Date: May 05 2012
Upstairs at the Australian Youth Hotel in Glebe, the crowd is relaxing into Thursday night. Boutique beers are on tap and pizza is on the menu. Small groups chat at the bar or nestle into plump couches. In a mustard-coloured velvet armchair in the corner, Joan Baggs, 81, is talking about her grandmother.
''She came here in 1908 on a bride ship,'' Baggs says. ''The colonies advertised for women because there was a shortage. She met a seaman on the boat on the way over. She must have had excellent references because when she landed, she found work with the two wealthiest spinsters in Australia.''
Baggs is the first speaker at the evening's storytelling event, Yarn, but shows no trace of nerves.
''Oh, no, it doesn't bother me,'' she says. ''I've been the president of a P&C. And besides, my mother had me taught elocution in 1939.''
The founder of Yarn, Carmen Betteridge, says she organised the event after her father took part in a storytelling evening in London. ''The more he told me about it, the more I thought about doing something here,'' Betteridge says. Her event is part of Australia's growing storytelling movement. Simpler than theatre and more relaxed than stand-up comedy, the evenings require nothing more than a speaker, a microphone and an audience. The trend has been gaining momentum internationally since a New York organisation, The Moth, began presenting true stories told live without notes 15 years ago. The hunger for stories of ordinary life has also been fuelled by Ira Glass's ground-breaking radio program, This American Life.
In Australia, the fledgling movement is full of small subcultures and different styles. Yarn echoes The Moth's model of ''true stories told live''. Campfire Collective runs storytelling workshops at Newtown Library, teaching the makings of a gripping tale.
Penguin Plays Rough, a monthly night of short fiction read aloud by professionals and amateurs, began in the front room of Pip Smith's Newtown apartment and shifted to a warehouse in St Peters when she moved house. In a space draped with crimson curtains, the audience sits cross-legged on the floor, drinking cask wine from plastic cups, and listening. ''I can't be bothered to put energy into making it more posh,'' Smith says. ''We wanted to just strip all that bulls--- away and get back to the pulse of the story.''
She thinks storytelling events tap into a desire for truth and authenticity. ''It may have come out of a cynicism about hyper-produced Fox News stories that look more like film blockbusters,'' she says. ''There's this thirst for the real, whatever the f--- real means.''
At Story Club in Sydney University's Hermann's Bar, Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge aim to create a ''lounge-room vibe''. Their storytellers read from pages placed in a heavy, old-fashioned atlas. Jenkins, whose background is in stand-up, wanted to create a forum for comedians to take their time with a yarn, rather than leaping from joke to joke.
Storytelling events can feel as intimate as late-night phone calls between friends. After Baggs's story about her grandmother at the Australian Youth Hotel, a blonde woman stands to talk about her father, saying she spent years knowing nothing about his life. Her mother rarely spoke about him and, as an adult, she pieced together his story. When she finally tracked down his family, she discovered he had died not long ago. ''I'd never stopped for a second to think I wouldn't meet him,'' she says, wiping away a tear.
Her fierce honesty has the room's attention. Later, almost everyone makes a point of congratulating and thanking her. The story has forged a connection between strangers. ''I felt like I was talking to friends,'' the woman says. ''I felt safe.''
campfirecollective.com.au; penguinplaysrough.com.au; email@example.com; Story Club: facebook.com/project52comedy
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