Storytelling events are on the rise in Sonoma County
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.
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.”
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.”