If you haven’t caught it yet, there’s a storytelling wave barreling through our city, one that’s been surging and swelling for more than a decade. Though I’m a poet and tend to be too distracted by shiny metaphors to bother with linear narrative, the storytelling scene in Long Beach is definitely worth caring about.
For instance, Riveted is the very clever name of a new storytelling showcase that debuted last month at Elinor, the fun and funky drinkery behind MADE by Millworks. The theme for their first night was “Stories By, For, and About Women,” fitting since Elinor is named for Elinor Otto, one of the original “Rosie the Riveters.”
The room was packed. MADE has been curating a storytelling series since 2016 called How I MADE It, so the crafty retail store already has a strong reputation in the art form. Each performer was given about 15 minutes during which we heard about attending a Women’s March, the art of marriage in a world of divorce, a surprising birthday in a women’s prison and the power of a dance class to break a fit of depression.
Each performer was a seasoned storyteller who kept the audience laughing, gasping and nodding. They hit their beats and shared a slice of their life with us. It was masterful and intimate and I left feeling connected, inspired and uplifted.
Now, wait a minute, you might be saying. This is a literary column. Are you positing that storytelling is literature?
That is exactly what I’m saying. If you haven’t noticed, literature is no longer just dead white men pining over whales or prepubescent girls.
Literature can be about sacred quiet time with a book. But it can also romp around onstage, full of snaps, claps and music. It can be short, pithy and Instagrammable. It can be a visual string of words moving all topsy-turvy across a page or spiraling around your computer screen. It can be a poem spray-painted on a building or printed on a broadside highlighted by art. It can be three-dimensional, sculpture-like, or displayed in an art gallery. One of my very first literary projects was a cube of poems in high school, and now I have poems hanging in the Billie Jean King Library.
Master storytellers are all around us. The poet Tony Hoagland says, in his craft book The Art of Voice, “When you are in the hands of an assured language user and an experienced thinker or feeler—to surrender is one of the true pleasures of community and art.”
Storytelling isn’t new, of course, it predates the written word. We’ve been telling stories since the first humans sat around fires, grunting and gesturing about that day’s hunt. More recently shows like The Moth have made what is ancient seem new and hip. But, unlike The Moth’s StorySLAM, which launched in 2000, there is no competitive element to Riveted. Everyone’s just out to have a good time, really a hallmark of the community-oriented literary scene in Long Beach.
“If you tell a true story that is emotional or traumatic, you’re more likely to get a hug and a standing ovation in Long Beach than anywhere else. And probably even make new friends,” observed Michelle Suzanne Snyder, founder of DreamOut People’s Project, an art-based community storytelling workshop.
It’s really, really easy to get involved in the local storytelling scene. First, just show up. You don’t have to share if you don’t want to, though, here’s a tip: listening is an active type of involvement and because a lot of literary events in Long Beach are highly interactive, you’ll usually feel like you’re an intimate part of what’s going on.
Another community storytelling event that encourages anyone and everyone to get up on the mic is Speak. Easy. It’s a casual storytelling event produced by the Long Beach Community Theater, which has already been producing a large-scale, theatrical storytelling event for a few years. Speak. Easy. started in 2019 with the intention of getting “to know our community up-close, on a more regular basis,” according to Ann Van Wellman, artistic director of the organization.
Held on the last Wednesday of odd months at DiPiazza’s, Speak. Easy. invites anyone with a five-minute story onto the stage and engages the audience with reflective questions afterward. There’s always a theme, but it’s up to you to address it or not, making this a wonderful free-for-all. And why not share? We tell stories all the time: how our date went, how work was, why our night was so great or awful.
“If I can help people to find their voice, to feel like they belong, that they are loved and cherished, I am all about it,” Van Wellman says.
After you’ve gotten some practice on the open mic, you may decide you’re ready to compete for a title and some cash. Long Beach Searches for Greatest Storyteller is a competition that’s been crowning victors since 2010. The brainchild of Mariana Williams, the event takes place at Malainey’s Grill in Alamitos Landing on the first Monday of every month, January through August. The audience votes on the best six-minute story—which must be true—and each month’s winner gets $100.
“Sharing our stories is sharing our guide to life, and a way for us to appreciate different points of view,” says Rachael Rifkin, writer, storyteller and founding board member of the Long Beach Literary Arts Center. “You’re sharing yourself and being vulnerable, like an outstretched hand. I feel like the end of a story is an ellipsis that leads to ‘what’s your story?'”
Rifkin has organized myriad storytelling events over the years, including, most recently, Common Ground (also at MADE), which was geared towards getting people to break down perceived barriers and “find common ground.”
Indeed, in a divided world it couldn’t hurt to go out of your way to listen to people who are different from you—pretty much everybody—while reflecting on what connects us.
Oh, and did I mention I run a twice-yearly storytelling event for poets at the Long Beach Public Library? Off the Page: The Story Behind the Stanzas is a space for professional poets to tell us tales of how their poems came to be. It’s always fascinating to see how the creative process unfolds.
And not all storytelling has to be vocal. We might just be animals making complicated sounds at each other, but there are plenty of non-verbal ways to share stories. Last year, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company ran an ASL Literature Slam showcasing “the beauty of poetry and literature through the medium of American Sign Language.”
So why not make your way out to one of the many great storytelling events Long Beach has to offer? If your stories tend to veer off into abstract tangents like mine do, you can just grab a drink and enjoy listening. Perhaps give a high five afterward, maybe even strike up a conversation.
Or if you’ve got the gift of gab, go ahead and give it a shot onstage.
Another tip: it helps to plan out your beats and practice ahead of time, so you know you can fit your narrative into your allotted time frame; five minutes may be shorter than you think. Depending on the event, you might get a gong, a bright light or a lasso when it’s time for you to get off stage and make way for the next person, but that’s another story.
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