A speaker in a half-lit space tells an engaging story to a rapt audience. Wine is poured generously. It's one of mankind's oldest shared experiences — evolutionary scientists say we're hard-wired to share stories in groups, which rings true — after all, the ritual has likely been around as long as language itself.
Yet in a time of instant gratification media, with quick-cuts overwhelming narrative and focus-grouped plot breakdowns taking the place of personal storytelling, the appeal of hearing storytellers relate their experiences aloud to a rapt audience has lost some of its currency. There are exceptions to the rule — New York Times bestselling authors will never go wanting for an audience for their readings, and Chicago's uniquely supportive writing and publishing community guarantees a vibrant community for reading series, but the average Reality-TV-immersed individual would never dream of going to a public setting to hear writers tell their stories directly.
The basic fact is that the oral tradition gets short shrift nowadays. Blame TV, the Internet, video games — hell, blame mealy-mouthed Bukowski-ites who unload their rants on café audiences half-filled with the converted — but spoken storytelling may be in need of a bit more spice, a bit more excitement, and a fair amount more polish. Enter Serendipity Theater Collective's 2nd Story storytellers' series, which over the past five years has rehabilitated the storytelling tradition — one hilarious, heart-wrenching or excruciating tale at a time, with generous servings of wine to effectively lubricate the proceedings.
One of the contributing factors in 2nd Story's success is its seamless integration of two often-disparate artistic disciplines, introducing the theatrical principles of live performance to the experience of watching an author's reading. The series, which has taken place on the second story of Webster's Wine Bar for the past five years, draws nearly equally from individuals with a performance background and people with a strict writing background. Doing so, the series removes the author reading from its often-stodgy trappings and applies the production processes and aesthetics of theater to the readings. Storytellers workshop their stories with their peers over the course of three different collaborative readings, and are then paired with a director from a theater background who coaches the storyteller on how to most effectively deliver the work to an audience.
Artistic Director Amanda Delheimer, who has worked with the series for four of its past five years, explains that while the 2nd Story series has evolved into a multimedia salon for writers, performers and musicians, it didn't necessarily begin that way. She explains that Serendipity's founding member Adam Belcuore "used to work at Webster's, and got permission from the owners to do performances on the second floor. They got their start trying to adapt traditional theatrical performances and as the kickoff event organized an event where they had some cabaret performers and musicians and storytellers and found that the storytellers were much more successful in that particular space."
Though focusing on the interplay between writers and performers was not one of the initial concepts behind 2nd Story, the introduction of prolific Chicago writer Megan Stielstra introduced the writer's perspective to the performance series (Stielstra now serves as 2nd Story's Director of Story Development.) "She came in the second year of 2nd Story as a storyteller," Delheimer notes, "when most of the people at the time were of the theater ilk. Adam asked her to come in because she brought a performance aspect to her writing. I think based in Megan and mine's relationship is where the writer-theater dichotomy came in."
Despite the advantages in delivery that the performers can offer those entering from a writing background, Stielstra notes her writer's sensibility has also altered the way the series approaches the performance. "Actors are primarily are going to be using their voice and gestures, but the way the space is in Webster's, 40 percent of your audience can't see you visually," she says. "If you say ‘and then I did this,' half of your audience doesn't know what that is. So my mindframe is that all of that needs to be in the text." Delheimer adds, "the cross-pollination we're now actively persuing we've come upon serendipitously — sometimes it feels like an accident!"
The collaborative process that has emerged from Stielstra and Delheimer's cross-pollination of ideas has been instructive for performers and writers alike. Storyteller Ric Walker, an audience favorite, came into the series from a performance background. As performer in the Improvised Shakespeare Company, Walker had always entertained developing his writing skills beyond short stand-up bits and improvisational work. "My writing experience had been stand-up and short-form," he says, noting that developing stories for 2nd Story has "freed me up to touch serious subjects. It's given me an opportunity to find a voice as a writer and producer."
For author J. Adams Oaks, who approached 2nd Story from a strict writing background, the prospect of reading his work to a crowd was initially mortifying. "I had been actively avoiding having to read in public before joining 2nd Story," he says, reminiscing. "There is an infamous moment at Subterranean where I mumbled into a microphone for 10 minutes and almost hyperventilated." Oaks, who effuses "I've learned so much from those amazing people," notes that "the process is inspiring. Really. We've all evolved it each time we work on it, but the general idea seems to always be: where's the best story you can tell, why's it worth telling and what's the best way to do that?"
