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Inside L.A.'s Storytelling Boom

shauna-mcgarry.jpg
Anthony D'Alessandro
All Shauna McGarry wants to do is go back and console her 23-year old self.
L.A. Story Works, a non-profit organization dedicated to upholding the art form of oral regaling, wrapped its L.A. Storytelling Festival this past Thursday. The raconteurs who grabbed the mike from Oct. 3-10 at various shows seemed to fit with the general trend in storytelling today, which is that storytelling doesn't mean "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or "Rumpelstiltskin." Instead, just about every word coming out of any storyteller's mouth is true.

For example, at Eat Your Words, the fest's opening night show on Oct. 3 at the Standard Hotel on Sunset, Anger Management scribe Shauna McGarry told of failing to be de-virginized by a 33-year-old-guy when she was a homely 23 year-old. On Oct. 5 at RISK!, a show where storytellers fearlessly unmask their shame, Brian Finkelstein took the IO West mainstage to recount his panic attack in a Gelson's after learning that his wife suffered a miscarriage. Meanwhile across the hall on one of IO's smaller stages at Quote Unquote, Michelle Buteau charmingly recounted the time she had a three-way with two guys, one who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio and the other who looked like Adrien Brody.

Storytelling since the '90s has, in a way, merged alternative comedy with Chicken Soup for the Soul. As storytellers cleanse themselves through a three act monologue in 10 minutes, we are cleansed, falling with the performer and also pulling ourselves up by their bootstraps.

Brian Finkelstein exposes his soul at RISK! at the LA Storytelling Festival.
Brian Finkelstein exposes his soul at RISK! at the LA Storytelling Festival.
Anthony D'Alessandro

During the fest, which brought the city's sprawling shows under one umbrella, it became clear that storytelling in the city is at its zenith.

Nikki Levy, whose series Don't Tell My Mother! ended the fest, and who was also one of the fest's planners, attributes the boom to one simple reason. "With all the social media and reality TV, I think people are sick of the bullshit," she says. "We feel disconnected and want to divulge and connect."

See also: 10 Best Stand-Up Comedy Shows in Los Angeles

The origins of the current storytelling millennial era in L.A. can be easily traced to Beth Lapides and Greg Miller's Un-Cabaret, a foremother to the alternative comedy scene of the early '90s, when stand-ups such as Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk and Andy Kindler threw out the rules on observational joke timing by just focusing on the ridiculousness of the story they were telling.

Though humor is a common ingredient woven throughout most of the storytelling in town, it's also often deep, dark, dirty, and, above all, completely honest.

What's ironic is that TV writers are the staple performers at most of the storytelling shows, though their tales wouldn't exactly work if translated into procedural cop shows, or even sitcoms.

Typically most of the stories heard are personal morality tales laced with laughs, however, whenever a storyteller goes completely balls-to-the-wall funny, it's a welcome oasis. For instance, at the fest's Saturday night P.E.Z. Show, Arsenio Hall Show head writer Chris McGuire had the crowd in stitches over his penchant for downloading morose Harry Chapin songs from iTunes when he's drunk ("These are the types of songs that The Walking Dead writing staff listens to when they're breaking story").

Up next: Stories about food, school, dumpsters, rectums...

 

What's also remarkable about the storytelling scene is how savvy each show's producer is in branding his or her show to help it stand out from the fray, something that alternative stand-up nights around town fall short of doing (watching a room of young alternative comics at one watering hole in Los Feliz can be quite similar to another in Westwood).

 


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Anthony D'Alessandro
Greg Walloch on Eat Your Words: "L.A. audiences don't seem to actually eat very much food, so they might as well come to a show where they can hear all about it."

At Greg Walloch's Eat Your Words , stories need to adhere to a food or meal theme. At the Oct. 3 show, Walloch, who has cerebral palsy, hysterically confessed his Freegan exploits, which involved going through dumpsters in New York City, resulting a -- ahem -- bleeding rectum. At the midpoint of the show, he brought up burgeoning, vegetarian-friendly chefs Sergio Perera and Jacob Kear of The Amalur Project, who briefly discussed their eclectic pop-up restaurant.

Meanwhile, Alex Alexander's The P.E.Z. Show hosts TV writers emoting about comical occurrences in their lives. She also tries to put a thematic spin on the food after the show. One performance she hosted in recent months centered around school, and she served up cafeteria-style food like pizza and fruit cocktail.

And Don't Tell My Mother!, in addition to showcasing particularly embarrassing stories, plays like a variety show, complete with a house band and a finger-snappin' theme song reminiscent of a '90s sitcom, with the occasional drag queen (i.e. Courtney Act) breaking out into song during a story.

"We're a community that supports each other, but I feel like it's competitive for audiences. There's over 40 shows and they all have a different flavor," says Alexander, who captivated the crowd during P.E.Z. with a story about her ex-husband falling for a lesbian.

Up next: East coast vs. west coast storytelling

 

Finkelstein, an Emmy-nominated writer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show who is behind The Moth's presence here in town (it skipped the festival this year), points out that one divide in the storytelling scene is between the shows where you read a story, and shows -- like The Moth -- where you don't have notes.

Finkelstein explains that if the performer reads from notes, "you can get non-performer writers who write magazine articles and books, who feel comfortable to read, but don't feel comfortable getting on stage with a mike," says Finkelstein about essay shows, "It's a different pace." For instance, in the festival, RISK! and Quote Unquote didn't involve reading off of notes, while Don't Tell My Mother! and P.E.Z. did (Eat Your Words involved both).

Finkelstein, who started off in New York, also mentioned the distinction between the east coast and west coast storytellers. "While there's more professionals out here in any given show, in New York half of the performers are cops, steelmakers, secretaries or firemen, which brings another dynamic to a storytelling show versus one that has a lineup of comedians," he says.

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Even at respected shows, there is such a thing as a bad storyteller, i.e. the gentleman at Eat Your Words who rambled his way through his set, trying to find the point as he described his father's physical ailments and his mother's tendency to overcook on Jewish holidays. The best stories are edited and polished. Finkelstein, who also teaches storytelling, says, "I teach storytellers to weed out their tangents and to get them to arc."

For Levy, great storytellers harness their vulnerability. Sincerity goes a long way in making the most outrageous and/or blue incident believable. "To be a great storyteller means you're gonna tell me something you wouldn't normally share with me at a cocktail party. If you share it [onstage], I see your own calamity and I get to feel my own connection," she says. "But it's not about shocking or embarrassing yourself. That's not cathartic."


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