Down in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, echoes of chatter bounced around the tall ceilings of The Transept as guests filed in and settled down in seats among friends and strangers alike. A large candlelit chandelier hung above our heads, and tall, narrow panels of stained glass windows decorated the walls around us. At the back of the room, a full bar provided drinks for those of age. The audience -- a mixture of the elderly, middle-aged, teenagers and young children -- came dressed for a range of occasions; some were in full suits, others in jeans and sweaters.
At the top of the night, co-host Anne Saker took the stage wearing her purple glasses, the single gray streak on her left side a stark contrast against the rest of her shiny, black hair.
"What is tonight? I'll tell you what it's not," Saker told us. "It's not a TED Talk, it's not Toastmasters, it's a not a how-to tutorial, it's not an inspirational speech, or an educational lecture, or a powerpoint presentation. It's not even a sales pitch -- except, of course, for a subscription to the Cincinnati Enquirer."
The audience laughed as Saker gave a mischievous smile.
"What it is, is storytelling," she continued. "And storytelling is based on visiting. And you all know how to visit: You open your mind, you open your heart, and you pay attention to someone you want to know better, feel closer to."
This Feb. 26 event entitled, "Romance -- or Not," was my second time spending an evening with the Cincinnati Storytellers Project. The first time, I told my own story. The theme had been "Food and Family," so I told the story about finding out I was not Italian at a dinner in Italy with what I had thought was my long-lost Italian family (it turns out we are French; our great-great-great grandfather up and moved over the French Alps and resettled in Turin, Italy some two hundred years ago, apparently).
At the time, I treated it like I had treated presentations for speech team in high school. I was good at speech team. I won a lot of tournaments and competed at the state level my senior year. It was fun to rehearse my story and put together something to share with an audience. I've been performing for forever -- my parents met in acting school, so I had no chance of avoiding the theatre bug.
But storytelling, I found out, is not the same as performance.
As Saker mentioned, it's based on visiting. My parents use this term when we go to see my grandparents. "Well, that was a nice visit, don't you think?" my mom always says as all five of us load back into the minivan after an afternoon spent chatting with her parents. A visit: Time spent with loved ones, opening up to share with, and pay attention to, people who I want to feel closer with. Just as Saker said.
Before she called up the first speaker, Saker reminded the audience that this event would display a variety of storytellers: some polished, some conversational; some funny, others nuanced in comedy.
I settled into my seat, eager to have a nice visit with those who wanted to share.
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The storytellers of The Transept
The first storyteller, Amy, came onstage to the sound of encouraging applause. She wore a black dress with printed white flowers underneath a jean jacket. Her blue hair poked out from her black beanie, framing her face.
"I'm not the polished one," she said.
Amy, a chef by trade, captivated the audience with her intimate, quirky love story that took place in a restaurant kitchen. Amy said that she wasn't looking for romance; at the time, she was focused on her daughter, Ally, whom she referred to as the first love of her life. Then Eli came into the picture as a staff member in her kitchen -- handsome and tall, a good listener who had a similar story to Amy. Both were married and divorced at a young age, and now were raising their kids as single parents.
We would chat from time to time, but I was also in a relationship with the wrong -- I cannot stress that enough -- the wrong person. So when that just ended, Eli was there with a strong shoulder, to say all the right things and to just be absolutely wonderful. Two weeks later, we decided to go on what we now refer to as our "non-date." We went out for Korean food, we had drinks, we listened to live jazz, it was wonderful, and I was not ready for it. I was still kind of broken, and worse than that, I think Ally was too. So I told Eli, 'It's not the right time,' and he just patiently said, 'I can wait.'
It took Amy a long time to move on. Meanwhile, Eli didn't just wait around. He fought for her. He brought her gifts and told her to take all the time she needed. He was there for her. Amy said that she was overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness. Her hands punctuated poignant moments of the tale, enhancing her audio story into a live performance.
