At two Providence venues, storytellers get their chance to take center stage

Written by Jenn Salacido for The Providence Journal on September 27, 2015

PROVIDENCE — When Michelle Walker was young, growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1950s, her parents made a home that mirrored the neighborhood: ethnically and racially diverse.

Walker, who is black, recalls her parents’ response whenever she asked to bring a friend home: “Everyone is welcome in this house.”

She remembers one friend, a white girl named Gwendolyn, who would walk down their street to play. Gwendolyn’s family was poor, and in the dead of winter, she was still without a coat.

Walker, who had just gotten a new winter coat, told her mother she wanted to give her coat to Gwendolyn — not an old one, but the new one. Her friend was thankful, but there was a knock at the Walkers’ door the next day.

It’s a September night in Providence, and Walker is telling her story to a roomful of strangers at Live Bait in AS220’s Black Box Theatre — one of two popular monthly storytelling events hosted in the city.

This is Walker’s first time at the open-mike gathering, but her words resonate as surely as she was a veteran, and the space between her and the audience closes up as she describes Gwendolyn returning the coat. Her parents wouldn’t allow her to accept Walker’s charity.

“The worst thing about racism is I had to watch someone who I loved walk in the snow with no coat,” she tells to the crowd.

On this night, Walker is one of 15 to come out of the audience and speak extemporaneously on the night’s theme: race. Each speaker gets six minutes to tell their tale — no notes, no rants, no standup — as they interpret the theme.

As each storyteller’s name is plucked from the strips of paper they’ve placed in a small fishbowl, the night unfolds raw and real, veering from tense to hilarious, wistful to painful.

Live Bait — inspired by the New York storytelling non-profit The Moth, minus the judging component — is hosted by local performer and teacher Phil Goldman and includes original songs by musical counterpart Jerry Gregoire. Live Bait, at seven years old, is Providence’s longest-running storytelling event, joined in August by Story Laboratory at Aurora.

Walker’s story is one of the night’s most emotional. Afterward, she says she came to Live Bait after hearing about it in an acting class at AS220, but didn’t plan to tell a story. But the theme clearly struck a chord.

The topic couldn’t be more timely. Goldman announces the topic at the end of the previous month’s Live Bait, and he keeps a running list on his iPhone — adding ideas that strike him in the middle of the night or during walks in the woods.

Other nights, he recalls, have included an audience member standing before the mike to talk frankly about struggling with heroin addiction; once there was a marriage proposal; another person talked about the suicide of a friend, pulling out and reading the suicide note on stage.

Before the storytellers get their chance to talk on race, Gregoire plays bluesy riffs on his guitar and acknowledges the demographics of the audience, which fills the small Black Box Theatre. “A largely white audience, talking about race. Interesting,” says Gregoire, who is black. “I’m planning on doing a lot of listening.”

Despite the theme, some of the stories are funny. One person talks about getting lost during a cross-country meet, another about flailing down an airport terminal walkway in a last-ditch effort to catch a flight. Before the event wraps up just before midnight, local actor and playwright Kevin Broccoli, a longtime Live Bait participant, cracks up the audience with a story about how previously warring factions in a disparate group of nerds and fanboys banded together at a Disney convention to thwart line cutters.

“The main crux of the whole evening is giving a little piece of yourself, being vulnerable, whether it’s on a mundane or on a deep level,” says Marvin Novogrodski, a longtime friend of Goldman’s who gave him the nudge he needed to start the event.

On an August night, Story Laboratory, the city’s other storytelling night out, debuts with a theme of “Truth, Weirder Than Fiction,” and a feel that’s a little more polished, but no less real than Live Bait.

Eleven storytellers — comprising a mix of impromptu speakers, writers reading from their work and even a haunting piece of performance art — will take the stage under blue, pink and green gel lights before a mostly youthful, well-coiffed and tattooed standing-room crowd. Electronic music adds to an after-hours vibe.

Upstairs in the green room, Jaime Lowe, local writer, photographer and curator of Story Laboratory, sits with the night’s emcee, artist Walker Mettling. The pair chat with one of the night’s storytellers — Phil Eil, editor of the defunct Providence Phoenix who plans to read from a book-length piece of investigative reporting he’s working on.

In another corner, writer Fallon Masterson talks about her pre-storytelling routine. Masterson is originally from Providence but has spent time on the storytelling circuit in Chicago. She says she’s not a performer by nature.

“I think most writers aren’t, and that’s what’s inclusive about this,” she says. “It gets a lot of people drawn in, gives them a platform they wouldn’t normally have.”

She clutches at a monocle around her neck. “This is probably the strangest thing I do,” she says. “It’s my superstitious thing. It makes me feel very writerly.”

Masterson is the first to read — unlike Live Bait, storytellers can read directly from notes. Her offering is a short story about parsing out curses with a “superstitious group of personal trainers.” It feels a little like the word game Mad Libs, going from crunches to warding off a poltergeist, but that’s the thing, there’s so much truth to the notion that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

The night’s most dynamic performance comes from Vicki Warner, who has slides projected behind her as she talks about her grandmother, an early Internet maven who used family members’ identities to court long-distance loves online. Then there’s Jonathan Wisehart, whose gravelly voice tells of his experience in a psychiatric ward after suicidal ideations, as he occasionally checks notes on an iPad.

The night’s last performer is Eric Paul, a veteran musician and poet who reads from a story he had rolled up in his pocket. The story is from a book he’s writing about his 20 years working as a touring musician.

Slipping at times into the punctuated rhythms of a slam poet, Paul tells of a harrowing close encounter with airport security post-9/11 while on tour. He’s visibly tense, confiding later that he hadn’t performed prose in quite a while and it proved clunkier to read than poetry.

Still, it’s clearly an enjoyable and at times cathartic night for Paul and the others — as with Live Bait. At turns both events are therapeutic, terrifying, terrific. But always real.

Live Bait takes the stage again Friday, Oct. 2, at 10 p.m. at AS200, 95 Empire St. Tickets are $7, and the theme is “spin.” No reservations are necessary, either to perform or to attend.

Story Laboratory returns Sunday, Oct. 11, at 8 p.m. at Aurora, 276 Westminster St., with a theme of “Truth Bomb: Game-changing Words of Advice.” Admission is a donation of $1 to $10. Interested performers can contact Lowe through Story Laboratory’s Facebook page,www.facebook.com/storylaboratorypvd.

Salcido, Jenn. “At two Providence venues, storytellers get their chance to take center stage.” Providence Journal. 27 Sep. 2015 web <http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150927/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/150929614/?Start=1>