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True Stories: One Theme, One Mic, One Night

Columbus is a city of storytellers. From Larry Smith’s dedication to developing diminutive memoirs to Barry Chandler’s penchant for forging better brands, Ohio attracts and inspires wordsmiths from near and far. The transcendent allure of stories is that we all have them. As shared as the air around us, they’re still seldom spoken—especially amongst strangers. [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Columbus is a city of storytellers. From Larry Smith’s dedication to developing diminutive memoirs to Barry Chandler’s penchant for forging better brands, Ohio attracts and inspires wordsmiths from near and far.

The transcendent allure of stories is that we all have them. As shared as the air around us, they’re still seldom spoken—especially amongst strangers. Television is tedious and social media doesn’t count. One is increasingly broadcast distraction for the masses, the other a safe haven for hecklers.

Story Club Columbus is different, turning noise into narrative. On the first Tuesday of the month, the stiff drinks and potent sodas of The Rambling House prime an informal gathering of experienced and aspiring storytellers. Audiences can hide in the shadows, but any pretense of anonymity disappears as soon as presenters step into the light and take the stage. The rules are deceptively simple: Everyone gets eight minutes. Stick to the theme. And stick to the truth.

That doesn’t mean someone is going to quickly kill the microphone if you run too long. Nor is a little latitude or literary license going to earn you a giant gong. The format isn’t for the faint of heart, but it isn’t intentionally intimidating either.

“Telling a story is extremely empowering. I love watching new storytellers get on stage and realize they have a warm, captive audience for the first time,” explained Meryl Williams, founder of Story Club Columbus, who brought the idea here from Chicago. “I used to live there, and once a month, I went to Story Club Chicago with a group of friends. It took me more than a year before I got enough nerve to get on stage myself. I knew when I moved back to Ohio that I wanted to start a branch of Story Club in Columbus.”

“Telling a story is extremely empowering. I love watching new storytellers get on stage and realize they have a warm, captive audience for the first time.”

Intimate oratory isn’t always easy, even in a sympathetic venue filled with eager ears and fueled by liquid courage. It’s not stand-up comedy, though it’s often amusing. And it’s not beat poetry or spoken word, even when the room grows solemn or silent. It can be all of these, or none of these over the course of an evening—or even a single performance.

“The stories that stick with me the most are the ones that were clearly hard for the performer to tell,” Williams recalled. “Sometimes stories are kind of heavy, or they’re hilarious, but my favorite stories told on stage are the ones that manage to be both.”

Story Club isn’t the only outlet of its kind. Right around the corner at Wild Goose Creative, Speak Easy also meets monthly. The programs are similar, but not the same. Both have a monthly theme, but Story Club is a curated mix of open mic and invited presenters. Add the libations and atmosphere of The Rambling House, and maybe the art form feels a little less polished and more spontaneous.

Now two years in, Williams has moved to eastern Ohio and recently handed the microphone to a new host, Samantha Tucker. The two share more than a passion for storytelling. They’re both Ohio Roller Girls, so neither was short on grit or afraid to take a hit. But being fearless on her feet isn’t the only skill that made Tucker a natural fit.

“I have experience in writing, theater, and improv, so it was an easy transition. But the focus on non-fiction is what initially attracted me to Story Club,” noted Tucker, whose first show as host in October had the seasonal (not intentional) theme of “Fear”. November’s theme was “Election”, though that didn’t keep political concerns from slipping into the collective conversation ahead of schedule. “I think my first month’s theme was a happy accident. Several presenters mentioned the Supreme Court. We try to keep our theme open, relevant, and in the moment—where we are as a city, and as a country.”

Though the basic construct remains unchanged, the content is evolving with a more noticeable shift from known voices to new voices. Outreach into the immigrant and refugee communities, seeking the stories of New Americans, is quintessential for Columbus and personal for Tucker.

“Both of my grandmothers were what some would call ‘war brides.’ One is from Korea, one is from Germany, and that’s where they met my grandfathers. In my family, a lot of what we know and understand about each other is from oral history,” she revealed. “I feel like my identity is shaped by immigrant stories, and very different perspectives of what it means to be an American.”

Regardless of the theme or tone, the thread that binds each evening together is the appreciation of stories that are live and true in an era favoring discussion that is distant and dubious. Tucker offered a few pointers for those apprehensive to take the stage.

“If you’re a first-time presenter, I tell people to reverse-engineer their stories. If you’re not sure how to get somewhere, start with the ending—the last thing you want to leave with your audience, the thought you want to linger with them,” she explained. “Think about five moments you want to include in your story, then work your way back to the beginning. You have to know where you want to land.”

Some storytelling suggestions are esoteric. Others are obvious, or should be.

“If there’s a theme, know it and stick to it. That hasn’t happened once or twice. No more than three puns per story, because you don’t want the audience to turn on you,” chided Tucker. “Okay, I made that rule up, but it’s still good advice. Speak into the mic, that’s also a good one.”

“There’s something romantic about stories that happen that evening and nowhere else. People are reluctant to pay for art because they don’t realize they’re part of the process.”

Another defining element of Story Club is that featured storytellers are actually paid, which is exceptionally rare for upstart art exhibitions of any kind. With a suggested donation of $10 for a one-night-only performance (which is a steal), proceeds are divided among invited performers. Patrons cast ballots at the end for their favorites, which offer guidance for future shows. Amateurs become regulars, and regulars often become featured storytellers. It’s a simple strategy that still works.

