Friday, March 30, 2012

What is this StorySlam stuff anyway?

My friend and fellow storyteller Andrew Panebianco convinced me to participate in the First Person Arts StorySlam back on March 12th. Despite suffering from an inconvenient and down-right evil headache that would last four days, I managed to construct and perform a story that netted me a ticket to the Grand Slam (as well as the Audience Favorite tag, something my ego quite enjoys). The Summer Grand Slam takes place at The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased here. I will be there, as will 9 other fantastic storytellers. It's a saturday night in May, so you have nothing better to do!

But what the heck are these Story Slams?

Essentially:

5 minutes + 1 true story inspired by the pre-determined topic + microphone + audience = Story Slam. 

There are three judges, randomly picked, who judge on content and performance. The entire audience gets to vote on their favorite storyteller of the evening. The judge's scores determine who gets to go to the Grand Slam, an event where the ten finalists get to compete for the title of Philadelphia's Best Storyteller.

The events take place at two different locations on an alternating basis: the World Cafe, over by UPenn, and Le'Etage a hip crepery/cabaret bar on Bainbridge (down by the fascinating putridity that is South Street).

But really, this is about 5 minutes + 1 true story + microphone + audience.

I'm not a non-fiction storyteller, in any professional sense. I started with fiction back in 2nd grade with a story called "My Trip to the Moon." It won the best story award, beating out everyone else in the 2nd grade classes. (I consider it my greatest achievement, since I also drew the pictures that went with the story.) I moved to poetry in HS, a natural move since I was full of anxiety and liked the way words sound. I returned to fiction in college, then went through a non-productive lull before earning an MFA in fiction as a last-ditch attempt to be a writer before I gave up and got a real job.

Still, telling stories is telling stories. In some ways it's harder to mold the truth into a story shape since life does not always offer beginnings, middles, and ends. Fiction lets you do all sorts of crazy things without concern. Nonfiction is flexible, but at the StorySlam events, there's an honor system. The stories being told are true. And it's a challenge to take the truth of my experience and shape it into a 5 minute story without violating that rule. Sure, the storytellers conflate, reduce, restructure, add dialogue, remove people. But no one is (or should be) telling fiction.

The topic on Tuesday was "Best Ever." Despite being full of all sorts of random stories, Andrew and I both found ourselves at a loss for stories that fit this topic. While walking from the train to L'Etage, though, we had a shared epiphany -- the topic was too good, too positive. We're not positive storytellers! We want to make people feel bad about the world and thus earn cheap emotional points! We want to tear people down, because it's really easy to bum people out. As that wise philosopher Homer Simpson said about the band Smashing Pumpkins: "Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel."*

[*EDIT: It might have been Bart or Lisa Simpson, actually. My memory for Simpsons quotes used to be better.]

To declare something the Best Ever was to affirm that the world had good things in it! At the very core of our being, we shuddered. Best Ever? The horror! The horror!

In addition, and perhaps less juvenile, the issue with the topic (for me) was that it kept pointing me to anecdotes not stories. And instead of putting my MFA and awesome storytelling brain to work, I kept retreating and declaring the topic to be crappy. Of course, the topic was just as good as any other -- it was meant to frame and inspire an evening's worth of stories and nothing more. All of the topics for the StorySlams are just suggestive enough to get people going. Duh.

So, we arrived at L'Etage with nothing.

Creperie Beaumonde is downstairs, L'Etage is upstairs. Either way, it's hip because it serves delicious crepes.
I had practiced my prior story 6 or 7 times; this time, I had spent the afternoon driving to and from work practicing stories that had no endings or, worse, no middles. But inspiration struck as I sat drinking one of the most normal tasting bar-sodas I've ever had (seriously, can bar soda be any worse? Only those of us who don't drink suffer from this issue, but it's an impotent issue). I'm not sure the soda had magic powers, but some alignment of the stars, the lighting, the soda, and Andrew's own anxieties about storytelling caused me to dredge up a story. A full-blown story -- beginning, middle, end. (Well, the end is a bit weak, but it feels enough like an ending.)

Left for a few moments to ponder the best ever things in my life and, after striking lines through sappy but truly best ever things like my son, my wife, my recent book deal, my dog, my sister, Radiohead concerts, etc. I realized I should just embrace my negativity and tell a story about how something that was supposed to be the Best Ever was in fact pretty mediocre and, thankfully, really weird.

I'm not a cynical jerk, I just can't change how I'm hardwired.

And at least we can all laugh together, right?

Enjoy my tale of the Best Ever Hotel that was not the best ever.