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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. 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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