storytelling to stand-up comedy. He recorded his debut album at Black Cat last December. Comedy, he and Moth senior producer Jennifer Hixson tell me, is much more competitive, because there’s a chance—however remote—of actually making money at it.
At the final class of the Storytelling 101 session, everyone is in a good mood.
Casey John, the first to perform, recently relocated from New York. She’d wanted to try storytelling for a while, but was put off by the competitive element of The Moth. Story District seemed like a good fit.
Shafaq Choudry says her job as an urban planner requires her to speak in public sometimes, and she wants be better at it. She doesn’t like what she calls the “monotone” quality she hears in her voice in these engagements. But she also was attracted by the opportunity to tell “more creative, raw, vulnerable, personal stories.”
Chancellor Gaffney, who’s here tonight as an audience member, not a performer, made his storytelling debut in the 2014 installment of Sucker for Love at the 9:30 Club. He’s an auditor and his job doesn’t offer him a lot of opportunities for creative expression, he says. He saw the benefit of the method when he told a story based on his experiences working as a nude model in college. “I had about ten seconds of material,” he says. At parties, it killed. He’d say he’d been a model and people would laugh.
“And Stephanie was like, ‘And then what happened?’” he says. It was Garibaldi’s patient, probing interrogation that helped him turn 10 seconds into seven compelling minutes.
Derek Hills has performed on more than 100 occasions since he told his first story in 2009. He built up to No Sex, Please, a feature-length monologue in the 2013 Capital Fringe. (Hills, a pal of mine, wrote about the process of creating his show for City Paper that year.) In recent years, he’s channeled his creative energies into playwriting while continuing to serve on the panel that selects Top Shelf finalists, whittling roughly 40 candidates Saidman chooses down to 16, then to eight.
He says that when the competition gets toughest, the panel tends to favor performers who demonstrate the best understanding of storytelling structure, even if they’re not the most naturally gifted artists. “There are so many people who have amazing stage presence and who are super hilarious, that just don’t nail the beginning-middle-end arc that elevates the tale into something—and I don’t want to overstate this—transcendent,” he says. “So we might choose someone who told a less entertaining story, but who hit those marks that really embody the form in a fuller way.” Humor doesn’t necessarily trump every other consideration.
He recalls clearly that it was after his sixth performance that “I stopped feeling like I was the man, just for having done it.” Prior to that, each outing brought a sense of euphoria in the moment, even if a review of the video later revealed he hadn’t quite done as well as he believed he’d done at the time.
“I never get it back unless I have actually done a good job,” he says. As with exercising or learning an instrument, diminishing returns are a part of the struggle. “It’s really easy to become a mediocre-to-good storyteller,” says Hills. “It’s very hard to become a great storyteller.”
How to sustain their skills remains an ongoing challenge for veterans like him and Price.
Price says even his students are vulnerable to a sophomore slump. Their first story feels like a total triumph, so they go into their follow-up with inflated expectations. “It’s almost never as good as their first,” Price says. “And then they get discouraged and stop.”
While Price says that storytelling has been a boon to him personally, he’s not sure where Story District can go from here. Actors and comedians have some kind of career track. Storytellers don’t. His own observation is that D.C.’s performing community is becoming more siloed, with less cross-pollination than when he got involved.
Saidman used to think she eventually wanted to buy a building, the way theatre companies announce their permanence, sometimes after decades as tenants. But now she’s not so sure. To her, Story District’s legacy will be the thousands of stories that have been told and heard on their stages, even if those stages have had no fixed address. Her current lease runs through 2019. It’s a good space for classes and can accommodate up to 50 for performances.
After all, there was a time when 50 would’ve been a triumph. But things have changed.