Tips from storyteller Cheryl Hamilton:
We'll call this one Short and Sweet.
* Start your story with action. Don't back into it; jump right in and enthrall your listeners.
* Avoid chronology. Don't simply start at the beginning and end at the end. Order your story for maximum impact.
* Save some for later. Don't feel like you need to tell it all at once. Save some and enthrall a whole new audience another time.
Tips from storyteller Vernon Cox:
This one is called TALK, for reasons that should become clear soon enough.
True: Your story should be true.
Arc: Your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
Limit: If your story doesn't have a limit, we'll be here until tomorrow morning.
Kind: Be kind and tell your story that way.
It's time to tell some stories.
Don't be nervous – we're all friends here and the rules are simple. Think of the five F's and you'll be fine: Stories must be five minutes long, first-person, fundamentally factual, format-appropriate (no folk tales, musical instruments or mime) and free of notes – we tell, but we don't read, stories.
Got it? Go.
Michael Sargent steps up to the microphone. His hands are stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and his feet are close together. He sways back and forth just slightly while telling a story about the time his deep South grandmother warned him to never bring a white girl home. It was a good story with a happy ending, and after five minutes had passed – not a second more, mind you – it was over.
They're calling it The Corner, and the first couple of times, at least, it will take place at She Doesn't Like Guthries in Lewiston. Each month, people will gather to listen to five-minute stories or to wander up to the mic and tell their own.
If the very first show here is any indication, The Corner is going to be a hit – Guthries is filled to capacity on this night (last Thursday) and, in spite of the nonstop flow of beer and wine, there's an air of nervous energy throughout the room.
Speaking can be hell on the nerves.
Next comes Vernon Cox, of Westbrook. Now, here is a man who uses his hands a lot while telling a story. He waves them in front of his face. He makes fists and beats one hand against the other. He's telling a story about witnessing an emergency C-section as a young medic and his voice is booming. The audience listens, spellbound for exactly five minutes.
Two speakers up, two stories told and only 10 minutes gone.
"I love two things about hearing such stories," says Sargent, a psychology professor at Bates College in Lewiston and the brain behind the event. "First, other people's stories are often surprising, moving or entertaining. But more importantly, hearing other people's stories can grab you and carry you out of your own experience and into a world completely different from your own. If you really listen closely to a really well-told story, it's possible to temporarily give yourself over to the reality of someone else's perspective. And that's just cool. You don't need a drug to escape to an interesting place. You just need to listen to a good story."
And speaking of good stories, here comes Cody LaMontagne, an energetic and buxom local woman who begins her story with her hands on her hips. Her voice is loud and there's a bit of Mae West in it. She gestures frequently as she tells the tale of traveling as a young lady in a van that she fixes herself. She speaks with high emotion about conflicts with her daddy and describes how it climaxed one day in a parking lot next to a bait and tackle store.
There's no gong or buzzer when LaMontagne's five minutes are up, nor is there any need for one. She timed it perfectly, walking away just as the final second ticks off the clock.
Sargent loves to hear stories, and what do you know? We've had three good ones in a row. It's no coincidence. Some people who turned out for the event are actually pros at the timeless art of storytelling.
"The fact I traveled three hours one way to share a five-minute story," says Cheryl Hamilton, "should tell you how much I believe in what The Corner is starting in Lewiston-Auburn. Faster than anything I have found, storytelling connects people across different identity groups and builds real community. And, it's just great entertainment. To be clear, people don't have to be professionals to share. In fact, my favorite tellers are almost always the first-timers."
Since moving away from Maine two years ago, Hamilton has become active in Boston's storytelling community. She's a regular teller and a volunteer with Massmouth, an organization committed is preserving the art of storytelling in Massachusetts.
"The last two years," Hamilton says, "I have won first place in multiple slams throughout the city and usually attend at least one storytelling event a week."
She's not bragging, you understand. At The Corner, Hamilton is acting as a sort of story coach, leading the crowd through a series of exercises that will help them hone their storytelling skills. Together with Vernon Cox, Hamilton has everybody at Guthries spend three minutes telling a story to the person in the next chair.
"We're going to trim it down to one minute," says Cox, which a shade of wicked glee.
OK, that's enough practice for one night. Back to the stories.
Here comes Addie Johnson, an energetic blonde in tights and a denim vest. She wears her hair in a ponytail and she'll be the very first to use a popular swear word to make a point. Her story? Hilarious. Johnson tells of learning to play the trombone as a school girl even though she had absolutely no interest in doing so.
"All my friends had these little instruments," she tells the audience. "I had this big, honking, brass piece of ----"
At times her hands go the mic, touching it almost timidly. At times her hands are flying through the air because she's recalling the angst of coming down with mono just before she was to play a trombone solo at a show at Disneyland. She tells of being wheeled to the stage in a wheelchair, of braces gashing her mouth and of a classmate (a crush, really) making fun of her from the audience while Johnson belted out her solo. It's funny stuff, sure. But behind the mirth, in Johnson's voice you can hear the stress, strain and frustration of that long-ago girl.
