Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways. Recently, we caught up with renowned storyteller, SM Shrake, for, well, his story…
Shrake is the co-founder of Story League, a DC-based group that presents live storytelling events throughout the city. From contests to story circles, Shrake is fostering and building a collaborative story-telling community, one tale at a time.
This Wednesday, September 19, Story League is hosting its next Story Contest at Busboys and Poets (202114th Street NW) from 9 until 10 pm.
Luckily for us, we had a chance to catch up with Shrake before the competition to discuss Story League, his role in the Borderstan community and the growth of storytelling in the District.
Borderstan: What exactly is Story League?
Shrake: Story League is a place to compete to see who has the best story. From our biweekly contests (the third Wednesdays of the month at the flagship Busboys and Poets on 14th Street and the fourth Sundays of each month at the Shirlington, VA location), to our periodic tournaments: It’s an onstage sport-like activity, an outgrowth of something as old as people sitting around a table vying to be the most interesting. (Everyone does that, right?) Except you can win money.
Borderstan: Interesting! I am envisioning a fight breaking out on stage or something…
Shrake: I wish! But we are also a collaborative group of “storyfriends” that puts on non-competitive shows sometimes and always welcomes new additions to the group. And that includes frequent guest performers from out of town (so far New York, Philly, Boston, and Baltimore).
Borderstan: How did you come up with the concept for the group, which had its first show in March 2011?
Shrake: In my first six months of performing stories, I went from city-to-city collecting impressions of how other storytelling groups did their shows/slams. Being a Scorpio and an ISTP (Myers-Briggs), I didn’t go ask someone, “How do you start a story club in Washington, DC?” I simply borrowed what I liked, and tried to fix things I didn’t like, about how others did things. So there’s been a lot of trial and lots of errors, but we keep going and course correcting. I had a lot of help, of course, in fleshing out the idea, first from my co-founder Cathy Alter, and Regie Cabico, Sarah Chamberlain (who did our logo and has designed our fabulous posters), the friends who focus-grouped a name and picked “Story League,” and many more great people who have stuck by SL the whole time.
Borderstan: How did you first get into the art or storytelling? And where/how did you learn to refine your craft?
Shrake: To start, I call what we do by a longer, more specific name: “true, personal, time-limited storytelling by and for adults, for evening entertainment purposes, with alcoholic drinks available.” Obviously, we have some work to do yet on the name! Need something snappier… I wrote about the problem last year. Because nothing irks me more than being associated with “magical, folkloric storytelling for children who are sitting Indian-style in a semi-circle around a Mother Goose look-alike.”
I stumbled into it because I was lonely and needed a hobby. I went to a story open mic — I hadn’t even known such a thing existed — and immediately realized this was perfect for me, because I love nothing more than making a room full of people STFU and listen to me without interrupting me. Simple as that.
As for refining: I’ve been going for two-and-a-half-years now, have performed about 50 or 60 times. Not sure if that seems like a lot or not much? But you learn something most every time. Starting with “How do microphones work?” which took about 10 shows for me to figure out…
Borderstan: Not sure I know how a microphone works either. Any tips for first timers?
Shrake: If you talk kind of softly, as I do, you have to “eat the mic,” basically. If you are loud, back up. For most people, the diameter of your fist is the distance the mic should be from your mouth. Some say it’s three inches. Most of the time there is a sound person working who can adjust the volume for different kinds of voices. That helps, obviously. There are also foam covers to put over mics to keep “P”s from exploding. You know, that annoying “puh” sound? And they have these mic stands now that you don’t have to unscrew, adjust and re-screw – they are like a crane, and you can just raise or lower it to be near your face.
Borderstan: Story League’s events have sold out in the past, and it seems like storytelling is becoming very popular (dare I say trendy?). What about storytelling (and Story League) do you think draws people in?
Shrake: The fact that theoretically anyone can do it. The shows are a very supportive environment where a newcomer can, and often does, walk right up and nail it on his or her first try. Or if someone “bombs,” the audience still gives them a warm reception because that could be YOU. Also for non-participants (the audience) it’s great because it’s live entertainment at a low cost. It’s accessible and relatable, thought-provoking. A perfect date night, because it’s shorter than most movies and you can interact a little during it and then talk about the stories over your nightcap or whatever. People like to come out in groups and root for their friends who are telling a story, too. We have all these big group-hug-type photos from our contests!
But a lot of people come alone! More the serious storytellers who REALLY want to win so they want to focus and also don’t want people to know if they… non-win. Like me.
Borderstan: The idea of “bombing” (or watching someone bomb) makes me cringe. Does this happen very frequently?
Shrake: Define “bomb.” I mean, you see stand-up comedians bomb all the time: Meaning the audience simply does not laugh or applaud.
The bargain is different with stand-up vs. storytelling. With stand-up, the deal is: I paid $20 to come in here, plus a two-item minimum. Make me laugh, the whole time you’re up there, or I hate you and I will make you feel my hatred. With stories, it’s like: Oh, well, I’m sure the next one will be better. “A” for effort! Hugs all around.
Sometimes a performance is disappointing. Lord knows I almost never think I did well. But I’ve only seen someone completely choke once. This guy was going strong, I was really digging his story, he had momentum and then he just lost it. Most times people take a moment and get back on the horse, though. But this guy just couldn’t “remember” what he was “supposed” to say and he stood up there for what seemed like five agonizing minutes, frozen. (This is the grave danger of rote memorization!)
The crowd went wild with supportive shouts to him, though! He left the stage, and the host brought him back up to finish later, and everyone was clapping for him like he won the Olympics. I hate to say this, but it really was heartwarming! To know that if you ever do totally bomb out, lions will not run onstage and eat you alive.
Borderstan: I have to ask: What was it like to tell a story to Ira Glass on This American Life?
Shrake: Let’s just say he is the godfather of storytelling for good reason. By the way, it was about six years ago that I did it, long before I started doing “storytelling” and Story League started. I was nervous and you can hear it in my voice. A friend who knew about the show advised me beforehand, “Just don’t try obviously to be funny. Ira hates it when people do that.” So I didn’t try! And guess what? I wasn’t funny! That’s where the editor took over…
Borderstan: If it was long before you started storytelling or Story League, how did you get on the show?
Shrake: Oh, it’s too long of a story. Ha.
Borderstan: What is one of your personal favorite stories that you’ve heard?
Shrake: Well, my favorite TAL story ever was the one with Julia Sweeney where she steals money from her employer literally right under his nose. In the live story world, the first one that really inspired me when I started was by my friend Molly Kelly here in D.C., she told about how she had finally come out as a lesbian and was so happy, then a rapist attacks her. It was so dramatic, so wrenching, so personal.
It provided half of an early lesson I learned about storytelling, which is: Go for maximum funny, or maximum harrowing/sad. The middle ground is the home of the dreaded “So what?” story.
Borderstan: Do you have a favorite restaurant or hangout in the Borderstan neighborhood?
Shrake: I’m partial to 14th Street, specifically the Black Cat, where we had our sold-out show on Labor Day weekend, and El Centro next door. Of course I love our partners Busboys and Poets, up the street. I just love that name for that area, too, because I always wondered what to call it. “Dupont East” felt weird.