Oaks, whose novel Why I Fight will be published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, claims that his authorial voice has been influenced by the 2nd Story process. "My voice has chanced dramatically throughout the process because it forces you to really listen to how you tell stories, in your own unique voice, and then figure out how to get that down on the page. It may sound simple, but it's hard for many people to not try to be ‘writerly' or ‘performative' or create a persona rather than just be themselves and let the words do their job."
The bridging of these disciplines is an obvious distinguishing trait of 2nd Story to latch onto, but Stielstra is far more interested in the synthesis that has resulted among the storytellers and production team, and avoids drawing the performer/author distinction. "Last year we could have said ‘half of our people would call themselves writers and half of the people would call themselves actors, and the actors try to help the writers and back and forth.' Our goal is that we stop using those labels because we've all influenced each other enough that we can all be strong storytellers and there doesn't need to be that division."
To audience members, 2nd Story may be most effective due to its unique format, which fosters discussion among the audience first and foremost. The name, Delheimer notes, is a play on words — not only does the series take place on the second story of Webster's Wine Bar, but the ultimate goal of the series is "to get people to tell their story afterwards. That second story after each performance is what we're really trying to get at." The breezy pace of the proceedings facilitates such discussion — each story clocks in just short of 15 minutes, with a flight of wine delivered at the beginning of each story, fostering ample opportunity between stories (usually four in a night) for audience members to share those second stories.
"What everyone's trying to achieve is to get a conversation going," Walker says. "I did a story a couple of weeks ago and after the show, I had an opportunity to sit down with members of the audience and hear other people's stories that had come to mind. It was really gratifying — to think I had sparked this conversation among these people."
2nd Story is in a constant state of flux, and some of the producers' more ambitious long-term goals can at times seem daunting due to economic limitations. Touting a strong independent-minded vision, Delheimer and the fellow organizers avoid charging above $10 at the door or entering into sponsorship deals with corporate winemakers, inspired by Webster's sommelier Jeremy Quinn, who emphasizes supporting independent, non-corporate wineries. Endemic to this approach is the difficulties that face all organizations that strive to subsidize their creative projects without corporate interest.
"One of the debates we are continually having is around funding," says Delheimer. "Because everyone is a volunteer right now, it would be great for artists to make money doing their art, and one of the ways we can make money is obviously through ticket sales and through sponsorship. One of the things I've advocated for pretty stridently is keeping ticket prices low, so as not to create a classist or socioeconomic divide about seeing the art. I think the idea of sharing personal stories circles around making a personal connection and making sure we're dealing with human beings as opposed to large corporations who could give us lots of money, I'm sure, but could also come with lots of demands. I think it's important to create a place for that intimacy."
With the series constantly broadening its scope, there are plenty of immediate goals for the producers that are not so much economically demanding as they are philosophically. One of the recent initiatives has been to draw a wider and more diverse array of storytellers into the process, with the producers striving for a more balanced group of contributors, being sensitive to the storyteller's age, ethnic and cultural background, gender and sexual orientation. To Stielstra and Delheimer, one of the greatest goals for 2nd Story lies in exploring how individual's stories can highlight commonality among people from disparate cultural backgrounds.
Citing the definitive Stalin quote "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic," Stielstra notes that the experience of hearing individuals tell their stories humanizes the storytellers in a unique way that emphasizes similarities between the storytellers and the audience. "We see numbers flash on the news and say whatever, until we hear the people's individual stories," she says. "What made me want to be a writer — my favorite thing about stories and my favorite thing about literature — is what we learn about other people. To be able to put that kind of power into that immediate setting with an audience is really wonderful."
Yet despite a certain heft behind the constantly evolving 2nd Story philosophy, for the audience, the storytellers and the production team, the ultimate goal remains taking part in a buoyant, freewheeling and eclectic celebration of the storytelling tradition. For all of the broad concepts that inform and guide the series, Stielstra can break the 2nd Story experience down pretty simply: "we run a festival in bars where we craft stories that we tell to people that are drunk," she says. "How can you not have an awesome time doing that?"
2nd Story takes place the second Sunday of every month at Webster's Wine Bar, 1480 W. Webster Ave, with the next meeting on Sunday, August 12th at 7pm. The series adds a second monthly date on the fourth Wednesday of the month at Red Kiva, 1108 West Randolph St., beginning August 26th at 7pm. For more information, go to www.storiesandwine.com.