I start working at Red Brick Inn. A couple weeks after that I caught a horrible cold, one of those really ugly, ugly colds -- I should not have been at work. But he goes out every day and gets me hot and sour soup and leaves it on my desk. So this man that I'm not even dating goes out every day, because he remembered I had once said hot and sour soup can fix anything. And he gets it, on his own break, and leaves it for me. A couple weeks after that he got me this ceramic coffee travel mug, because I once told him that I'd love to drink coffee after I leave the house but I hate plastic travel mugs. So he, like, researched it and found one that fit my needs and got it for me. Now, don't get me wrong, I loved the gifts, it was wonderful, but to know that he listened and understood me was priceless.
I smiled. I knew what she meant. I think a lot of us did.
Eli slowly but surely became an integral part of Amy and Ally's lives. Ally was the one who actually convinced Amy to give Eli another chance in the romance department. A year after their non-date, they gave it another try, and Amy said everything after that came easy.
The audience seemed invested. When Amy mentioned Nicola's restaurant, two women sitting next to each other a couple of rows in front of me, one wearing an orange scarf and the other with blue glasses placed on top of her head, immediately turned to each other and nodded, sharing some silent, telepathic story of their own.
When Amy got to the climax of her story -- her engagement -- a collective "aw" came soaring up from the audience towards the stage.
"I know, right?" Amy agreed.
The story was no longer Amy's alone, but a shared experience intertwined with the related, unspoken stories of the audience.
After Amy came Dara, sporting large sparkly earrings and a shiny hair clip stuck in her black, curly hair. Her voice, with its drawl and strong pitch variety, marked a clear contrast from the rest of the speakers.
Dara started her story by going over the five must-have attributes that she looked for in a man: intelligence, compatibility, attractiveness, romance and consideration. This became her mantra, she told us. I immediately began thinking of what my five must-haves would be. As a college senior, it seems far-fetched that I might be able to find someone with even three of Dara's five at the frat parties and bar crawls that fill my current social calendar.
Dara met her now-husband, Ruben, at a Super Bowl party. He checked every box.
"There were two people in the room: Sharice, and this fine specimen of a man," she said of their first encounter. "Whoo! You hear me? Fine!"
The audience buzzed with laughter. Fairman had a few of those moments in which she knew she would get a good laugh from her audience. Each of those moments were punched with her own wide, white smile as she shared in the delight of reliving her and her husband's 15-year romance, which hasn't always been easy.
Dara and Ruben come from very different backgrounds. His mother was raised in Cuba, and he grew up in Jamaica.
"For real?" Dara remembers saying to him upon learning this information. "Stop the presses. You mean we -- being black folks -- speak Spanish? As a first language?"
Her family, on the other hand, has been in America for many generations, coming up from slavery and enduring the Civil War.
"We looked so much alike, yet our cultures are different," she said.
The first Valentine's Day they were together, he sent a dozen roses to her work. Seven days later, on her birthday, he sent her a CD filled with songs that reminded him of their relationship. After a year and a half of dating, they were engaged.
Our marriage counselor told us that marriage was like planning for a tropical vacation and getting off the plane and realizing it was a ski trip. They are both great vacations, just not what you planned. Ruben and I packed our bags for fun and sun in the Caribbean; the plane descended into the Swiss Alps. Yin and yang. The spreadsheet was created by Ruben to address all potential contingencies that would affect our lives until retirement. How much money each of us would make each year, the precise years that we would have our kids, our everything.
I chuckled along with the rest of the audience -- how could anyone plan so meticulously when life is so full of unexpected paths?
Dara was right along with us. A few years into their marriage, with two kids at home, Dara decided to be a stay-at-home mom.
As soon as I held Maxwell in my arms, I made the intuitive decision to become a stay-at-home mom. Notice I said "I," not "we." This decision decimated Ruben's beautiful spreadsheet. Our yin and yang was out of balance. An elephant was born into the room of our relationship: Elephant Tina. Elephant Tina played quietly in her corner as poor Ruben learned to live with the disappointment of missed income, and I learned to live with the disappointment of an unsupportive spouse.
Elephant Tina began to grow, Dara said. She recounted her daily routine of driving kids to and from school and their other activities, cleaning dishes, washing clothes, cooking dinner, helping with homework and averaging four hours of sleep per night.
I know this schedule. My own mother endured it for well over 10 years when she stayed home with my two sisters and I to look after us. I remember how tired she always was as a stay-at-home mom, and I realized how frustrated she must have been when my dad would complain about his long day at work. She had long days, too -- and she worked through those days without gaining a salary in return.
