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  • Loren Niemi

The Audience in the Room

I see that I missed an April post. Perhaps that can be forgiven as the last 12 days of April were spent “on the road.” with performances at the beginning and the end of that loop to South Carolina and back.



Over the last decade I have been pretty good about touring, anywhere from a week to two months at a time. Usually it is a mixture of performances booked in advance and chance encounters as I go there and back - house concerts, stopping in at some storytelling event, and hanging with my ilk. The pandemic cut short the 2020 tour, beginning with the City of Denton, TX closing the Tejas Storytelling Festival on the first of three scheduled days. We did what we could in that one day and then IO got on a plane and headed to the unknown. Everything that was on my calendar for April, May and the summer evaporated in the space of a week. Chances are that your experience was similar, and you and I were both faced with a sudden loss of income and the need to shift to on-line teaching and performance. I will admit it was a more difficult transition (at least emotionally) for me than I expected.


I was excited that in the post-vaccination Spring of 2022 I looked forward to in-person attendance at Northeast Storytelling’s Sharing the Fire and the Stone Soup Storytelling Festival with an online Fringe performance for the Northlands Storytelling Network. Not quite back to the tours of "before" but something, a start at getting to "live on stage".. As it happened the decision was made to have Sharing the Fire stay in a virtual format, which was personally disappointing as I dearly miss my New England storytelling ilk. It meant I would offer “Finding Gregory and Other Stories” online. It was a good performance but that essential vibe of being in the room with the audience that moves my work up a notch was missing.


The value of “being in the room” was clear to me at Stone Soup.


First off, it is a small and very low-key festival. Four featured tellers (Jessica Robinson, Terrel Shaw, Laura Deal and Janel Behm) and a slug of “New Voices” making their first appearance at the festival including Walk Belcher – Gary Buchanan – Bonnie Gardner – Natalie Jones – Teri Lott – Gwendolyn Napier – Mo Reynolds – Nancy Tolson and myself. Second, of Friday morning I went to the Woodruff High School with Walt and Mo, for a round robin of “who tells first” with three Choir classes of 20, 25 and 12 very polite students respectively. Attentive and nary a cell phone to be seen. When I asked them a question, they answered and I chose my stories accordingly. It felt like a good warm up for the next day’s work.


On Saturday, I told “Burning Down the Barn” in the morning New Voices section (link here: https://youtu.be/3bjIOcXbMlg?t=802 ) and “Memphis BBQ” in the afternoon Liar’s Contest. (link here: https://youtu.be/qMf645qicL4?t=2110). That one got my third place and $50. Someday I’ll have to write my memoir of both story and poetry Slams and Lairs contests, which I should entitle “Reliably Third” as I frequently finish in that spot.


As an aside, it is not the size of the audience that matters, it is the hearing their breath and feeling the atmosphere in the room that energizes me. Tell to one, tell to thousand, I ready to enter the moment.


On Day 11 of the tour after stops in Richmond, VA, Brooklyn, NY and NJ and a slough across a Pennsylvania that seemed to be in road construction from end to end, I was in Peoria, IL for the Northlands Zoom performance. Three stories “Repunzel” (from the prince’s point of view), “Going Blind in Religion Class” and “A Roll of the Dice” that felt as relaxed in the telling as anything I have done online. Each of them about loss and what comes after. And yet, I was well aware that I was in a room by myself and the only breath I heard was my own.


I am scheduled to go to the Canadian National Storytelling Conference on Vancouver Island, B.C. at the end of May to do a master class with Elizabeth Ellis, a workshop of my own on the frisson between plot and point of view and a concert performance with Elizabeth, Noa Baum and Rubena Sinha, who has an extensive repertoire of Southeast Asian stories. (https://www.storytellers-conteurs.ca/en/conference/conference-2022-parksville.html) Excited? Yup, even though it requires multiple airlines and a 5 hour layover in Calgary. If you have time, you should come.


Then in June, two nights (Fridays, the 3rd and 10th) I'm at the Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret with Howard Lieberman, performing our Fringe show, “How Do You Read Me?”. Yes, it's 10 PM but we promise to have new stories for those who can stay up that late. Stories of gender fluidity, assumptions and what it takes to claim one’s own self. More details on that as they are confirmed.


Let me close this out with a direct ask: if you are the producer of a festival or storytelling series (on line or in person) I an happy to participate and willing to travel. I’m looking for dates in September and November of this year, and any time in 2023 and 2024. You folks doing things nearby: Chicago venues? Fox Valley?? La Crosse? Winona for the 2nd year of the Sandbar Festival?

You folks across the country: Bay Area Festival? Ojai? The Forest Festival? George West? Buffalo Commons or Moonshell Festival? Those festivals I did in the long-ago I’d love to come back to: The Ark Storytelling Festival? Toronto? Florida Storytelling Camp? Rocky Mountain Storytellers Conference?


I am as good, better even, as a teller than I was a decade ago. My repertoire of contemporary, traditional and ghost stories is large and diverse enough for every kind of audience. The only fly in this return to touring ointment is that I am getting older and at some point, will no longer be able to tour. It’s a sad truth that I and many of my contemporaries will pass from the stage and I want to do as much as I can while I still can. Right now, that is still possible.


Be well.