Baltimore's never-ending story

Success of Stoop Storytelling attests to the powerful hold of narrative on our lives

September 27, 2012|Lionel Foster

Last week I wrote about the death of Urbanite magazine from my perspective as a former employee. I soon discovered I was not alone in my sadness. As news of the publication's demise continued to spread, others, like me, seemed to be mourning the loss of not something but someone.

A daily paper like The Sun reflects the efforts of professionals to present a city or town as it is. This is important work. But with its fiction contests, personal essay-writing workshops and long-form journalism, Urbanite facilitated something different, a collective meditation on what Baltimore could become. And anyone could contribute.

Whether it's members of a tribe passing time around a fire or city dwellers staring up at a tall, flickering screen, it's pretty clear to me that narrative is part of what makes a society possible. So it probably shouldn't be surprising that even as we lose Urbanite, another local institution that builds communities around stories is growing stronger than ever. This season, the Stoop Storytelling Series turns seven years old.

Founded by writer-editor Laura Wexler and improv comedy veteran Jessica Henkin, the Stoop gives ordinary people seven minutes in the spotlight. Each show is organized around a broad theme like fear, family or love. People volunteer in advance to speak and, if selected, get pointers on presentation, an audience, and a stage.

It's a simple concept — truth-telling with an intermission — but one that has proven to be wildly popular. After just a year and a half in its first home, the Creative Alliance, the series moved to Center Stage to better accommodate demand. Building on the success of these shows are Stoop storytelling workshops, a live radio show that ran on WYPR, a podcast, an iPhone app, and Second Stoop, programs composed entirely of audience-members-turned-narrators.

Ms. Wexler was inspired to create the Baltimore series after seeing San Francisco's Porchlight. Chicago is home to 2nd Story, and in New York there's the Moth. The intimacy and authenticity of the personal stories that these events amplify can be a welcome change from elaborately produced Hollywood and TV productions, but whether we're leaning in at an auditorium or leaning back at home, all of this watching and listening raises the question: Why are we all so hungry for stories?

In his book "On the Origin of Stories," literary scholar Brian Boyd points out how widespread play is throughout the animal world. Play, he writes, allows members of a species to practice many different behaviors and scenarios, any number of which could prove useful in an uncertain world. Human animals add great cognitive abilities to their instinct for play, including an aptitude for recognizing patterns. Play plus human intelligence, posits Mr. Boyd, produces art. So what is storytelling? A powerful art form that allows us to communicate, derive meaning from events, and, if we are persuasive enough, motivate our peers to change the world. The narrative becomes the blueprint.

If Mr. Boyd is right and storytelling has deep biological underpinnings, this may explain why it is disorders that can interfere with our ability to communicate, like autism (which can manifest in impaired language development), Alzheimer's (memory loss), and schizophrenia (delusions), that scare me the most. If you lose or never develop the ability to create a coherent story, you are, of course, still human. But others may find it more difficult to appreciate the things that make you humane.

There are now about 350 Stoop alumni. I like to say that Baltimore is big enough so that it never has to be boring yet is knowably small. As the Stoop grows and more people take turns listening and speaking, exercising their empathy muscles, might it begin to affect some of the assumptions we make about strangers, the way we fill in the blanks when we read the news, and which places in the city we presume to be off limits? Is there an emerging narrative here big enough to encompass us all?

Sound like something you'd like to be part of? I've been fortunate enough to speak during two Stoop events. So if you decide to go for it, and I hope you do, here's what you can expect.

Your heart will race as they introduce you. You will stand up, walk toward what looks like a sea of smiling faces, take the mic and go blind. Unprepared for how bright the lights are, you will panic. Unable to see, for a few seconds, you'll have no proof that anyone else is there. But soon the crowd will laugh because of something you say — with you, not at you. They're pulling for you. You'll feel relieved. And as you ease into the rest of your story, you'll think back and wonder how you ever could have thought you were alone.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. You can reach him by email at lionel@lionelfoster.com and Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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