"I was doing everything. Everything!" Dara said. "I didn't complain. I suffered in silence."
Everything came to a head at Christmastime in 2017. The complaints and negativity set Dara off, and she said that Ruben listened in silence. The tension grew from there.
Both Dara and her husband stopped wearing their wedding rings. They decided to try marriage counseling, but that didn't have a lasting effect. When things seemed too desperate to go on, they began to have long, delicate conversations to save their marriage.
One moment, hour, day at a time, Dara said, they began to work together to figure things out.
"Marriage ain't easy, but it sure is fun," she said.
A single, understanding chuckle rang out from the crowd.
Unconventional yet universal
By the time Bonnie's low, soothing voice took over, I was deep into wondering: Why is it that people do this, tell stories to strangers? And, even more incredulously, why do other people come to watch and listen to stories from complete strangers? What is the draw?
Bonnie told of a non-traditional love story that led up to an unexpected punchline, for her at the time and for the audience in her retelling, as her then-boyfriend asked for her hand in marriage on a hunting trip in Athens, Ohio.
"Are you seriously asking me kneeling over a dead deer?" she remembered asking him. "You're an asshole."
Bonnie fell in love over archery lessons and hunting bucks. Her tale, though unconventional for a suburban Chicago girl like me, still had all of the elements of sensitivity and adrenaline that have permeated so many of my own run-ins with romance. She talked about the way he made her feel safe, and the thrill of learning something new with the one she loved so much.
"I trusted him, and I don't trust easily," she said with true vulnerability.
An audience-wide exhale overtook The Transept in the pause that followed.
Through her story, and my unexpected connection to it, I began to understand why the Storytellers Project and other events like it could draw in such big crowds. Even though I wasn't the one speaking, I felt seen and heard. I felt like my own experience wasn't so lonely after all. I felt connected.
A few weeks later, I ran into Bonnie at a journalism conference in Cleveland. I sat with her at lunch and told her how much I enjoyed her story. She was happy to talk about her experience, and just as delightful to listen to offstage as on.
Bonnie is a writer and storyteller by profession, and has told the story of falling in love with her husband through writing before in a 10,000-word essay. But this was different. She said that instead of painting the pictures with words, she had to transform the message to include gestures and facial expressions. She wanted the listeners to connect to her and to her story.
"If it's done right, a person in the audience stands next to you in the story," she said.
Instead of memorizing the words of her previously written text for her Storytellers performance, Feldkamp thought through her love story as scenes. She wanted to be able to feel present and conversational on the stage, so instead of reciting an essay, she chose to naturally tell the story in a more improvisational way.
"I know the story, because it's my story," she said.
Although some people refer to social media and the internet as the "new back fence," a place for neighborly gossip and conversation, Bonnie said she chooses to label the worldwide web as "the new road rage." She said that the best way to tap into empathy and understanding is not online, but in face-to-face interactions like she experienced at the Cincinnati Storytellers Project.
"People want to be heard," she said, "and they want to be validated."
Closing the night with popping the question and Fiona the hippo
The fourth speaker was Beryl Love, the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. His slicked-back gray-black curls, sports jacket and Apple Watch gave off an air of professionalism that contradicted his deeply personal story of addiction, grief and stumbling back into love.
He took us through a hard two years with his alcoholic wife, who eventually died of her disease. In the months that followed her death, he contemplated "how long" was appropriate to mourn before getting back out there. Eventually, Beryl's friends and family encouraged him to start dating again, and even his son began to chime in.
"One evening, out of the blue, when we were having dinner, he said to me, 'Dad, I think you need to get on Match,'" Beryl recalled. "And I looked at him like, 'First, how do you even know about Match?' And I guess I should be thankful that he didn't bring up Tinder."
The retelling of this memory with his son brought up laughs and sounds of surprise from the audience as they processed Beryl's journey through grief. The audience stayed with him through the next chapter of the story, in which he began to fall in love with someone new.
When it came time for the proposal, the crowd drew in a simultaneous breath and then let out squeals of outrage.
"I asked her those words at dinner with her parents there, and my son beside me ... and she didn't say yes," he said.