“There’s something romantic about stories that happen that evening and nowhere else. People are reluctant to pay for art because they don’t realize they’re part of the process,” noted Tucker. “I don’t know if there is art without audience. When we ask people to vote and pick the story that meant the most to them, that’s what we’re acknowledging, that we’re doing this for you—that we can’t do this without you.”

For more details on Story Club Columbus and upcoming themes, visit storyclubcbus.com.

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Arts Fest Preview: Jewelry lovers will flock to this artist

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The Columbus Arts Festival showcases the best art and artists Columbus has to offer, but the festival is also a huge draw for artists across the country.

Tana Acton, a fine art jewelry maker from Sante Fe, New Mexico, is one of those artists. Born to two art school graduates, Acton began selling at craft fairs at the age of 16. She would eventually study silversmithing from prominent faculty artists at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. Later, Acton would study goldsmithing in Florence, Italy, earn a BFA in painting at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and complete a fashion design program at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Throughout her career, Acton has created work in a variety of mediums, including graphic design, dance and choreography, and painting, as well as fashion design for some of New York’s preeminent companies in apparel and housewares. This background has given her a unique perspective in fine jewelry, pulling from elements of dance resembling movement and flexibility, and elements of fashion design with her metal “threading” technique leaving each piece room to breathe. All of this combines into a beautifully lightweight, contemporary jewelry line.

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Jewelry lovers have been collecting Acton’s pieces for years and she often has people approach her at festivals wearing a piece purchased years before.

Acton’s work has been featured in magazines and has appeared on the arms of people news, including Maria Shriver. Her pieces can be found in museum stores, boutiques and fine craft art galleries throughout the U.S., as well as the Columbus Arts Festival Artist Market, June 7-9 on the downtown riverfront, her first time back at the Festival since 2011.

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Arts Fest Preview: See BalletMet live outdoors!

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BalletMet’s Friday night’s headline performance at 8:30 p.m. at the Arts Festival is sure to be a highlight of weekend. One of the nation’s top 20 largest professional companies, BalletMet consists of dancers hailing from across the nation and the world and boasts a premiere academy for aspiring professional dancers, one that’s been recognized as an institution of local and national stature.

Since 1978, BalletMet has brought incredible dance to theaters in Central Ohio and beyond and their commitment to bringing dance to the Columbus community, especially in underserved areas, is unparalleled.

Art of War Photo by Jen Zmuda

From in-school programs to theater field trips, scholarships and free performances, the company is dedicated to making dance accessible to all. More than 10,000 children attend the company’s Morning at the Ballet field trip performances each year. And thanks to a grant from PNC Arts Alive, BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2, has performed at free events at the King Arts Complex, Franklin Park Conservatory and more, throughout the 2018-19 season.

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In addition to the free performance at the Arts Festival BalletMet will perform at Dance on Dakota on Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. in Franklinton. This performance is also free.

Dance on Dakota, co-hosted by Franklinton Arts District, is part of a weekend-long block party in Franklinton and features free food and drink and a collaborative performance with TRANSIT ARTS. The event will take place at Dakota Ave. and Town St.

Dancers Grace Anne Powers and William Newton Photo by Jen Zmuda

BalletMet’s Columbus Arts Festival performance will include a mixed repertoire of shorter pieces from its past productions and will be preceded by music from DJ Donnie M. of Damn Girl.

And if these performances capture your interest, the company recently announced its 2019-20 season, which includes ALICE, based on the later stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Twisted 3, a collaboration with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus, and, of course, The Nutcracker.

More info at www.balletmet.org. For all your Arts Festival details visit www.colubmusartsfestival.org

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Arts Fest Preview: You wood hate to miss local crafter

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Woodworker and Art Makes Columbus featured artist Devon Palmer has been working with his hands since his upbringing in northeast Indiana. His mother a wood carver and his father a carpenter and cabinet maker, Palmer took a more mechanical route by obtaining his pilot’s license and attending Purdue University to pursue a career as an airplane mechanic.

But as his career transitioned from maintenance to the tech field, he yearned to work with his hands again. Originally he considered pottery, before a class he planned to attend got canceled. But a trip home the weekend before Thanksgiving led to his father introducing him to woodturning.

That was more than 15 years ago. And though he is largely self-taught, Palmer also credits local woodturners from the Central Ohio Woodturners (a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners) for taking him under their wing. In 2005, he opened his first studio just north of Downtown, and in 2007 he began teaching woodturning at Woodcraft Columbus.

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Today, Palmer does a bit of mentoring of his own. He teaches classes in blade and bowl turning, resin cast pen turning and more advanced projects like hollow vessel turning in his studio at the Idea Foundry. He is also adding a series of LGBTQ date night pen turning classes to his growing schedule of classes, shows and demonstrations.

Palmer says his work represents “family and connectedness” with work ranging from salad bowls and laser engraved pens to funerary urns and ornaments. The details in his hand-crafted tableware and home goods manage to invoke a warm sense of community, fellowship, and hospitality.

Devon Palmer works in internet technology and is also a pianist and ordained minister.

Make your own wood turned pen with Devon Palmer at the Columbus Arts Festival, June 7-9, at the Big Local Art Village located at the Festival’s Franklinton entrance. Learn more about Devon at www.columbusmakesart.com/stories/devon-palmer and get all your Arts Festival details at www.columbusartsfestival.org

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