"And that," she says, as the clock clicks down the final five seconds, "was my first Disney experience."
Thunderous laughter and long applause. The crowd is loose, happy, appreciative. Looking at all the eager faces, it's easy to understand our ancient love of a well-told tale.
Storytelling is as old as the human vocal cord, of course, and probably older than that. But in a time of instant messaging and 140-word Tweets, some might say it's a dying art form.
Not Sargent. His inspiration for The Corner comes from a few different places. He knows a good story when he hears one, and he hears them a lot.
"I've recently been bitten by the story bug," Sargent says. "Fans of National Public Radio know that 'This American Life' and 'The Moth Radio Hour' have brought storytelling to listeners for years. And 'Snap Judgment' – which I've totally gotten hooked on – is a new kid on the storytelling block. What all the programs have in common is that they feature real people's stories. Occasionally, celebrities will appear, such as Ernest Thomas, who played Raj on the TV program 'What's Happening!' But it's typically just regular folks telling an interesting story from their lives."
Regular folks, that's the idea. The old adage is that every person alive has a book in them. If not a whole book than at least a story or two. Anyone who has sat around a bus station – or an airport or a bar – making small talk with a stranger knows that the lives of others are interesting. Which, of course, is the whole point of The Corner.
We've got time for another story or two. Welcome Linda Sherwood, a woman who wears all black but for a dangling blue scarf. She launches into a story about a time in her early military career when she was trying to catch a flight back to Maine. It's a harrowing tale, with near misses and nervous moments. Ultimately, with the help of a kindly general, she got a ride aboard a mighty military craft and watched the glory of the northern lights almost all the way home.
"Take risks," she says, to fill the final three seconds. "It's worth it."
Shows like "The Moth" and "Snap Judgment" have impressive numbers of followers, but of course, they play to the entire world through the wonders of the Internet. When Sargent approached Heather and Randy Letourneau, the owners of Guthries, they jumped on it, guessing – and wisely, as it turns out – that people will turn out to hear stories in a more intimate venue.
That's good news for Sargent and, on a larger scale, good news for Lewiston-Auburn, as well. What community, after all, is more abuzz with potential stories than this one?
"I got excited about organizing something like The Corner a few months ago when I saw new things happening in L/A," Sargent says. "But I still saw a gap. Exciting things were happening, but not exciting in this specific way. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that listening to others' stories could foster connections between and among people, and might even spark a little community. It might spark a community of local residents who love hearing and telling stories. If a small community or scene like that developed, filled with people of different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, sexual orientations and so on, and if it organized itself around storytelling in L/A, I'd be thrilled. Who knows what else such a community might get started?"
Another story is in order. You don't have to wait long for them. As soon as one speaker finishes up, the next is weaving his or her way toward the front of the room.
The man who next steps to the microphone, in front of a brick wall featuring photos of Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, is a fellow who calls himself "boulder," all lowercase. He's a small stocky man with a fire-engine-red shirt and black-framed glasses. He's a little intense, his hands often twisting into fists, but when his story gets rolling, you can understand why.
The man named boulder recalls carrying his ailing father into a Massachusetts hospital, an old man he doesn't particularly like. Why? Why did he help his father despite that hostility. That is the crux of a story so powerful and personal, boulder seems occasionally on the verge of tears.
"I really can't see anyone robbed of his dignity," he says. "That's why I had to do it."
It's a bit of a bummer, that story, so boulder wraps it up with a funnier tale of his father scamming a waitress out of fortune cookies at a Chinese restaurant. The crowd appreciates it. And now it's time for a short break before five more people will be selected in a drawing to get up and tell their stories.
The theme of the Thursday night event was "firsts." Get it? Sargent spoke of the first time he brought a white woman home to meet his gramma. Cox spoke of his first real taste of emergency surgery before going on to make a career of it.
And so on. The speakers stuck to the theme, for the most part, although some had to work a little to make their stories fit. Each month, a new theme will be declared and more speakers will head off to tell their stories. Guthries will host the event this month and in November.
"My vision for The Corner," Sargent wrote on the event Facebook page, "is one where we regularly hear interesting, true, first-person stories told by people from diverse backgrounds – diverse ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, nationalities and more. The stories look to the past, but without romanticizing it. Tellers look outwardly to unfamiliar worlds, but without exoticizing them. Audience members potentially walk away knowing new people and sometimes discovering new empathy for people far different from themselves.
"The plan is for this to be a monthly event, held on the second Thursday of every month," Sargent says. "It will be an open-mic event, but unlike a lot of other open-mic events, it will focus only on true, first-person stories, each one running for five minutes. October's and November's sessions are at Guthries. But over the longer term, I'm planning to get a couple of other venues on board so it can rotate."
After two hours of stories we leave Guthries a little bit richer than when we walked in. Just what Sargent had hoped for. The first "Corner" at Guthries was a fine tale. And judging by the response on this night, it won't be the last.