It didn't matter that there were over well over 150 people in the room. The level of attention and conversation shrunk the atmosphere to the size of that dining room table where he had popped the question in the first place.
The story ended on a happy note. Beryl's new love said "OK" instead of yes. After he finished telling their love story, Beryl headed straight to the bar clear on the other side of the room before rejoining his wife in their seats near the back of the audience.
Last in the lineup was Christina, the most polished of the storytellers. Her black blazer, glasses and straight brown hair emphasized her straightforward style. She told of how Fiona, the hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, brought out the best in their zookeepers, who traditionally don't like to work with people.
Christina is a mammal curator at the Cincinnati Zoo and was there the night that Fiona was born.
"I can best describe her as a watermelon-sized water balloon covered in snot and slime," she said of the hippo calf. "Literally impossible to pick up."
Christina's hands occasionally snuck out of her pockets to accompany important moments of her tale through gesture. She talked about her team of zookeepers and how they learned to work together to keep Fiona, who was born six to eight weeks prematurely, alive.
"She managed to be a teacher for us, and teach us animal people how to human, while she was learning how to hippo," she said.
This last line was greeted with a long applause as Saker mounted the stage once more to close out the evening.
Max Londberg, a reporter from the Enquirer seated in the last row to cover the event, looked up at the stage in amazement. He doesn't think he could ever get up onstage to tell one of his own stories.
"I can't do crowds," he said.
Cincy Stories makes storytellers look like celebrities
Seven days later and half a mile away, another storytelling event took place at the Woodward Theater. I was so excited to be out of my small college town and treating myself to a night of city entertainment. I blasted Taylor Swift in my Chevy Sonic the whole 45-minute drive down to Cincinnati.
When I got there, I was struck by the way the white electric guitar propped up by a large amp sitting at the center of the blue-lit stage gave the illusion of a rock concert about to begin. Was I in the right place?
Cincy Stories has a different vibe than the Cincinnati Storytellers Project; it's more relaxed and the element of music and merchandise being sold at the entrance made the performers seem like doted-upon celebrities ready to perform one-hit wonders rather than average Joes and Janes with simple stories to tell.
I went to a table selling T-shirts by the front door and asked if anyone knew where Shawn Braley, one the co-founders of Cincy Stories, might be.
I was directed to a man wearing a flannel and holding a beer by the bar. Braley has a kind face that matches his gentle voice and friendly demeanor. I couldn't help but like him right away.
With one minute until go-time, nobody seemed to be in a rush. Half of the audience still lingered by the bar, placing drink orders and chatting with friends, sporting casual attire and warm hats, gloves and scarves leftover from walks to the theatre in the 13-degree weather.
Three musicians -- one drummer with flippy hair and a coffee to-go cup, a bassist in a blue button-up shirt and a female singer with her guitar -- came onto the old-timey, gaudy, golden-framed stage as the program began well after 7 p.m. The singer started the jam session with a "Hello, welcome to Cincy Stories."
After a couple of songs followed by an introduction by Braley and Chris Ashwell, the two enthusiastic founders of Cincy Stories, the stories began. The same collective listening and intensity that had settled over the couple-hundred audience members at The Transept came over the roughly 200 listeners at the Woodward Theater.
The stories ranged from Liz Young's hilarious naked race adventure that took place after splitting a gallon jug of moonshine with her rock climbing squad, to Manuel Iris's bittersweet reflection on the last time he saw his father before his death.
The distance between the speaker and the audience did nothing to deter the close relationship that grew out of the shared stories. When Liz leapt about the stage mimicking her experience "dodging dicks" to get to the naked race's finish line, a burst of laughter and surprise swept the audience. Later, the audience made itself small and quiet as Manuel, a short Hispanic man with kind eyes, spoke about his dad, a man who rarely showed vulnerability, and their embrace outside of Manuel's childhood home in Mexico. After they let go, Manuel left his father for the last time and took his wife and baby daughter to the airport and back home to Cincinnati.
At the end of the evening, Braley and Ashwell appeared onstage once more.
"Wasn't there something electric, something magical about tonight?" Braley asked the audience.
Ashwell encouraged everyone to reflect on the human experience, and observed that we, as people, are more similar than we are different. He asked the crowd to go home and find a neighbor, a friend or a relative.
