by Sara Beth Nelson
My husband John and I cross the threshold from the still sunny summer evening into the dark music hall. There is a man at a podium. I show him the electronic tickets on my glowing phone screen. He stamps our hands with thick blue ink.
I go to the table on the right with papers and a large glass drinking mug. I write my name on the paper and drop it into the glass.
Folding metal chairs are set up facing the stage with narrow aisles down the center and sides. We sit. The rows are so close together my knees almost touch the seat in front of me. I sit on the left aisle so I can get out if my name is called. John sits next to me.
On stage, there is a microphone and a whiteboard. The whiteboard waits for the scores. The theme of the evening written across the top: On the Road.
The room fills and fills. Soon I am touching people on all sides. The house lights dim and we are in the dark.
The host gets on stage. The lights are bright. He squints. He sweats. He can’t see us, but he is all we can see. He announces the first storyteller and tells him to prepare. He introduces the judges, picked and trained just that evening. They call out the names they have created for their judging teams. The scribe writes the names across the top of the white board.
The host tells a story about trying to be like Jack Kerouac. He brings up the first storyteller. The man complains about the blinding light. He tells his story. People clap. He sits down. The host talks again, tells the next teller to prepare. He asks the judges for scores and the scribe writes them on the whiteboard.
The next storyteller goes. And then I get called. I stand to the side of the stage while the host finishes asking for scores. He introduces me again. I climb the steps to the stage. I stand in the light. I don’t squint, but I want to. I can not see anyone. Just shadows around the edges of the room. I tell my story. It is about a road trip John and I took through the UK. People laugh at the right spots; disembodied voices. I waver in the light and accept the applause. The host comes back and I step down. The host asks the judges for my scores. I’m not a contender for first place, but they’re not terrible.
My friend, Ray, tells a story. He gets a high score and will probably win. He’s won the story slam before.
There are more stories. Some profound and others silly. A man who is blind tells a story about eating fancy dinners at conferences in different countries and the French chef who kindly cut his food before sending it out.
I have numb spots on my behind from the hard seats. The final scores are tallied. Ray wins. The crowd erupts. The host struggles to explain over the cheers that someone else must go on from this slam to compete in the grand slam since Ray is already going. The blind storyteller is in second place. Everyone else sees what he does not. They see on the board that his score is next highest. Friends reach over and grab his shoulder. They whisper in his ear as the host announces his name. He will go to the grand slam.
The room seems immediately cooler as bodies move apart. Air and space flow again in between. John and I weave around others going to the bathroom, to the bar, out the door. We go into the night.
Understanding reality storytelling, and sharing what I have learned with the national storytelling community, is a continuing project of mine. One around which I am planning my dissertation. The picture I’ve painted here is just one night at one event. At the conference this summer I will be sharing insights I gained regarding reality and festival-style storytelling after conducting oral history interviews with a couple of Georgia storytellers.
About Sara Beth
Sarah Beth Nelson is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina. She conducts research on modern oral communication with the focus of her dissertation being the reality storytelling movement. Sarah Beth also performs as a storyteller in fringes, festivals, and many venues in between. When not telling true stories from her own life she shares classical myths she has reimagined to feature empowered heroines.