Rebooting the oral tradition
January 3, 2010
Story by Michael Timm & Photos by Adam Morris
The power of verbal communication may have provided an evolutionary edge for our prehistoric ancestors. Especially given a frenetic 21st-century lifestyle filled with texting and Twittering, it’s tempting to imagine early humans sitting around campfires, trading stories, building the bonds of trust, and passing cultural information along to the next generation.
Inside the homey confines of Bay View’s Sugar Maple tavern Dec. 16, a gang of urban storytellers followed in the footsteps of those ancestors, sharing their true tales as part of a new local phenomenon dubbed Ex Fabula, Latin for “from stories.”
Eleven people spoke at the second monthly Ex Fabula installment-from a beer festivalgoer recalling his firsthand discovery that “people are not allowed to show their buttocks in Denver” to “the only black woman in Lake Geneva” recounting how she hit a Golden Retriever with her Chevy Blazer.
Leah Delaney, Megan McGee, Matt Sabljak, Amy Schleicher, and Adam Weise organized Ex Fabula in late 2009, with support from 91.7 WMSE and 89.7 WUWM.
“All of us are big fans of This American Life. We’re just in love with the idea of live storytelling performed in front of an audience,” Delaney said, “because everyone has a story, because the more real it is the more engaging it is.”
The first Ex Fabula event was held Nov. 19 at Art Bar, the second at Sugar Maple, with the third planned for Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Hi Hat Garage, 1701 N. Arlington Pl. Ex Fabula organizers ask for a $3 cover charge, and WMSE records the stories with the intention of broadcasting them.
Ex Fabula follows the model of New York City’s The Moth, a nonprofit storytelling organization founded in 1997. Prearranged speakers join interested audience members, whose names may be drawn from a hat, to share a true story in five minutes or less. The theme for the first night’s stories was “beginnings.” Sugar Maple’s theme was “second thoughts.” Hi Hat’s theme is “busted.”
Sugar Maple Storytellers
At Sugar Maple, Matt Sabljak and Mike Brenner led off the program with “solo” stories. Sabljak tried to explain how an epiphany about his sex life led him to refocus on his dream of being a writer. As Brenner told his story about singing karaoke at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, he reenacted a drunken striptease he’d performed to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” “When I sing it, I like to take my clothes off,” he explained. The Denver police apparently didn’t find it as amusing as everyone else.
In the almost impossible-to-follow slot was the 10-minute “Terkel” interview segment, named in honor of deceased radio personality Studs Terkel. Leah Delaney interviewed Niclaus Ortiz, son of Bay View’s José the Barber Extraordinaire owner. Ortiz discussed a contractor who allegedly took money upfront without performing services to the barber.
Five solo acts followed.
Rosie Ricks feared racist repercussions from a trip to a Lake Geneva bonfire when she hit a dog, but ended up appreciating local bar culture.
“How can you have second thoughts about a car that’s $75?” asked speaker Scott Berkes, who in 1985 discovered a 1977 Ford Fiesta for sale. At first his bargain wouldn’t shift into gear, but after an adventure towing the small vehicle through a valley, he found it only needed new transmission fluid.
Leah Leone received the audience award for poking fun at her impetuous marriage to-and several years and continents later, her divorce from-an Argentinean seeking a green card. At one point, she said she was so stressed, she called her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and said, “I’m sorry to inform you I’m going to start drinking because this is the only way I can get this man to leave me.”
Adam Baus grew up feeling culturally deprived in small-town Hanover, Ill., the self-proclaimed “Mallard Capital of the World,” but described how he eventually matured beyond his psychological and geographical confines.
“Anthony,” who did not provide his last name though it’s listed as “Umlauf” on Ex Fabula’s website, recounted how he was pulled over for riding a bicycle while intoxicated. “Have you been drinking?” the officer allegedly asked. “Why do you think I’m riding a bicycle?” Anthony quipped back. The police officer then allegedly asked him to blow into a breathalyzer. “I’m a criminal justice major. I know better than that,” said Anthony, who nonetheless said he blew a .32 into the device, to which the officer allegedly said he couldn’t believe Anthony was still standing. The officer drove Anthony home to his grandmother and allegedly let Anthony activate the siren in his squad. “On second thought, some cops aren’t too bad,” Anthony concluded.
Gina Ryther and Nita Cordova wrapped up Ex Fabula at Sugar Maple with a “Rashomon,” named for the Akira Kurosawa film in which four witnesses each describe the same rape and murder, but from differing points of view. Ryther recalled hosting a party when she was stressed on behalf of her guests, while at the same party, Cordova described falling in love with the man who is now her boyfriend.
At times the storytelling devolved into cathartic release or attention-getting antics, but Ex Fabula conjured the wonky intimacy of congregating in a friend’s basement and not quite knowing what will ensue. The honesty, directness, and unpredictability were, if not always refreshing, at least quirky.
At Sugar Maple, Ex Fabula also seemed as much about the art of listening as it was about telling. A hush descended upon the packed bar for each speaker. Organizers estimated 75 people attended.
“I don’t think we are creating anything new,” Delaney said. “I think we are reviving an art form that has been lost.”
More info: exfabula.wordpress.com.
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