With roots in “The Moth” (a coterie of New York-based professional and amateur storytellers) and “This American Life” (the radio-show-turned-Showtime-program-turned-podcast that allegedly garners a million downloads a week), “Telltale” is out to create a new kind of storytelling forum on campus. WEEKEND sat down with board members Alex Simon ’17, Sophie Haigney ’17, and Devon Geyelin ’16 to talk tales; events that involve “campfire stories without the fire,” a faithful BYOPB—Bring Your Own Picnic Blanket—policy and seasonally appropriate treats (apple cider in autumn; cheese always); and the sort of community only storytelling can create. Read on for stories of first love in Peru, advice for budding raconteurs, and why spending 15-minutes auditioning is (maybe) the best thing you’ll do all semester.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Telltale.
Alex: I started thinking about stuff like this when I was a senior in high school, and I went to the Middlebury “pre-days” and they had something called “The Moth.” I was blown away — they told five stories, and each one was better than the next … just amazing. And so I wanted to start something like that when I went to Yale. Our aim is to create a community around storytelling; we envision it as being more relaxed and casual, but also powerful, as well as a space for something that doesn’t exist already on campus.
We focus on two things: events and workshops. Workshops will start next week, and will be every week, hopefully. We didn’t want a clunky 10-person board, so we decided to host workshops as a way that people could be more involved. Basically, we do storytelling games and improv games, and then have two people tell stories they’re thinking about auditioning with for the next event. And then, as a group of about 15, we workshop those stories. So [the workshop is] a chance to both give and receive feedback and be involved in the process of auditioning in more of a hands-on way. And then events are basically storytelling nights, and they’re every month or five weeks, normally [featuring] 6-8 student storytellers, telling stories anywhere from 6-15 minutes long … the average is probably 10 minutes. There are only two rules: the stories have to be true — they’re not a creative writing type thing — and you can’t read off a piece of paper — they all have to be from memory. Everything else is up to you: tone, content, length. Sometimes the stories are kind of funny or lighthearted or silly and make you laugh; other times [they’re] really emotional and powerful and resonate with you and make you think. In terms of content, sometimes we try to have a theme, but that doesn’t always work. So our first event is Friday the 26th [of September], and we have seven people telling stories. All are phenomenal. We have one story about a trip to Uzbekistan … well, actually, about being arrested in Central Asia. We have one story about a gunshot wound, and another about a rabbi in Israel and then one about a football player doing ballet. [The event] will be in the little part of the Davenport courtyard and we’re hopefully going to have hot apple cider and blankets and people just gathering and listening.
Sophie: These are really like campfire stories, but without the fire. Because that’s not allowed in the Davenport courtyard … and I think also illegal in the state of Connecticut.
Alex: And then the broader idea is bringing people together in a cool way. These are people from all different walks of Yale.
Sophie: The thing I like most is that this is more geared towards people who aren’t necessarily performers. If you don’t act, you’re not necessarily inclined to audition for a play, or for an improv group. But almost everyone in [Telltale] isn’t in another performing group.
Q: How did you get into storytelling?
Devon: My grandmother was actually a professional storyteller, but that wasn’t exactly why I came to the group initially. Sophie and Alex were both really interested, and I like them, and I thought that this would be a very cool thing to do together.
Alex: I think when I went to The Moth event [at Middlebury], I sort of understood for the first time the power of a story to put you into a different place. And it was just really nice to hear from people who you didn’t know, but somehow their experiences could be so like your own, or how even an experience you had no connection to could become such a fascinating thing in its own right.
Sophie: My dad is, like, the best storyteller in the world, and I’ve always been really envious and appreciative of that ability. I’ve always thought about the power of stories, and I’ve always been into writing stories. I really like that it’s an art form that everyone can partake in.
Devon: I think even when we try not to, you kind of form judgments about people based on what they’re wearing, or who they’re friends with, or whatever. Almost every story that I’ve heard I’ve been surprised in a really great way and I feel so much closer to that individual person and just closer to the community as a whole. It’s a really in-your-face way of realizing how much everyone has behind him or her that you wouldn’t guess at, and it’s nice to hear people articulate those things in a really personal way … exactly how they want them to be articulated. And it’s also just nice to see that so many people really want to be open about what’s going on. To do this really is a choice: to come share something personal or meaningful to you.
Alex: It’s really moving and incredible how many people come to an event — people with no concept of what we are, and are willing to just show up and give it a shot and audition.
Devon: Those are my favorites, actually, when the person doesn’t have any acting experience, or turns that off, and is just trying to express the story in a way that makes sense to them.
Q: How do you transform something that happens to you into a “tellable” story? What’s your process?
Sophie: Well, I think different people have different approaches. Writing is sort of my medium, so I would probably start there and then sort of see where it goes. I don’t think that’s the best method because you kind of end up memorizing what you’ve written. But I guess more generally, you just have to find a point of entry that’s funny or interesting … you have to grab people from the beginning in some way.
Devon: Some people naturally process things in terms that they could express it to other people; for others, I think it’s more of a process. But basically, you want to come away with something that sets [this story] apart from other stories. Why did this story make an impression?
Alex: As the directing team of Telltale, we want to make sure that we have a combination of stories that leave you with a message, and also leave you thinking about what that message is. We don’t always want to wrap it up and put a bow on it and present it to the audience on a silver platter. We want you to think about it and interpret it yourself.
Devon: Sometimes seeing someone else’s storytelling and thinking process is as interesting as hearing that person’s story itself. The way that people interpret stories is different, and the way you can start to understand how one thing can affect another person that’s so different from how it affects you is really interesting.
Q: Do you have a favorite story to tell? Why?
Devon: Well, I was running yesterday and I went by the Yale Farm, where last year I was a Seed-to-Salad volunteer. I was really happy because I didn’t think I had any cool stories, and then I remembered this one, and I went and wrote it down immediately after my run.
Alex: My story is about this one day with Sophie, and we were doing this pilgrimage — the Camino de Santiago — in Spain.
Sophie: I tell this story about going to Peru and living with my high school boyfriend there for three months. It’s kind of a story about first love, and the disillusion of first love, and ideas about marriage and just life … It’s a story about first love, basically, and my first love.
Q: Any advice for beginner storytellers?
Devon: Don’t practice too much.
Alex: But also think about it. And even though it’s no time commitment — 15 minutes in audition, and then a 20-minute workshop, very simple, very straightforward — it can have a huge impact. Being able to go up there and tell something that’s important to you in front of so many people who are interested in hearing it is really powerful.
Devon: And also that there’s really not one thing we’re looking for; basically, we want a really diverse group of people from diverse areas and with diverse tones. We’re not looking for this collection of incredibly charismatic, well-spoken, funny people — we’re just looking for people who are really honest and ready to speak about something that they care about.
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