How storytelling feeds our craving for connection and social change.
July/August Issue 2012 | Diane Daniel
Pixie Windsor knows what it feels like to happen upon a murder scene, to be treated too sympathetically when you’re in a wheelchair, or to suffer silently as your co-worker takes a fall for you because you’re too terrified to admit you’re gay. She hasn’t lived through those experiences, but feels she has after hearing those stories unfold onstage at SpeakeasyDC, one of the dozens of live storytelling events across the country and beyond.
“I love it that they’re true stories and they take me into worlds I know nothing about. They’re very thought-provoking and raw and real. No airbrushing or glitz,” says Windsor, a Washington, D.C., resident and store owner who’s been going to Speakeasy events every month since they started in 1997. “The audience and the speakers are very diverse—different age groups, races, socioeconomic levels. But we have this one thing in common: stories.”
As Windsor can attest—she has to arrive more than an hour early to snag a good seat—more and more people crave the human connection and universal truths found in personal narratives and the chance to share experiences, advocate for change and understand ourselves better. And scientific studies show the effects of storytelling to be physiological as well as emotional.
The burgeoning storytelling scene is “a reflection of our culture,” says Jimmy Neil Smith, director of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. “We’ve moved from traditional performance, where only the professionals tell stories, to a more participatory event. It builds on what was already there: a recognition that we all have stories. We live our lives in a network of stories, and all stories matter. We’re seeing a significant growth in storytelling, both in performance as well as in application out in the world to help us create a better life and a better place.”
Smith became instrumental in reviving the art of performance storytelling when the International Storytelling Center staged what he says was the country’s first storytelling festival, 40 years ago. Nowadays he’s seeing fewer people interested in the more wholesome nostalgia-driven stories of the recent past and a sharp increase in grittier, contemporary tales. “As one of my storytellers said, ‘The story revival is over. The story revolution has begun.’”
Undisputedly leading the revolution is The Moth, the 15-year-old nonprofit storytelling organization based in New York City that inspired SpeakeasyDC and, more recently, an avalanche of others. It produces a long list of events: frequent live shows, The Moth Radio Hour (heard on more than 250 public radio stations) and a series of podcasts. The podcasts, which started in 2008, are downloaded about 1.2 million times every month to computers around the world.
“The Moth is a place for raconteurs, but we’re also dedicated to finding people who don’t think of themselves as storytellers but who have a story to be told,” says Sarah Austin Jenness, a Moth producer for seven years. “Unearthing stories is a huge part of our mission.”
Tellers at The Moth—and elsewhere, typically—follow a few important rules. Stories must be true, told within a time limit, told without notes and consistent with the wide-ranging topic of the evening (among recent themes: ancestors, pride, reunion, family gatherings). Also, stories should have a beginning, middle and end. “We don’t want riffs or stand-up comedy,” Jenness says. “We want challenges, vulnerability, transformation.”
In what’s called Moth Mainstage, all storytellers, celebrity and novice, are professionally directed in advance by Moth producers. Tellers in the Moth StorySLAM, on the other hand, get no directorial assistance. The slam, which debuted in 2001, is a competitive open-mic event where tellers’ names are drawn from a hat. Judges, chosen in advance from the audience, give scores for each story. The Moth has spread its wings to add slams in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh and Louisville, Kentucky, with more on the way.
Regardless of the platform, audiences open their minds and arms, Jenness says. “The stories help us to connect in other ways we might not, to see the world through different eyes, to be more tolerant. People gasp, people applaud, people cry and then they laugh themselves out of their chairs. Moth audiences are giving and accepting, especially if tellers take a chance and show a real piece of themselves.”
While old-fashioned storytelling may be at the heart of The Moth, technology—and also perhaps a backlash against it—is behind its growth. Even before Moth podcasts and Radio Hour, its performances could be heard on This American Life, the story-based radio program created in 1995 by Ira Glass out of WBEZ in Chicago. Many point to that show as the beginning of a new era in storytelling. (This American Life usually sits at the top of the iTunes podcast chart, averaging three million downloads a month.)
But beyond the sheer dissemination of story, something else modern is at play, observes Jay Allison, a career “story enthusiast” and freelance broadcast journalist based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Allison co-produces The Moth Radio Hour, was the creator of the National Public Radio series This I Believe and recently launched a storytelling radio class through his organization Atlantic Public Media.
“Listening to stories on the radio or podcast is enormously appealing to a population that wants to do more than one thing at a time,” he says. “Without losing too much of your attention, you can wash the dishes and listen closely, you can take a walk and listen closely.”
