From child's play to serious entertainment: How storytelling became a hot commodity in Ann Arbor

In 1992, Judy Schmidt and three other public school librarians organized the first local Tellabration, an event that Schmidt describes as "a storytelling night for grownups."


"It sounded funny at the time, because back then, storytelling was seen as something you do with kids," Schmidt says.


Today in Ann Arbor, as across the nation, storytelling is just as much a "grownup" entertainment as it is for children. Thanks to events hosted by The Moth and the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild – as well as occasional, themed, one-off indie shows – more and more people are looking to connect with others by sharing (or hearing) stories in a public space.


Schmidt and her librarian cohort, who called themselves Schoolfolk, seem to have planted the seeds for today's local storytelling scene with Tellabration. The 1992 event was one of many Tellabrations happening in different parts of the country on the same day to raise money for an organization that was called, at that time, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling.


Tellabration was held in the former First Unitarian Universalist Church on Washtenaw (which is now a bed and breakfast). The event featured a number of storytellers who had experience telling historical, folk, and fairy tales to young people, as well as a few with personal stories (more of a rarity then). Thanks to a preview article in The Ann Arbor News, Tellabration attendance was high, with about 150 people packing into the venue.


Schoolfolk kept hosting the annual event, but it struggled to ever again draw similar numbers – in part because the November date selected was usually a football Saturday, sometimes even the Ohio State game. In 1997 Greg Harris, a Tellabration participant and U-M anthropology grad student, began to form a new storytelling group in Ann Arbor.


"I felt like we didn't need another group, but I didn't want to discourage this young man," Schmidt says.


So she joined, and the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild was born.


The Guild limped along when Harris moved away from Ann Arbor in 1999, often attracting as few as five people to its meetings. Schoolfolk also suffered losses as members retired or died, so in 2002, Tellabration was handed over to the Guild.


"The Guild was really struggling for seven or eight years," says Schmidt. "I kept wondering if I should just let this thing die. But we kept on going, and eventually it took hold. Now we're flourishing pretty well."


Like moths to a flame


Many credit the popularity of national radio shows like The Moth Radio Hour for this new, widespread passion for public storytelling. In fact, Ann Arbor's formerly monthly Moth StorySLAM series recently added a second monthly show to satisfy local demand.


"Ann Arbor is one of the only markets with two shows a month, which is really impressive, considering the population of our community," says Ann Arbor Moth StorySLAM producer Patti Wheeler, who notes that some nights she's had to turn away as many as 200 people at the door.


Wheeler credits Michigan Radio's early adoption and support of the national Moth Radio Hour program and its sponsorship of the local StorySLAM event as major factors in The Moth's success here. Ann Arbor's Moth StorySLAM launched in 2011 at Circus, and Wheeler officially became producer in 2013. (Because the South First Street building that housed Circus, along with three additional bars/clubs, was sold in January, the Moth recently moved to Greyline, Zingerman's event space at 100 N. Ashley.)


At each StorySLAM event, an announced theme unifies the stories that will be told that evening, and audience members hoping to take the stage submit their names on pieces of paper. Ten names are drawn, and a handful of judges – also picked from the crowd – rate each five-minute story to choose that night's winner.


Perhaps because of this contest element, the Moth has attracted a younger-than-usual crowd to the storytelling scene.


"My hosts generally ask at the top of the show, 'How many people are here at the Moth for the first time?' and it's a solid forty percent at every show," Wheeler says. "It shows that we have the ability to bring in new people, and that our audience is still growing and vibrant."


Some of the area storytelling scene's newest recruits come from the local theater community. Catherine Zudak, who's been involved with numerous Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (A2CT) shows over the years, got to know longtime Guild member Lyn Davidge by way of A2CT. Davidge urged Zudak to attend one of the Guild's house concerts, and though certain things about storytelling scared Zudak ("It was challenging for me to appear as myself on stage," Zudak says), she's gotten more deeply involved in storytelling culture.


Zudak went on to help create "The Know Gun Show" in March, which featured short plays, music, and personal stories while also raising money for gun violence prevention. She's also involved in this month's "Right to Carry, Right to Live" show (June 14 at Greyline), spearheaded by professional local actress Julia Glander.


Zudak also told a spellbinding story about a CIA internship that went horribly wrong at HERsay, an all-women's spoken word show series at Pointless Brewery and Theatre. (This writer also contributed a story of her own to the inaugural HERsay.)


"That was a very important story for me to tell," says Zudak. "When I was 20, and I was being sexually harassed, no one listened to me. I was told to shut up. Now, as an uppity older woman, I can say no, I'm not going to shut up about it anymore. … As women age and shake off the shackles, they start saying, 'Yes, I want to be heard and share my stories.'"


Who's telling, and who's listening?


Indeed, there are more women than men in the Guild. And more broadly, outside of the Moth, the local storyteller pool appears to skew middle-aged or older and female. Both editions of HERsay – which feature a broad range of performances (poetry, theater, visual artist presentations, improv, music, and storytelling) – sold out the venue.


"There is obviously an audience for this," says teacher, writer, and HERsay creator Patti Smith.


Davidge was one of HERsay's performers, and she's been in the Guild long enough to see it shift from an emphasis on fairy and folk tales to those drawn from the teller's life.


"The Moth has fueled a lot of this, as has NPR generally," says Davidge.


Personal storytelling can be satisfying in helping the teller gain perspective on past events in his or her life, but the teller must also use good judgment.


"If something is a little bit raw, … you do not go out on stage and tell a story until you are OK," Davidge says. "If you break down crying in the middle of the story, that takes the audience out of it. … You don't want them feeling like they have to take care of the teller."


When Davidge first joined the Guild in 2003, it had about 15 members. Last year, membership hit 50. The Guild's newly appointed president, Steve Daut, says the organization has recently begun "formalizing some things" by appointing a board of directors and some officers.


Many people get involved with the Guild by coming to monthly meetings (which are now frontloaded with informal storytelling, followed by Guild business), or a monthly story night at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room, which ends with open-mic opportunities. (Because of scheduling difficulties, the Guild will replace Tellabration with a new event called Story Fest this fall.)


Given her experiences with The Moth, Wheeler knows how intoxicating it can be to have an audience connect with your story.


"Once someone gets up on stage and does it, they'll often get the bug and come back and start putting their name in the hat every time," Wheeler says. "There's a special thing that happens. … When you experience what it's like to share a story, and feel the audience respond, it's just a really uplifting and beautiful experience."


And audiences continue to flock to storytelling events because, according to Schmidt, "in real life, nobody's listening to anybody."


"You go somewhere, and everyone's on their phones instead of talking to each other," she says. "So there's a hunger to be heard. … There are so many ways to communicate now, but too often, no one really is."


Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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