I did Two Chairs Telling for 25 years and still do it now and again upon request.
On the positive side, it was such a pleasure to put two people who had “narrative” in common side by side on a stage and let them have at it for 90 minutes. What? Telling stories that were not part of their usual repertoire that rose from listening to each other, then telling stories that were brought to mind by what the other told or their conversation. And when I say “narrative” I mean that one of them was always a storyteller as such but the other might not be. I had a bevy of musicians, politicians, ministers, reporters, lawyers, journalists and a therapist or two sitting in the second chair but whoever it was, the crafting of narrative was part of their world. It has been 216 people over the course of 164 performances.
When it worked it was magical and it worked more often than not. To see two performers delight in each other’s company, talk about common roots or themes, or reach inside to be more personal and more intimate than they are on a festival stage was to see a moment that was more than the sum of the parts. When it didn’t work and I witnessed a train wreck about once every other year, even then there was a lesson to be learned within the cringe worthy thought of “Why in God’s name would they say that or tell that story?”
On the negative side, finding the pairings, scheduling 8-10 shows a year, getting the out of town folks here, and of course, financing the whole thing with a combination of grants, contributions and the ticket sales that were never quite enough to break even, much less turn a profit, was exhausting.
So having done that and taken a step back I was recently asked why I am starting again - producing “Stories Now and Then” - as a new storytelling series. There are four reasons.
First, I miss bringing nationally known tellers to the Twin Cities in the context of an intimate venue, and to that end, a partnership with Open Eye Figure Theatre with its 90 seats and jewel box acoustics is the right venue. It might be thought of, as Paula Nancarrow said, “Bringing the Jonesborough Festival to Minneapolis, one teller at a time.”
Second, I want to provide a counter to the slam AKA “Moth” style of 5 minute snapshots in favor of providing a space for long form stories and performances with content and depth. There are a lot of tellers who do beautiful five-minute stories and venues for those performances. In the case of Cheap Theater or Richard Rosseau’s Coffee Benne series time to stretch out for 15 or 20 minutes. There are not venues, at least in the Twin Cities or many other places outside of Festivals, where you can tell a hour long traditional story or explore a complex theme. If that is the need, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t make that possible.
Third, I want to create a space where tellers can tell the same story multiple times in a row to see what works, where the variations appear and how different audiences respond to the material from one performance to the next. In the last two weeks when Dovie Thomason and Megan Wells so graciously agreed to inaugurate “Stories Now and Then” they both testified to the joy on being able to do just that.
Finally, doing this twice a year in spring and fall for one or two weekends each time is manageable. Though the problems of how to finance it, how to build an audience, and how to get the jaded newspaper/radio/television media to take it seriously enough to help publicize it are still there, the time frame for solving them is easier.
So for the last two weekends the first “Stories Now and Then” rolled out. I will say right off the top that the audiences were small but several people came more than once and were rewarded for that. How so? Weekend one had Dovie Thomason doing “Space Cadet” which mixed traditional star stories, the influence of “Forbidden Planet”, being a consultant for NASA and a wicked riff on Elon Musk’s wanting to “colonize” Mars. Each night she was paired with a second storyteller – Debra Ting telling the life of Edgar Alan Poe from the raven’s view, Howard Lieberman’s intense “Death Camp Dairies” an exploration of what it means to be an agnostic secular Jew at Auschwitz and my own telling of “Finding Gregory” a new piece that is both a portrait of an friend and a meditation of memory and grief in the presence of Alzheimer’s. The second weekend Megan Wells was also paired each performance and offered a delicious theatrical telling of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. One night you might come to see Dovie and myself and then if you came again the next weekend you could catch Megan and Debra.
Here’s the thing, that even as disparate as the pairings might seem, each time there was an echo from one to another. Sometimes one story seemed a commentary on the other and at other times they offered layers of connection around larger themes – how a story gives insight to what it means to be human or how different styles of telling invite the audience into emotional truth – as examples. Every performance did what I most want this series to do: bring the audience into a moment that is such a particular gift in time and place that even if you came back to hear any of those stories again, it would be a different joy.
Forward. I may be a fool but having done this first one, I feel committed to producing it. I have a list of tellers I want to bring to “Stories Now and Then” and as I work out dates with Open Eye I have every intention of finding the financial support for the series and filling the dates. More on how this rolls out as new is available.
I suppose there are other things I could talk about on this day after the Equinox. Climate collapse and why anyone in their “right” mind would buy beachfront property. The beauty of Greta’s “How dare you” speech to the UN. Her plainspoken anger and the truth she offered deserves to be heard for the clarion call it is. The rising tide of support for common sense gun control, Medicare for all, dealing with housing, reimagining work, student debt, all those issues that Democrats need to be as honest about as Greta is. Two thirds of the population is ready for what Republicans call “socialism” – for real solutions to the problems that are symptoms of inequity and will once more build the opportunities and communities that so many think we have lost. There will be time enough for that conversation as the next election cycle picks up speed and vitriol.
I’m going to finish this now with a wish that you, my friends, will be well. Life is short and death is nearer than most of us care to consider. I’ve said it before, but like the turning of the season, there is joy to be found in the wobble of the world. There are gifts in twilight, in that small moment between the waning day and coming dark. Be here now with an attitude of gratitude.