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The Rise of the Story

Why live storytelling events are proliferating in the digital age

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Jessica Holmes has the perfect storytelling voice--it's sweet and husky and makes an audience hang on her words.

In 2009, Holmes, Hollis Welsh, Clay Morgan and Paul Shaffer, founded Boise's Story Story Night, a monthly showcase of true stories, told live on stage without notes.

Story Story Night takes place the last Monday of every month and manages to sell out almost every time. The event recently moved from the Linen Building to the larger-capacity Rose Room to accommodate its ever-growing popularity.

"There's something that happens in that first little raw moment between the storyteller and the audience," Holmes said. "You're not even going to find it in a play or something. ... There's something raw and communicating and deep."

That storyteller/audience connection that Holmes refers to is something inside every good story. Story Story Night explores that relationship when audience members become storytellers. Story Story is a two-part event, with the first half highlighting featured storytellers, followed by stories from brave members of the crowd, chosen by names drawn out of a hat.

Those stories are impromptu and unedited, in contrast to a program like This American Life, a weekly radio show that polishes the rough bits of a story. The two do share an element, however: the anecdote.

"The anecdote is a story in its purest form," said Public Radio International's Ira Glass, host of This American Life, in a 2009 video interview series. "No matter how boring the material is, if it's in a story form with an anecdote happening ... you can feel inherently that you're on a train, and that it has a destination."

Locally, new story showcases continue to pop up. Boise State Public Radio, an underwriter of Story Story Night, created its own storytelling event, Risky Business, stories from people who took business risks that paid off.

Though it may seem odd that there's now a growing thirst for stories, Dr. Robert McCarl has some insight. The Boise State professor has a Ph.D. in oral histories, with work encompassing fables, legends and stories from cultures ancient and modern.

"Stories originally, and still to a certain extent, were how people learned to live," McCarl said. "You can go back to the Iliad and the Odyssey and Beowulf. A lot of the classic works of humanity are captured ethics."

But now the stone tablet has been replaced by the iPad. And while stories continue to aid people in learning the ins-and-outs of life, those stories are largely shared electronically, not face-to-face. It has been suggested that social media has stepped in to supplement personal relationships but has yet to encompass the whole range of human interaction.

"If you assume that everyone needs stories to survive, then what happens with the Internet and all the other ways that we get information electronically changes how we access stories," said McCarl.

The change in medium has hobbled the way we tell tales. A status update can't elicit an emotional reaction the way a facial expression can, and people are programmed to need that interaction. Personal storytelling is emotional and informative for the audience, but it's a two-way street, a dialogue.

"I definitely felt a human connection with some of the storytellers," said Heather Clark after attending the Sept. 26 Story Story event. "A couple made me tear up a bit and some made me laugh out loud."

Storytelling can be cathartic and uplifting for those on stage as well.

"This is one of the insights of therapy, actually," Glass said. "Most people aren't great storytellers in general, but if you stumble on the thing that really means something to them, you'll get a great story out of them."

The Internet isn't allowing the storyteller in each of us enough of a voice. We can "like," "poke," "retweet," but we're not connecting.

"Those are really cold media. They're not interpersonal media," said McCarl, chuckling. "Maybe that's what the proliferation of these story groups is all about."

The information overload theory suggests that as the amount of available information increases, the emphasis becomes less on quality content and more on brevity and anecdote. Ann Blair wrote a piece for the Boston Globe about information overload, which was once, she said, the result of Gutenberg's printing press. In our world, it's the tweet, the headline and the sound bite.

"We've gotten so enamored with documentation of the printed word that we've kind of lost a bit of the power of the oral tradition," said McCarl. "I think StoryCorps and some of those other organizations are people realizing the importance of these things."

The stories told at each Story Story Night follow a theme, and the theme of the September forum that Clark attended was Earth: Tales of Reaping What You Sow. It was the first in the Rose Room, and the space had the air of an intimate party. The crowd murmured quietly, all the while ruthlessly jockeying for good seats. Statistically, the strikingly average crowd should have been home that Monday evening watching cable.

"You can get entertainment in a variety of forms," Holmes said. "But something that's not produced, it's just made by somebody using words ... it's made me realize that, to me, all these forms of entertainment aren't really that great."

In Holmes' opinion, people are searching for a more in-depth, information-rich experience, in contrast to information overload.

"They're definitely searching for something," said Holmes. "I've had some people say--and it disturbed me a little bit--'Story Story Night is like my church.'"

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