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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 & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Kate Morgan, 2D mixed media artist

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Kate Morgan began developing her ghostly, layered two-dimensional portraits after going back to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. She already had some background in visual arts through her work in fashion and commercial photography, so the transition to drawing and painting was organic.

Morgan’s textured collages are inspired by folklore, mythology and a variety of artistic periods — especially Byzantine art. The 2011 Columbus Arts Festival Emerging Artist alum and 2019 exhibiting artist welcomes a wide array of complex themes into her pieces — including symbolic, cultural, historical and spiritual themes — while utilizing layers of vintage paper and original drawings to create visual depth and a sense of mystery.

Her pieces are purposely vague, leaning toward more minimalistic ideas to allow for wider interpretation by audiences. Largely her art depicts the female form, with as many layers and stories to tell as that of every human being. This is done with an eclectic assortment of materials — including sheet music, German Biblical pages, newspaper and maps — to add detail in both a topical and textural sense.

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And yet, Morgan still continues to look for a challenge. From venturing away from her familiar blue hues to exploring different mediums like ceramics, her work knows no creative limits.

Morgan has exhibited at the Columbus Arts Festival nearly every year since 2011. She has gone on to win two jurors’ choice awards in the 2D category at the Columbus Arts Festival, as well as sell and have work juried at other major festivals across the country. In Columbus, her work can be seen as part of the Columbus Makes Art and Donatos Pizza collaborative mural “Every Piece Is Important” at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Morgan has a BFA from CCAD and currently works out of her Franklinton studio in Columbus. Experience this stunning work first hand when you visit her at booth M572 on the Main Street Bridge during the Columbus Arts Festival from June 7-9 at the downtown riverfront.

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Arts & Culture

Be Square: Changes coming to arts community at 400 W Rich

Mike Thomas

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If you haven’t visited the thriving arts community at 400 West Rich street in awhile, you might be surprised to see how much things have changed. Now, the minds behind the city’s hub for the arts are changing things up to better reflect the area’s evolution.

400 Square is the new collective moniker for the array of concepts that currently occupy the buildings on the 400 block of Rich street in Franklinton. The rebrand seeks to unify the community of artistic innovators who call the area developed by Urban Smart Growth their creative home.

Promo art for 400 Square by Anthony Damico

Spaces encompassed in the rebrand include Strongwater, The Vanderelli Room, and Chromedge Studios, and of course, the studios at 400 W. Rich. While the name may be changing, the group remains committed to providing and sustaining a thriving hub for creatives through education, resources, and entertainment opportunities in the area.

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With the launch of 400 Square, Urban Smart Growth Director of Operations Seth Stout has led his team to develop new offerings for each of the growing spaces. Food and Beverage Director Lauren Conrath and Events Director Molly Blundred have taken the lead with changes to the Strongwater brand, while Community Director Stephanie McGlone and Art Director AJ Vanderelli are facilitating programming for all ages and abilities on the artist side.

Through all of the changes on the way, the staff at 400 Square are committed to bringing the public the same high quality of workshops, events, exhibitions, and more that have always been part of their unique creative community.

Stay tuned for more info—the new 400 Square officially rolls out during the weekend of Columbus Arts Fest 2019, June 7-9.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Cousin Simple to wow crowd with energy, passion

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As a young up-and-coming band, Cousin Simple is excited to play at this year’s Columbus Art’s Festival. In their two years as a band, they have already done a lot of really cool things, such as making a single with L.A. multi-platinum music producer David Kershenbaum, playing at Vans Warped Tour at Blossom Music Center, and selling out shows at the A&R Bar, the Basement and The Big Room Bar. But there is much more they want to accomplish including recording more music, making a music video and playing more shows in and out of Columbus.

The band members are all Columbus born and raised. Four members currently attend The Ohio State University, while their drummer Joel is finishing up his junior year at New Albany high School. Cousin Simple brings an energy and passion to the stage and gives everything they have to their performances, regardless of the crowd size. They just released a new single in February called Honeybee, available on iTunes and Spotify and have a single set to release May 10 titled “Star Destroyers.”

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Columbus is a great city for musicians. Whether you’re in the indie, rock, or hip hop scene, there are other musicians and music industry people willing to help you out. Columbus also takes a great sense of pride in its “local gems.” People love to see musicians who are doing well in their hometown and are willing to support them in many ways.

There are so many organizations that have taken this to heart and are helping bands get great opportunities. CD102.5, WCBE 90.5, PromoWest Productions and the Columbus Music Commission have helped Cousin Simple get airtime, shows and support. When it comes to music cities, Columbus may not be the first place that comes to mind, but there are so many bands and musicians doing exciting things it’s making the future bright for them and the Columbus music scene.

But Cousin Simple recognizes that none of this would be possible without the support of their family, friends and FANS that come to each and every show. They are humbled and motivated by their audiences who energize them to make every performance an experience their fans won’t forget. 

Cousin Simple will perform on the Big Local Music Stage on Rich Street on Friday night, June 7 at 7:45 p.m.

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