Culture  Let Me Tell You a Story

Storytelling is enrapturing, but are we hearing everyone out?

Storytelling is having a moment. Or rather, being the oldest art form and the core of cultural memory and human connection, it always has. Yet, since the advent of the podcast and of internet streaming, listening to strangers tell stories is a more popular pastime than ever before.

Everything can now be recorded, saved for later, and consumed in the cosiness of the bedroom. Similarly, the entertainment industry is growing towards more intimate media. As we desert physical public spaces, our craving for human connection lingers, grows: we want to be seen, addressed, and let in. Storytelling answers that need.

Matt Goldberg, producer and founder of the monthly storytelling showcase Confabulation said that “nine years ago, [he] was a big fan of all the big storytelling shows like The Moth, or This American Life. [He] complained a lot about the fact that [he] couldn’t do this [himself ]; there was no stage in Montreal for telling stories.” So, he made one: in 2009, Goldberg hosted the first Confabulation night, filling the 35-seat space of the Plateau’s Freestanding Room.

As we desert physical public spaces, our craving for human connection lingers, grows: we want to be seen, addressed, and let in. Storytelling answers that need.

The series is now in its ninth season, hosted at the Phi Centre, and sold out on their opening night last Saturday, September 8. Confabulation now exists in Montreal, Toronto and Victoria. Under indigo lights suspended on white museum walls, and amid a crowd of older professionals drinking PBR tall cans (the only cheap beer fashionable enough to sell for $6), the gathering felt on trend.

Goldberg estimates that the audience is usually 60 per cent newcomers and 40 per cent returning fans. The result shows that the majority of the people attending are people with bold ideas for a date night.

To be a frequenter at an event where strangers exchange stories, one must either be an empath or possess a perverse kind of humour. The pleasure of viewing, or taking part in, storytelling events lies in its frightening intimacy. Each telling is unique, as the story will not be told in the same way again, nor will it elicit the same reaction. This prevents the audience from disconnecting. We go to a storytelling event to feel the secondhand butterflies. Everyone in the audience has stories, and some of us are going to stand up and let the rest devour them. That person might be sitting next to you, and the possibility of the ordinary citizen becoming a performer is intoxicating. Sometimes a story is presented raw, and we cringe if it is too tough or too soft in the centre. Sometimes it is perfectly done, and it feels as if, in hearing it, we are made whole.

There are certain rules to telling a story well. The Moth, founded in New York City in 1997 and now annually producing 500 live storytelling shows worldwide, declares that stories are told, not read. Stories are also not stand-up comedy or songs; they have a plot, yet they are not fiction either.

Keeping in mind the subjectivity of truth, Confabulation presents stories as events that are as true as we tell them.

Storytelling should not be rehearsed too much, if you want to avoid sounding like a bad actor reciting a monologue. However, you cannot come unprepared either, as you risk rambling and forgetting parts of your story. The audience won’t wait on you to remember if it was a marble or a Lego that you put up your nose as a child. The best stories are delivered naturally, unfolding as they happen rather than with a rigidly rehearsed script. The story’s details make us laugh because we can somehow see them without the pantomime of theatre, like when Confabulation storyteller Elizabeth Varvaro told us that “even the squirrels were giving her the side-eye” while she was burying cardboard in the park to complete an internet witchcraft spell.

Stories are always about details, including their incongruous nature. Confabulation is a psychiatry term used to define the action of the brain making things up. For example, if you’re telling a story about a car that cut you off, you might not remember what colour the car actually was, but in order for you to make sense of the world, your brain fabricates the memory of seeing a red car in your memory. In reality, the car may have been blue. Keeping in mind the subjectivity of truth, Confabulation presents stories as events that are as true as we tell them.

Last Saturday’s theme was “Awakenings,” and the six storytellers told us about dementia, the male gaze, aging and psychedelic kaftans, and children’s funerals. Unlike The Moth StorySLAM format, Confabulation is curated, and stories are pitched, pre-selected, and workshopped before the night of the event.

Goldberg aims for a range of backgrounds, experiences and tones in a single night, with both first-timers and returning storytellers on the stage. He said that “[he] always love[s] stories from outside the community of the performing arts, from the people who don’t normally share their stories.”

“It’s nice to see and be seen — to see yourself be reflected on stage, and to hear about lives you haven’t lived.” – Matt Goldberg

During intermission, the row behind us exchanged stories that involved both Pride parades and grandmothers. Miraculously, there were several of them. Give people a theme, however niche, and someone will always have something to say. All around the room, people would make strangers and friends laugh, or open their eyes wide, or gulp their drink.

Turning this practice into an event makes a story more potent, as there is an impetus to polish it. Then there is the power of the collective gasp, or a sudden silence in a room of many.

“What is really special [about storytelling] is hearing someone’s voice, and recognizing in their experience elements that are both familiar and completely alien,” Goldberg said. “It’s nice to see and be seen — to see yourself be reflected on stage, and to hear about lives you haven’t lived. The show doesn’t end up being just about the stories that are told, it’s also about the audience and the way the audience reacts afterwards.”

The audience was still and hurting, and the applause for Brown was the kind that you do not think will, and maybe shouldn’t, ever end. A story like Brown’s could convince a culture to change. Let’s start telling more of them.

The final storyteller of the night was Montreal writer and performer Tessa J. Brown. Her story arced from French “bros” splashing in Parc La Fontaine’s poop water, drunk and mad on their World Cup win, to male entitlement, violence and misogyny. Brown watched these men carry a woman to the infested water by her arms and legs as she protested and struggled. She stepped in between them and the water, and told the men that “she said no.” Their response: “She said no, but you say yes.”

Brown explained how these words were a direct reference to rape culture. She said that the men she encountered “knew what that meant.” The audience was still and hurting, and the applause for Brown was the kind that you do not think will, and maybe shouldn’t, ever end. A story like Brown’s could convince a culture to change. Let’s start telling more of them.

Let us tell stories in basements. Let us tell stories for free in the park. Let our storytellers be diverse. “Awakenings” was performed by six white women, and we can do better. Let us create more stages for more bodies.

Confabulation occurs on the second Saturday of every month. October’s theme is “Child’s Play,” November is “It’s a Phase,” and December is “Family.” Let us work with these themes to tell the stories that incite action and confront oppression. There is no better way to do it than face-to-face.