But an opposite force is at play too, he says. “I have this feeling that we want to listen to each other more, partly because our media diet is utterly fragmented and predigested and overproduced and glitzy and manipulated—and then we start to feel like that. It’s like we’re lacking a vitamin, the human connection,” he says. “So we go to The Moth and we stand in line and the listeners buoy up the storytellers. It’s such a direct exchange, and a primitive one.”
Indeed, the story impulse is embedded in humans, says scientist and storyteller Kendall Haven, whose 2007 book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story examines the effects of story across many disciplines. “Your brain is hardwired to make sense in terms of story,” says Haven, based in Fulton, California. “Research has shown that when information is given to you in story form, you’ll remember it more readily and accurately. Every culture that has been studied uses that same story structure and same core elements.”
Our brains also are hardwired to connect to other humans through story, according to a 2010 Princeton University study. MRI scans have shown stimulation in the same brain areas for the teller and the listener, a correlation that could prompt a deeper understanding between teller and listener. On a neurological level, we really do feel the storyteller’s pain…and joy and grief and hope. Haven cautions, though, that most studies lack a rigorous definition of story, which might cloud conclusions. (He defines story as “a detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.”)
One project he recently started working on is a four-year program called Narrative Networks, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Defense Department. DARPA will analyze how stories work on humans neurologically and chemically, how they influence people and how stories can be shared and controlled in a security context—otherwise known as propaganda. “DARPA will look in far greater detail and a far more comprehensive nature than anyone before at the interaction of the physical, neurological, cognitive and chemical reactions of story on the human mind,” says Haven. “My question is, Will it improve in any way on how to construct and use effective stories?”
Just as the government wants to understand and harness the power of story, so too do advocacy groups and corporations. Studies within the past five years have given them more reason. One, by University of Oregon professor Paul Slovic, showed that the rate of sympathy and willingness to donate to a cause is much higher when one person in a group is identified, but not the group as a whole. We can identify more with a person than a culture, a country or a planet. This phenomenon, which has been referred to as “psychophysical numbing,” makes less personal issues, such as global warming, difficult to advocate for. “The risks of global climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss cannot be conveyed without presenting quantitative data—and yet these contemporary environmental phenomena can have little visceral, emotional meaning for the public unless they are also presented by way of stories and images,” Slovic says.
Wharton School marketing professor Deborah Small, working with Slovic and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, found that when statistics enter a story, the audience detaches from the emotional pull of the individual, meaning we respond less to data, no matter how conclusive, than to personal stories, which is why so many charities show a singular face, such as a starving child or a caged animal, in their appeals.
Because companies and organizations are more accustomed to relying on charts and statistics to get their points across, they’re turning to an ever-growing army of storytelling consultants to learn the tricks of the trade. Even The Moth has a corporate training arm. “That’s one of the programs that’s doubled in size in the past year,” Jenness says. “Businesses want to humanize, to tell their own stories.”
Terrence McNally, a Los Angeles–based consultant and radio host and a former actor and director, teaches nonprofits how to enhance their messages through story power. “Nonprofits usually have great stories, but they’re so in love with data that you don’t hear about the people,” McNally says, “though over the past five years that has started to change as storytelling evolves.”
But even when groups are able to identify story material, they often don’t know how to impart it, says McNally, who during presentations frequently cites radio host Ira Glass’s explanation of story structure: “This happened, and then this happened and then this happened, and this is what it means.” McNally tells his clients their stories must include “at least one flesh-and-blood character, scenes where people are exchanging dialogue and a question that gets answered or something that changes.”
Judith Stavisky, executive director of Philadelphia-based Friends of the Children, took McNally’s lessons to heart when she told a 200-person audience about a boy in her national organization’s mentorship service whose family had rejected him but who found acceptance and self-confidence through his school’s wrestling program.
“I always start with a story about one of our kids, but this one story was one I worked on a lot with [McNally],” Stavisky says. “I didn’t waste a lot of words, and I used words that conjured up pictures. The boy I talked about had had many sad things happen to him, but at the end there was hope and optimism. People were so inspired by his story that at the end they stood up and clapped. They were rooting for him. That had never happened before. I was astonished and quite moved.”
Another organization, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Raleigh, North Carolina, altered plans for its annual public event after the director went to The Monti, a regional live storytelling production patterned after The Moth. “We usually bring in a national sustainable-agriculture lecturer, but for 2011 we decided to honor our local heroes and were trying to figure out how to make the event more compelling and not the same old lecture,” CEFS director Nancy Creamer says. A colleague familiar with The Monti suggested that participants receive speaking tips from Monti founder and director Jeff Polish. Creamer wasn’t familiar with The Monti and went to a show.
