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  • Loren Niemi

A Birthday Review


Today marks my 75th birthday. If you will indulge me, I’ll make a few observations on my life so far and my intentions going forward. If you won’t, stop reading now and do something useful, like early voting.


It has been 57 years since I graduated from high school intent on creating a different life, and “what a long strange trip it’s been” as the Grateful Dead would sing. It has included seven years as a Christian Brother (Catholic religious teaching order) divided into five years of formation and two years before they tossed me out. The gist of this portion of my life has been shared in “Bad Brother” my autobiographical performance focused on the late ‘60’s and the trial of the Milwaukee 14 for burning draft files. It is now supplemented by “A Breviary for the Lost” which was published this summer and is an intimate poetic memoir that covers my life in the Order and something of what came after.


Overlapping that period are three years in Winona working with juvenile justice offenders and living on the broke down farm with Gregory and Michael. That was followed by the four years of my first marriage to Lauren and working for the City of Minneapolis. First as a community organizer and then as manager of Arts Commission projects, creating Artspace Developers, and the rehabilitation of the Southern Theater and Hennepin Center and the beginning of 43 years of friendship with artist and cultural catalyst, Melisande Charles.


It has been 44 years since I pledged my troth to storytelling and have been more faithful to it than to wives, girlfriends or employment. Once declared, I could see how I had been prepared for the life of a storyteller without knowing it. A yearlong residency in Duluth observing, documenting and commenting on the culture of Northern Minnesota and another year serving as the ringmaster for In the Heart of the Beast’s Circle of Water Circus, confirmed my path. That tour was the origin of 25 years of working with Kevin Kling and Michael Sommers, as Bad Jazz, a performance art trio offering up music, stories, suitcase theater and some passable tap dancing. Both of those years have produced a wealth of stories, some of which have been told.


What followed was 10 years of arts in education residencies in five states, the start of 26 years of teaching storytelling at Metro State University, getting a Masters degree from Hamline University, 12 years of a second marriage with Nicole (including the birth and death of my daughter, Hannah) and development stints raising funds at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and St. Stephens church, school and homeless shelter, before taking the Elliot Park neighborhood through a Detox crisis and NRP (Neighborhood Redevelopment Program) followed. All good. All fodder for the telling.


In 1998, I was awarded a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship. moved to Chicago and began 12 years of public policy advocacy work with BIPOC, immigrant and “low wealth” communities. First with David Hunt and later with James Trice. It was still storytelling, but more nuanced and focused on how stories change lives and organizations.


In 2010, I returned to In the Heart of the Beast with a charge from the Board of Directors to “sustain it”. In spite of my (or our) efforts, the Mayday Parade and Festival proved to be intractable and four years later the Board sent me packing. It is a story of good intentions and incremental failure that I might tell someday.


In parallel, I have been doing poetry and story slams since 1995. Enough of them so I have lost count of the many first, second or third placements and instead think of it as a way to play with the audience, to test new and revised material. I also would note that in 1998, I was on the first Minnesota slam team with Diego Vazquez, Bao Phi, Kate Peterson and (the late great wild Irishman) Patrick McKinnon to go to the national poetry slam competition in Austin, TX. In 1995 I also began telling stories on Fringe Festival stages, and at this point have done 32 festivals in 7 cities. While I have done Fringes with Elysabeth Ashe, Colleen Kruse, Paula Nancarrow, Laura Packer, Megan Wells, and Diane Wyzga, Howard Lieberman has been my performing partner for 18 of them. We’ve been accused of being a more aggressively political and rougher language version of Abbot ‘n’ Costello., though we both know “Who’s on first and What’s on second.”


Gwaad, that’s a lot. Plus, involvement with storytelling organizations – Story Arts Minnesota as the local supporter of the art, Northlands Storytelling Network as the Regional and the National Storytelling Network. I was responsible for the incorporation of Northlands and for seven years, served as the host of the late night, “Cocktails for the Wicked”. I have been on the Board and Chair of the national organization twice. The fact is that since I believe there needs to be a continuum of local, regional and national support for the widest possible definition of the art form and the artists that practice it, I’ve put time and money where my mouth is.


Then there are the books. The seminal, “Inviting the Wolf in: Thinking about Difficult Stories” co-authored with Elizabeth Ellis and the workshops that followed. The compendium of my teaching story with “The New Book of Plots” and “Point of View and the Emotional Arc of Stories” that was co-authored with Nancy Donoval. “What Haunts Us”, the 2020 Midwest Book award winner for “Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Horror / Paranormal” fiction and the just published “A Breviary for the Lost”, my poetic memoir of religious life and its aftermath which brings me full circle to where I started.


All of it stories, and many of them worth the telling.


And the future?


Just prior to the Pandemic, I met Christine (aka The Christine) and we’re doing just fine, thank you. As a response to the loss of work and forced idleness of Covid, we founded the American School of Storytelling. Online classes with a bias towards oral narrative and a scope that includes traditional, personal, oral historical and poetry/spoken word. Joining me are some fine teachers – Laura Packer, Diane Edgecomb, Jack Zipes – who have something extraordinary to offer and faith in the future of the school. It has been primarily Zoom classes but in 2023 we intend to add in-person classes, workshops and performances here in the Twin Cities and when we can, in your community.


I am looking for an agent and a publisher to get a novel, “Circus Rex” into bookstores next year. It is a combination of factual stories slightly fictionalized to protect the guilty rising from that 1983 Circle of Water Circus tour and the mythology underpinning those 25 years of Bad Jazz performances.


I am looking for a gallery to hold an exhibition of Polaroid photographs shot by Melisande Charles and myself of our travels together drawn from the hundreds of her images I was given by her daughters, Rachel and Justine, after her death and nearly 5000 of my own from those years of knowing each other.


I am looking to get back to touring both storytelling and Fringe Festivals. I am looking to do workshops and coaching with individuals or teams for conferences and organizations, as well as presentations/performances wherever anyone wants me, whether it is a storytelling / spoken word event, school, library, or church. I am ecumenical that way. It is all good. It is all the grace of language giving us an understanding of what it means to be human.


I am not dead yet. I am still (knock on my blockhead) in good health for a man who is old enough to qualify as old and cranky. I might be the first but I am trying not to be the other. If you are interested in any of this, and need more information or want to have me share a story, feel free to contact me.


Be well.