Last week James Judd started this two-part look at personal narrative shows and what’s behind the recent surge in popularity in this type of show. Here in Part 2 he charts the course of personal narrative performance into the mainstream.
For many producers of personal narrative shows, it’s easy to see a parallel between the increasing popularity of storytelling shows and the rise of stand-up comedy in the 1980s.
Back then, a core of innovators reinvigorated an art form that had languished on the fringes for decades. Can the grassroots personal narrative movement also cross over into the mainstream? I asked several figures in the world of personal narrative performance for their take.
Phyllis Katz, an exalted comedy writer and improvisational comedy teacher in Los Angeles, believes a shift is already underway. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, you didn’t see comedians on every cable station,” she said. “You went to a club. There were special nights for people paying their dues. They’d work on the road, hone their material, and if they were prepared and blessed, they got on television. Then throngs of people wanted to do it, and there were classes and clubs in every city. We’re seeing this now with storytelling.”
Are the storytellers signing up at the coffeehouse to tell the story of their worst date ever hoping to become celebrities?
In the 1980s, once the stand-up genre turned hot again and began producing new stars like Brenner, Seinfeld, Shandler, Letterman, Leno and many others, there was an explosion of new comedy clubs. A cottage industry soon followed, dedicated to producing stand-up comedy acts. Many of these acts were crafting a persona they hoped could be easily transferred from a nightclub to the set of a sitcom—or at least a seat in the writer’s room.
While storytelling classes and confessional essay writing workshops are less common, their popularity and numbers are growing fast. Are the storytellers signing up at the coffeehouse to tell the story of their worst date ever hoping to become celebrities?
Deana Barone, who produces The Trunk Show in Los Angeles and teaches aspiring storytellers, doesn’t think the mix of actors, comedians and non-industry students who enroll in her class are looking for a career boost. “Comedians are drawn to the [personal narrative] form as a way to break out of the pressure of having to constantly deliver laughs, while actors either crave the opportunity to speak as themselves instead of playing a character, or want to overcome the fear of breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to an audience,” she says.
But while rejecting the idea that storytelling classes could or should lead to new career opportunities, Barone allows that there could be some benefits. “It may advance your career as a side effect because you become more aware of your authentic self and you become more truthful in your communication,” she points out. “So your craft improves and you become more confident in general.”
Michael Patrick Duggan, a storyteller who has been producing the weekly show Tattle Tales with LA Story Works in Los Angeles area pubs for the past 18 months, senses change is in the air. “Possibly it will develop into a similar system as stand-up comedians, with large clubs, television specials, and a rabid fan-following. We’re going to see something bigger, mass-produced, or very monetized come out of it.”
Scott Shrake (aka Shrake), producer of Story League, a popular show running in the nation’s capital, feels that mainstream, commercial success for personal narrative shows is a possibility—but only if the producers of these shows recognize the limited appeal of strict storytelling shows and compensate by bringing more variety and pizzazz to the stage.
“The inherent limits of true, live, personal narrative onstage are increasingly evident,” Shrake points out. “That’s why people keep adding more and more sexiness to the shows by mixing storytelling with extravagant burlesque/boylesque and music, etc.” He cites The Moth—the most well-known storytelling show in America with tours, podcasts, books, contests, prizes, and celebrity appearances—as an example of what grassroots storytelling shows can and should look to as a model.
Shrake also sees cutting the sturm und drang of confessional shows as a necessary step toward boosting commercial viability. As substantiating evidence, he points to Story League’s impressive audience numbers of 300 or more at their frequently sold-out, twice-monthly shows—which have a unifying theme that the stories must be funny.
“Let’s get rid of all the non-funny stories,” he says. “Story League is as funny as a stand-up show but more accessible, and without all the stand-up nonsense like heckling. Short, funny stories are the middle ground where stand-ups and storytellers and ordinary people can meet and have a good time.”
Story League varies its shows between curated evenings of stories in conjunction with a local stand-up group, and contests where both judges and audiences pick their favorite story of the night and the winner gets cash or prizes. Its newest variation involves the performer not just telling a story but following it up with a song accompanied by a live band.
Shrake is far from the only person I interviewed who pointed to The Moth as a model; all the producers I interviewed expressed admiration. While many used it as an example of a successful show, most also noted that they relished the freedom of not having to follow anyone else’s format and seemed protective of their ability to create shows that reflect their own particular personalities and points of view.
And, like any art form that veers from the fringes toward the mainstream, the increasing exposure of the personal narrative form to broader audiences has started a debate over artistic integrity versus commerce.
Jill Howe, producer of Story Sessions in Chicago—where the storytelling fires seem to burn the hottest—rejects the value of even attempting to discern the future. “We do what we do because it drives our souls and we think it’s valuable artistic work. I just don’t think a question like ‘Where is it going?’ has any place in art,” she said. “If I think like that I start getting insecure or feel ownership. A peeve of mine is people trying to claim ownership of an art. Usually it’s a man touting he’s the ‘father of blah blah blah.’ Have you ever heard a woman try to claim she’s the mother of a movement? Like, I have a place that’s more important than someone else, ahead in the line.”
While some producers stoke the embers of artistic possibility and others race to cash in on a trend, it is possible that the public’s interest in these shows has already begun to peak. Evidence of this is the arrival of a parody.
“A Bunch of Losers Reading Their Essays,” founded by Phyllis Katz, is an improvised essay show in Los Angeles. Audience members write their own one-sentence confessions on slips of paper, such as “I slept with my boss” and then drop them in a bowl before taking their seats. Improvisational actors pick from the bowl and then “read” their essays as though they had come fully prepared. The twist is that an overall theme for evening is announced by the emcee or host at the start of the show—for instance, “The Digital Age”—that’s a surprise to both the audience and improvisers. Each performer must tie their tale to the theme.
The idea came to Katz after sitting through a lot of personal narrative shows. While Katz diplomatically pointed out, “Many of the shows were wonderful from beginning to end,” the Losers show intentionally plays up the awkwardness that will be familiar to any regular audience member. When you buy a ticket and find a seat, you can only hope it will a night of greatness—but you also must be prepared to sit through something dreadful.
In doing a parody, Katz’s goal isn’t to disparage the form. “I thought it would be fun to do a fake one—improvised—all as characters who are terrible writers. From what our crowds have told me, they love knowing that what makes them anxious about real personal essay shows—that the writing might make them squirm—is an expected result here.”
So is the personal narrative show still Art? Or is it the new Macarena? Most agree that the form is evolving as it grows in popularity, with increased exposure bringing a new creative dynamic. It will be hard to tell whether the movement has peaked until it starts sliding down the other side, but for the moment it appears to still be on its way up.