Back in the fall of 2017, when the stage storytelling organization Story District threw itself a 20th-anniversary celebration at the Lincoln Theatre, the event felt like a coronation. The group had started in a hazily recalled epoch when people remembered phone numbers, when they called each other to make plans, and when an evening of adults telling autobiographical stories for an audience of other adults was so exotic a concept as to require explanation (no, not stand-up; no, it isn’t a play; no, it’s not for children). By 2017, Story District had grown into a beloved fixture of the District’s performing arts ecosystem, selling 1,225 seats for the type of event to which, a dozen years earlier, “we would high-five one another if we got 50 people,” one staffer previously told City Paper.
This year, Story District’s 25th birthday party at the Lincoln Theatre will be less a coronation than a celebration of survival. In the Before Times, Story District put on a show—featuring a curated and well-rehearsed lineup of tale-spinners—every month for more than a decade, plus their annual, larger-venue “Top Shelf” gig featuring the best stories of the year. But with COVID-19, these types of gatherings became untenable. Figuring out when it was safe to congregate again became a contest of “outrace the variant,” says Amy Saidman, the group’s artistic executive director.
“It was—what do you call the game where you bang on their heads?” she says. “Whac-A-Mole!”
The group managed only two in-person shows (plus four virtual ones) in 2021. October’s big Lincoln Theatre event will be their second in-person show of 2022, after “Sucker for Love,” the love- and sex-themed showcase that they programmed around Valentine’s Day for a dozen years. This year, a late winter uptick in cases postponed “Sucker for Love” at the Miracle Theatre until April.
“We survived, in large part, because of extra federal and local funding,” Saidman says. With live shows off the table for the better part of two years, the organization doubled down on education. Support from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has allowed Saidman to hire and train a dozen new storytelling instructors, bringing the part-time teaching staff up to 13, its largest ever. While more advanced classes and shorter workshops are available, the entry-level Storytelling 101 class consists of six weekly two-hour sessions culminating in a storytelling performance to which students can invite whomever they like.
“Prior to COVID, there was a demand [for instruction] we weren’t meeting,” Saidman says. “We created our own monster. We created this appetite for storytelling.”
What distinguishes Story District from the Moth and other outfits in the raconteuring biz is its emphasis on refinement. It’s not about improvisation or competition, but about learning storytelling structure and rehearsing until your tale is as expressive or funny or heartbreaking or memorable as you can make it in seven or eight minutes. No one performs in a Story District show without rehearsal.
The eight storytellers who will perform Oct. 1 at the Lincoln are mostly veterans retelling old favorites that have killed in the past, though one performer, JR Denson, is new to Story District. Some, like Washington Post humor columnist and author/playwright Alexandra Petri, are onetime regulars making their return to the stage after an extended period away. Unusual for a Story District event, this time there’s no grand theme corralling these stories together. “I just wanted it to be a party,” says Saidman.
After the storytelling part of the evening, there will be dessert from Georgetown Cupcake and DJ Sugarpants (aka Story District senior trainer Scott C. Hollingsworth) will spin ’90s hits in the lobby.
Saidman says that, while the performers on the bill are all ringers, the time away from the stage has underscored for her the listening side of the storytelling ritual. As you listen, she explains, “you’re reflecting. What’s familiar, what’s unfamiliar in what I’m about to experience. And I think that, from conversations I’ve had, there has been some degree of self-reflection that happened during COVID. ‘What does matter to me? Who am I? What’s important?’ I think a well-told story explores that.”
Story District’s 25th Anniversary Performance starts at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 at Lincoln Theatre. storydistrict.org. $25.