"Ask them to share a story with you."
Words from an expert storyteller
Scott Whitehair is a Chicago-based storyteller who performs worldwide as well as produces events for others to tell their own stories. When he stumbled upon a storytelling workshop over 10 years ago, Whitehair knew he was entering something special and brand-new.
"There was no Moth, I had never heard of The Moth, there was really nothing in Chicago, so we didn't have a template," he said.
The Moth is a New York City-based non-profit storytelling organization that travels around the country to host storytelling events. Whitehair and friends got started producing small, Moth-esque shows for about a year before Chicagoans started to get interested. Since then, he has become the producer and director of three storytelling opportunities throughout the city: This Much is True, Do Not Submit and Story Lab Chicago.
"Story Lab started because people started to ask me, 'Hey, how do I -- I wanna do this!'" he said. "So I just created something where anybody who wanted to do it could do it. There was no barrier."
One of these barriers is social media.
"A big part of it is turning away from our screens, hearing someone's voice, looking them in the face," Whitehair said. "It's something that we crave and don't get as much of. And this technology brings us together in some ways, but also pulls us apart, obviously."
Another barrier that some people face when getting into storytelling is the fear that they are not good enough or don't have what it takes to perform. Whitehair disagrees wholeheartedly with this mindset, claiming that all of us are "storytellers by birth," and is confident that anyone and everyone can and should participate in storytelling.
"If you've lived a life, you have more than you need," Whitehair said.
Whitehair and other storyteller producers try to create an inclusive, safe environment for people to tell their stories.
"The best you can do is create the space and make it feel good," Whitehair said. "Because, ultimately, you only need one person's permission to tell your stories -- and that's yourself. But that is sometimes the hardest to get."
Storytelling is for all people, all ethnicities, all abilities and all ages. He said that many people in the community are not performers at all. He has worked with storytellers who are psychologists, teachers, marketers and physical trainers. He remembered once coaching a lab scientist who rarely worked with people at all, but who flourished on stage.
The want to be heard is what Whitehair believes draws people to this inclusive folk art, no matter their background. Whitehair said that there is a big misconception that this new movement is for the young, but that is not true.
"One of the newest storytellers I've worked with, he just got started in the last year, is 95," Whitehair said. "He's a World War II vet. Just found this, and he's like, 'Ya know, I like this, I'm gonna do it.'"
What keeps people coming?
Whitehair admits that his blue-collar family still today struggles to understand what exactly it is that he does for a living.
"They just know I have health insurance, which makes them happy," he said.
But those who do know what he does understand its value. Storytelling is a part of the human condition, and we have been doing it since the very beginning of creation.
"When you talk about storytelling, look how far we've come from sitting around a fire after hunting and gathering all day," he said. "I hope we never lose sight of what makes it magical, that simple, basic thing of connecting people."
Especially right now, Whitehair said, empathy and understanding are very important. He believes that storytelling acts as a reminder that we, as people, are really not that different from each other.
"No matter how different we are, we're all the same, we're all human," he said. "And so I think what draws people in is the humanity; to hear, in other people's stories, reflections of their own lives, to feel less alone, to connect with somebody over an emotion or over loss or triumph. To kind of feel, 'Hey, we're so different, but look how we are the same.'"
Whitehair doesn't know where the future of storytelling will lead. Right now, he is focused on his events and open mics, workshops and traveling to tell his own stories. He said that he feels like he grew up around this new community of storytelling, and that the movement is "nowhere near done," although he knows that the community will always value and prioritize in-person, face-to-face storytelling.
"We're not even close to being done," he said. "We're just getting started."
If he had his way, Whitehair would get every person in the city of Chicago to get up and tell stories.
"I want to see everybody in on it. I wanna see it more blue-collar. I wanna see it, in a city like Chicago. I wanna see everybody in Chicago telling stories. And we're not there yet."
My next visit
I have another story that I want to tell. It's a story about rock climbing for the first time, about grief and loss and laughter and everything in between. It's a story that I haven't told yet, not really; not cohesively and poignantly and direct, as it should be.
I'm not going to write out the story for you here. I'm not sure that would really give you the full picture.
You would have to hear it in person.