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Finding Storytelling Through Community And Voice
Walk out on stage, take a deep breath and start telling a story. When standing exposed beneath the spotlight, even though the house lights are dim, it’s still possible to make out faces in the audience. The seats are filled with both friends and strangers; they’re a community, whom by the end of the evening will have become confidants, secret-keepers, all possessing the joint knowledge of recollections shared. The people on both sides of the stage within the walls of the theater are participating in a storytelling series. Like open-mike nights and other types of performance-based, community-building events, storytelling seems to be building in popularity, even in a city that can seem as disparate and scattered as Los Angeles.
On the night that I claimed the role of storyteller and personally stepped out on stage, took a deep breath and started speaking, I was one of seven people who had each crafted a narrative based on a true story culled from personal life experience. SPARK Off Rose™ is the venue for this particular event; its home is the Powerhouse Theatre in Venice. Powerhouse is an unassuming building on quiet Second Street, merely only one block off Main. It’s only a few sun salutations distance away from the Exhale studio near the beach. While the Powerhouse hosts a variety of events, on the first Monday of every month since 2001, the group of producers (currently Jessica Tuck, Karin Gutman, Dave Connaughton, Alicia Sedwick, Margie Carter and Mark Betancourt) ignites an evening of storytelling for SPARK Off Rose™.
The night is reminiscent of the practice of trading narratives around the campfire, or passing around a diary or pulling someone aside, saying “Wait, did you hear,” or “I have to tell you…”Yet in our era of reality shows, 160-character Twitter updates, YouTube clips and Facebook postings, there is something about just standing up and reading that seems both anachronistic and necessary. SPARK Off Rose™ has no video cameras, no website, and when onstage, everyone just stands up and reads. And when they do, their voice projects and fills the space. There’s a human element to simply telling a story, live and in person, which is part of our experience in the world, part of the necessity of how we connect to each other.
On stage, the seven voices carry the weight of more than merely idle chatter; this isn’t an open mike night or improvisational theater. For each evening, the producers select an overarching theme, decided and announced months in advance. They collect the seven storytellers; they critique and help shape the stories. Everyone rehearses. Some people pitch a story that falls under the umbrella of the theme read after being captivated by the experience in the audience. Some people find their way on stage because they’re bursting with a story just waiting to be told. Others are recruited, invited or cajoled by the producers. Before reading onstage, though, everyone needs to spend some time in the SPARK Off Rose™ audience.
This is where the community develops, inside the theater. There’s a bond and an intimacy that is forged when someone reveals a truth. This is the case whether it’s a story dug up, dusted off and carefully restored that was never before seen. And it’s also the case for well-polished, often-told tales which enjoy the soft comfort of shirts frequently washed. In the shared moments of personal secrets passing from mouth to ear, we know something of each other. We trust by necessity. To preserve and enhance this connection, the experience includes a most ingenious component of SPARK Off Rose™: the outdoor post-performance reception. People sip on Groundwork coffee donated from the roasting company down the street (yes I bring my own mug), wine, soda or hot chocolate while nibbling on the highly anticipated peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, chocolate chip cookies, vegetables, crackers, cheese and dips. And then people talk, gathering in pairs, in groups, striking up conversations with complete strangers who are no longer strangers after sharing time in the theater. The ice has already been broken, top buttons undone, hair shaken down.
Whether the stories are heartbreaking (some are), sad to the point of initiating tears (some are), laugh-out-loud hilarious (some are), poignant (some are) or thought-provoking (all are), there’s something each of us can relate to in every one. And when we’re all mingling in the same courtyard, those who spoke and those who listened, there’s an excuse for all us to break through the invisible barriers between individuals and share something of our own life, to connect, relate, re-tell, whisper. In these conversations, we can confirm the fact that any feeling we have, someone else knows the taste of it. The first time I ever attended one of these evenings, more than a year ago now, I loved the reception as much as the stories.
As a writer, especially, I understand the desire to connect, to know somehow that the words make a difference. For that reason, I enjoy walking up to someone who has just poured their heart out through a story that they’ve pored over. I savor the details that provide texture to the backstory, or the part edited out or left behind. Even with my own predilection for this, I was still caught by surprise when people came up to me after I told my story to share the way they related to a word, a phrase, the whole thing. I was caught off guard as well, because the first few times I attended the evening, I didn’t dream that I would someday get up on stage. I was content to sit, to listen, to converse and to partake of the Monday night PB&Js. I acquiesced, though, due to the encouragement of producer, writer extraordinaire and skilled writing coach Karin Gutman, and the urgings of the other people I met over themes and drinks. I mulled over for the theme and the story for months, stumbled through the writing, cried and lost sleep and wrote and rewrote and rehearsed to capture an inflection and a pause. And then there was the night when I walked out on stage, took a deep breath and told a story.
The ongoing performances of Spark Off Rose™ are scheduled for the first Monday of every month (aside from July), beginning at 7:30 P.M. The admission fee is $10. Reservations are required, as the theater fills quickly. Call (310) 933 – 1461. To be added to the Spark Off Rose™ email list or with questions, write:
Upcoming themes: May 4: The Body; June 1: ‘80s TV Shows; August 3: Mothers; September 14: Crime; October 12: Risk; November 2: Hidden; December 7: Partnership; January 11: One; and February 1: Doubt.
To read Felicia M. Tomasko’s story from the November, 2008, Spark Off Rose™ evening (theme: Space), visit the LA YOGA website: layogamagazine.com and tell her what you think of the story.
Do you have an experience telling a story on stage? Share your thoughts with us at: