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TELL ME A STORY

What: West Side Stories

When: 7:30 p.m., first Wednesday of each month.

Where: Sonoma Portworks, 614 Second St., Petaluma

Cost: $8 in advance, available the first Friday of the month. Wine and port for sale by the glass.

Tickets: brownpapertickets.com, search West Side Stories Petaluma

Website: westsidestoriespetaluma.com

___

What: Do Tell Story Swap

When: 7 p.m., second Tuesday of each month

Where: First Congregational United Church of Christ, Friendship Hall, 2000 Humboldt St., Santa Rosa

Cost: Free, with a suggested donation of $3-$5. Snacks to share are appreciated.

Website: dotellstoryswap.org

___

Hidden Gems: Sonoma County's Summer Arts & Events


When West Side Stories held its 2015 GrandSlam competition at the Mystic Theatre in December, producers Dave and Juliet Pokorny expected a few hundred fans to show up to hear the all-star cast tell short personal stories.

But a half an hour before the show, the line had already snaked outside the Petaluma theater and around the block, and the event sold out all 450 seats.

“There’s a real audience out there for this,” said Juliet Pokorny. “With the personal narrative ... we feel connected to each other, and it helps that the stories are short. People are willing to tolerate anything for five minutes.”

Like cavemen gathered around the fire, the North Bay’s growing audience for storytelling enjoys the intimacy and the opportunity to connect with other humans who are willing to reveal their most vulnerable moments — stupid obsessions, gut-wrenching tragedies, embarrassing mishaps — all for a few giggles or tears.

“It’s so simple: you show up, you sit and you listen,” Juliet Pokorny said. “And you’re always learning, because you go places with people.”

Brandon Spars, a humanities teacher at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, got his start in storytelling at the Do Tell Story Swap in Santa Rosa, which also meets on a monthly basis but does not have a competitive format.

“This is a wonderful way to bring the generations together,” Spar said. “We enjoy the same stories for many of the same reasons. It brings the child out in all of us.”

After making a pilgrimage back to The Moth in Brooklyn (a national storytelling nonprofit that started in 1997), the Pokornys launched their own storytelling slam in Petaluma in 2010, holding it for the first two years at the Pelican Art Gallery.

Wry remarks

These days, the West Side Stories audience gathers on the first Wednesday of the month at Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma, where former stand-up comedian Dave Pokorny serves as the emcee, jump-starts the night with his own stories and peppers the down time between stories with wry remarks.

“He’s such a good emcee,” said Amanda McTigue of Petaluma, the 2013 and 2014 Grand Champion of West Side Stories. “Storytellers can tune the room, and some nights everybody is tired. He can pick it up or calm it down.”

Like The Moth, West Side Stories has a few key requirements: the stories must be true and original, told on stage without notes, and completed within a five-minute time limit.

Unlike The Moth, audience members serve as the judges each month, with the top teller earning $50 and bragging rights. (At the GrandSlam, a panel of judges selects the grand champion, who receives a trophy and a plaque.)

Prizes or not, local storytelling events are more about bringing people together than anything else.

“It really has developed into a community building event,” Dave Pokorny said. “People’s paths cross once a month, and then they get together after the show and have conversations on Facebook.”

Some of the storytellers only show up once. They have an important story to tell, and once they get it off their chest, never feel the need to come back.

“One woman told a story about her sister, who was in the building during 9/11 and called her in the last seconds before it collapsed,” Juliet Pokorny said. “Another woman had to tell the story of the best and worst day of her life. It was her graduation from high school. Her family went to a bar, and someone shot her father.”

TELL ME A STORY

What: West Side Stories

When: 7:30 p.m., first Wednesday of each month.

Where: Sonoma Portworks, 614 Second St., Petaluma

Cost: $8 in advance, available the first Friday of the month. Wine and port for sale by the glass.

Tickets: brownpapertickets.com, search West Side Stories Petaluma

Website: westsidestoriespetaluma.com

___

What: Do Tell Story Swap

When: 7 p.m., second Tuesday of each month

Where: First Congregational United Church of Christ, Friendship Hall, 2000 Humboldt St., Santa Rosa

Cost: Free, with a suggested donation of $3-$5. Snacks to share are appreciated.

Website: dotellstoryswap.org

___

Hidden Gems: Sonoma County's Summer Arts & Events

Redemptive ending

Then there are the regulars who come back whenever they cobble together a good story. During the 2015 GrandSlam, regular Bradford Rex told a story about a middle school shop class mishap with deadpan delivery, lightening it up with hilarious details and crafting a redemptive ending that circled back to his beginning.

“I don’t practice, but perhaps I should,” Rex said. “I picture the people involved and place them in the audience and just retell the story as I would if I were back east with my pals ... I rarely come out well in the telling.”

Rex’s favorite stories are the ones that leave him “reeling in awe and fascination” but could have been told by someone sitting next to him on a plane or at the DMV.

“I love the array of stories,” said Caryn Reading of Sonoma, co-owner of Sonoma Portworks. “Some people hone it and have a beginning middle and end. Others don’t get the craft of it, but they’re still sharing.”

Each evening begins with potential storytellers dropping their names into a hat. Pokorny picks out 10 names, and the tellers are off and running.

“What makes a story work is if it’s a personal story,” said storyteller Bill Reading of Sonoma, co-owner of Sonoma Portworks. “People get up on stage and tell things they would never tell in a more intimate setting. You get to know them so well.”

Each month has a theme. In February, it was “A Method to My Madness.” Pokorny started the evening with a story about his friends setting off bottle rockets in a movie theater. Others followed with a smorgasbord of tales, some mad, some methodical, many with aspects of both.

Losing nerve

While some tellers have experience getting up in front of people — West Side Stories 2015 champion Cara Wasden belongs to Toastmasters International, a public speaking nonprofit — others risk losing their nerve and their memory. But the listeners are generally forgiving.

“Audiences are always rooting for us, especially storytellers,” McTigue said. “They will go to the end of the world with you. They really want you to succeed.”

Spars, who performed a story in April for The Moth GrandSlam in San Francisco and won, said he hopes to be moved and to feel a real connection to the storyteller when it is his turn to be an audience member.

“I want to either laugh or fight back a tear or two,” he said. “It is a magic feeling. It is healing in so many ways.” Two of Spars’ Sonoma Academy students, seniors Elias Keen and Liam Kolling, now regularly attend the Do Tell Story Swap in Santa Rosa, which Spars describes as a supportive, nurturing environment. “My students felt inclined to take the stage at the second swap they attended,” he said.

The Do Tell Story Swap meets on the second Tuesday of each month at the First Congregational Church of Christ in Santa Rosa and is geared to teens and adults trying to hone their craft. The stories range from true tales to tall tales, and everything in between. The seven-minute time limit may be stretched when time allows.

“It’s a place to come and practice stories,” said Elaine Stanley, a professional storyteller who founded the group with a friend in 2010. “You can play with the story and see how you want to change it.”

Stories to hand down

At first, the Do Tell Story Swap audience came just to listen, but over time, many realized they also had a story to tell. Many took their stories home to share with their families.

“It’s kind of neat to have family stories that can be handed down,” Stanley said. “When told in story form, they flow and become alive and real, so they’re much easier to remember and recant.”

Stanley advises beginners to seek out stories that speak to them and demand to be told.

“As a teller, stories choose you,” she said. “Those are the ones you’ll tell the best.”

Each November, the Do Tell Story Swap hosts a free storytelling event called Tellabration! at Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center, sponsored by the Storytelling Association of California.

And West Side Stories in Petaluma has begun a grassroots effort to hold the first-ever Wine Country Storytelling Festival in downtown Petaluma, hopefully by fall 2017.

“There are so many different ways to tell a story,” Dave Pokorny said. “That’s why we want to do this festival.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.