As opening night glitches go, this was a good problem.
The back room at Lakeview gastropub The Dog's Bollox was jammed with people squeezing in for the debut of Story Sessions, yet another yarn-spinning event to add to Chicago's already-packed storytelling/live literature calendar, and the organizers, regretfully, were turning people away.
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What an unfortunate fate, to miss Tom Wolferman describe, heartbreakingly and hilariously, giving a bath to his Alzheimer's-stricken mother, and to not hear Barrie Cole explain, gut-splittingly, the ways in which a one-night stand is nothing like a nightstand.
But if anything is certain of the city's consistently crammed live lit events, it's that you can probably catch another one tomorrow.
"I think it just proved that there is always room for more storytelling in the world," said Jill Howe, who co-produced Story Sessions with pal and fellow storyteller Rachael Smith, and has since gotten permission to spread out into the whole bar.
Telling stories, a pastime as old as the species, began seeing a modern-day revival as art form and entertainment some 40 years ago, when the National Storytelling Festival debuted in the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tenn., featuring mostly folk tales.
But in the past several years a wave of short-form true-tale-telling has surged in popularity among a young, bar-going crowd, carving a niche separate from improv, stand-up comedy, spoken word and poetry slams while also drawing from their influences.
"I feel like live lit is in the Beatles-in-Hamburg phase of its development," said Ian Belknap, founder of Write Club, referring to the band's pre-fame formative years. "I think it's going to explode in a way that it will be a cultural force."
Belknap insists on the term "live lit," rather than "storytelling," for the burgeoning scene in order to encompass the varied manifestations of the word-spewing genre, from the popular personal narrative to essay competitions.
Write Club, for example, is "literature as blood sport," wherein two people argue in defense of opposing ideas as the clock counts down their seven-minute time limit, and the audience votes by applause. The prize is money donated to a charity of the victor's choice.
Belknap, a former actor and stand-up comedian, launched Write Club at The Hideout in 2010, around the same time a handful of other live literature shows were starting to crop up in Chicago, because "I wanted a show that would be fast, loud, feature original writing and have actual stakes." He has since opened chapters in Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto, and locally launched another monthly show at Space, in Evanston, so the under-21 crowd could join in.
Belknap believes the hunger driving audiences to hear live stories stems from our distinctly modern condition.
"My theory is that it's largely in response to the screen-based isolation in which many of us function all the time," Belknap said. "There's something irreducible and irreplaceable about being in a shared space in real time with other humans, sharing an experience."
Scott Whitehair, who produces several storytelling shows in Chicago, agrees the desire for connection is feeding the trend, though he adds: "My pessimistic perspective is that we've become so confessional as a society that it's one more layer beyond a Facebook post."
For Howe, who got involved in storytelling after she got laid off from her job as an English teacher at Chicago Public Schools and entered "a very dark time in my life," the growing community isn't so much a scene as "a way of looking at life and connecting with other people," she said. "It's about living more openly and honestly and creatively and vulnerably."
Howe, who deals in storytelling even in her day job as events producer for Leadership Story Lab, a consulting firm that helps business people use stories to promote themselves and their causes, found in storytelling "my urban tribe, my artistic family," and an important outlet for expression. She recalls telling one story about a former student who was killed because his brother was in a gang.
"Before I found storytelling, I would push that under the rug and not think about it again," Howe said. "I took that story out to not only help myself deal with it, but to help people focus on what's important, and that's the kids."
One of the most appealing aspects of the storytelling movement is that anyone can do it — though it takes a particular set of writing and performance skills to do it very well — and it is fiercely inclusive.
While some shows are curated and feature tellers who have proven their chops, others encourage newcomers.