“It really grabbed me; the stories touched my emotions,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, we could really do something personal like that with food systems,’ which was not what I had in mind initially at all. But I realized that if our speakers tell personal stories, it would help people connect with the issues, to hear through the eyes of people like farmers, chefs and laborers why we’re all engaged in this work.” What resulted was a collaboration between CEFS and The Monti to create a public food-themed event to be produced by Polish, who will coach the storytellers.
Along similar lines, The Moth and USA Network last year joined forces to produce “A More Perfect Union: Stories of Prejudice and Power,” a five-city tour in which storytellers shared experiences of facing bigotry or discrimination. Events were held within communities and at high schools.
The Moth also runs a year-round Community Education Program from its Manhattan base that teaches storytelling principles to students and disenfranchised adults in underserved neighborhoods, then shares those stories within the community and beyond, giving a platform to voices that would have gone unheard otherwise.
In Massachusetts, the storytelling organization massmouth goes into high schools to do similar work. “When the high schoolers begin to tell their stories it builds healthy and supportive communities. Students who hear the stories are amazed by them, and they reach out to students they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s really about them telling their own story before someone else tells it for them,” says massmouth co-founder Andrea Lovett. “One boy recently told a story about how when he was 14 he found out the person he thought was his mother was really his grandmother. Three days later he was on a plane to meet his mother. It was an amazing story.”
One long-standing organization adds a twist to the storytelling approach. Community Performance International (CPI), based in South Carolina, works with groups to elicit members’ stories and then turns the stories into theater productions that dozens of members of the community then act out. CPI has worked with neighborhoods, corporations and religious organizations.
Playwright Jules Corriere, along with local volunteers, interview participants, and from hundreds of pages of transcripts she writes the script, which CPI founder Richard Geer then directs. “If more than three or four people talk about the same thing, then I know there’s some heat around the subject,” says Corriere.
A recent production, Touch and Go by Celery Soup in Sanford, Florida, focused on community resilience and also touched on past racism. Sanford is the town where, in February, the black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a white neighborhood-watch volunteer who says the teenager attacked him. Martin was unarmed. Touch and Go was first performed in Sanford in 2010, and one of the play’s most memorable plotlines was the story of Claudia, a young black girl whose white best friend is forbidden from seeing her. In the end, as adults, they reconnect.
“We’ve had hurricanes and freezes, and the citrus and celery industries left, and they closed the Navy base, and a big fire burned down over half the city, but we’ve persevered,” says Trish McDonald, president of Creative Sanford, which commissioned and produced the work. “It’s really about community involvement, getting people to know each other on a more personal basis through their actual stories, people who are wealthy, poor, educated, not, black, white. It’s been an amazing experience. Storytelling has always been a healing process. The Trayvon Martin case has brought to the fore the need for sharing more of our stories moving forward.”
In Newport News, Virginia, Curt Holsopple credits his Mennonite community’s decadelong series of CPI performances, which ended in 2007, with bringing lasting change. “We were all working on this production, from different congregations, with two-year-olds and folks pushing 90, and we started understanding each other as real people. The fact that it was our own stories was crucial. The kids involved in the plays are now still involved in the church. Before that, we had been losing our children when they turned 18.”
Whether through theater or at individual storytelling events like The Moth and Speakeasy, the teller of a story can benefit as much as the audience, says Smith of the International Storytelling Center. “When you tap into your own stories, you understand better who you are,” he says.
Dan Sullivan of Washington, D.C., can attest to that. He told one of the tales that moved Speakeasy audience member Pixie Windsor. Sullivan’s story, both humorous and solemn, focused on the summer when he let his friend and office mate appear to be gay so Sullivan, then 19, wouldn’t be outed by a bigoted colleague.
“Through telling that story, I essentially finished a 17-year process of coming out of the closet,” says Sullivan. “I’d been afraid of rejection, but instead I found acceptance. I found that just telling my stories and being myself creates a connection. There’s something between the audience and the storyteller that’s palpable and real and engaging, and that creates something new. After the show, someone came up to me and said, ‘Your story made me laugh, and also at the end it made me cry.’ That is something real.”
What that something is, posits Polish of The Monti, is a form of love. “You have a room full of strangers, essentially, and when they want to share parts of their lives with each other, that’s meaningful. They don’t come in thinking that, but when someone tells a story in a vulnerable or authentic way, it’s an act of love. And if it’s working, the people in the audience are reminded of something in their own lives. That is a huge gift, from both sides.”
Diane Daniel is working up the nerve to take her stories from the page to the stage.