I’ve been preparing to perform in Drunken Telegraph: From Living Plank to Pine Tree, a storytelling show in Tacoma. It’s been a great adventure to think about taking my work from page to stage. For this week’s post, I’ve got an intermission post of sorts, or—to mix my theater metaphors—a behind-the-scenes interview with the show’s co-producers, Megan Sukys and Tad Monroe. And I do have my story in bullet-point format now, and I’m practicing it while I run. More on that next week. —Tamiko
Tamiko Nimura: First, what led you two to think about producing a storytelling show, as opposed to any other kind of show?
Megan Sukys: I’ve spent the past twelve years driving up to Seattle every day to bring people’s experiences to life on the radio. I love radio, but the one thing you miss is seeing the audience. Nothing compares to the energy created by a roomful of people all paying attention to one person, laughing, crying and experiencing the same thing at the same time.
Tad Monroe: I am a lover of the arts in general. A huge film buff who has produced several film series’ and taught classes on film appreciation and I am an avid reader and lover of literature and poetry. I’ve been active in producing poetry readings and started the Poet Laureate program in Tacoma. I myself am an active poet and writer. I guess storytelling is the knot that ties it all together for me. What I love about all art (including visual, music, and dance) but particularly film and writing is the stories they tell and the very different ways they tell them.
I grew up with parents and grandparents who made a living in my early years in the raising and racing of horses. It was in those formative years that I began to understand and appreciate the power and centrality of story. My family was a part of a nomadic band of horse racing people who traveled from fair circuit to fair circuit. Our daily schedule consisted of early morning chores with a huge lull during mid morning to late afternoon before evening chores or the actual races. Since, none of us were from the place we were, we all gathered in the cafes or watering holes (these were the days when minors could go in to bars in Montana, Idaho, and Washington).
What took place was hours upon hours of drinking coffee, beer, and soda, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories. My father would hold court. He was a master storyteller. Great timing, humor, drama, and insight. I began to learn how important these stories were to the identity of each person, how important these stories were in holding this particular community together. The stories were how we were known to each other and how we knew ourselves. It was the beginning of understanding how central stories are to making meaning of our lives. I think that was one of the things that drew me to religious ministry, the larger narrative story as central to our spiritual lives and the way we were making meaning of our lives. Ministry for me has always been about exploring and locating our story within a larger story about God and those that came before us.
TN: Why a show in Tacoma, especially?
TM: Why Tacoma? Well, this is my home and I have taken my citizenship here very seriously. I believe in taking seriously one’s place, responsibility, and presence in a particular location. I think both Megan and I long to be rooted to a place. We want to invest in and enrich our own lives and the lives of our neighbors. Finally, Tacoma doesn’t have a show like this one. I think we believe this kind of storytelling has a place in inspiring us all to share our stories more broadly, to know and be known, and that stories help knit us together and create the identity that nourishes those already rooted, they call and welcome those that will join us in the future.
MS: Although I’ve lived in Tacoma since 1999, commuting means that I haven’t had much time outside of work. But since Tad and I were neighbors for years, we would occasionally cross paths long enough to talk about the way storytelling worked in each of our careers. I think we both experienced the power of sharing life lessons through telling stories. And since Tad is about the most connected person in Tacoma, he got me involved in a performance of his stories last Fall.
We had a such a great time collaborating, that we wanted to create more opportunities to perform and share the things we’ve learned about telling good stories. And, a good friend of mine has been running a similar storytelling show in Seattle [A Guide to Visitors, -ed] for a decade. It seemed like the time was right to bring this kind of performance opportunity to our hometown.
TN: As a writer and lifelong avid reader, I really appreciate the need to create community around stories. Megan, I love the idea of wanting the reciprocal energy of an audience. And Tad, you’re right–I don’t think there is another kind of show like this in our area.
There’s the art of storytelling, and there are some regional/local guilds devoted to sharing folktales–but this show seems (and feels) a bit different. Could you talk a bit more about that?
TM: I probably don’t know enough about the other folktale guilds to speak well of the differences. I think there are a lot of ways to tell stories. I have seen professional storytellers who have more of a “performance” feel to their craft. Often those storytellers seem somewhere between performance art, drama, and storytelling for me. It is very good – there are some master storytellers in this genre of work. Often these people don’t tell their own stories but rather other people’s stories. Often they tell folktales or myths; real and true in the essence of the truths they communicate, but not actually something that has happened to the storyteller. They are more fiction.
I guess our stories are more like “live memoir”. Not too confessional, but still very personal. Room for hyperbole, but in a sense, the crafting and telling of something that actually happened to the person.
MS: A colleague of mine, Jamala Henderson, recently observed that, “Stories can act kind of like DNA. They can pass along the truth of who we really are.” I think she nailed it on the head. When we tell stories, we reveal our inner makeup and offer the gift of experience to the listener. A gift that we can apply to our own lives.
Stories are the tool of human communication. Myths, folktales, fables, testimony, advertising, movies… they are all ways that humans pass on some kind of wisdom gained through living. And, each of us has an instinctive sense of telling stories. We tell them even if we’re not aware of it.
TN: I’m finding that already, as I prep my own story. Can you talk a bit more about the kinds of people and the kinds of stories that you’re thinking of for this show, and for the series eventually?
TM: What kind of people and stories are we thinking about for Drunken Telegraph? I’d say regular people with extraordinary stories. You don’t need to fancy yourself a storyteller. You need to be someone who has a great story that you are able to tell well (and we will help you with that) and the story should have had an impact on you. Something that you can give us as an audience. Something you learned, you realized, or something that changed you. It should be universal, not the experience per se, but the take away – something that resonates broadly.
MS: For our story performance, we’ve chosen to focus on people’s real life experiences. Can we turn the stuff of our normal lives into verbal movies? Can we take another person into our life, by way of a great tale? What events, big or small, shape the way we see the world?
I’ve read that there are two kinds of storytellers:
1. People who have had amazing experiences and share it
2. People for whom even the most mundane experience is amazing when they tell it
We’re not just looking for extraordinary stories. We’re looking for stories that have meaning in people’s lives, but can also entertain and surprise.
TN: What are your hopes for the series overall?
MS: Since both Tad and I have done so much work with storytelling in our careers, we wanted the chance to bring those tools into a more social venue. Storytelling is not as much a part of regular socializing as it was in past generations. This kind of event, we hope, can bring people together to remember the fun and connection of letting someone reveal themselves and their insights.
TM: My hopes for Drunken Telegraph are that it would become a solid, consistent, and inspiring part of the landscape of both citizenship and artistic expression in Tacoma. I hope the stories themselves and the process of gathering to tell them will build stronger bonds between neighbors. I hope that it will be one of many vehicles that will provide Megan and I the opportunity to work with folks in the arts community, in business, local government, non-profit and more – advocating for the practice and art of storytelling as an essential and practical skill in community building and whatever your “business” might be.