"Something happened to you today. Some moment happened that related to the entire human condition."
This is how Guy Jackson kicked off SpeakEasy, an innovative addition to Bend's artistic landscape.
Working as a cashier at Target, I get to see a whole lot of the human condition - more perhaps than I might like. By the end of each day we all have a story to tell. We might tell it to just one or two friends, but if it's really good we will end up relating the details to a bar's worth of people.
Now that the SpeakEasy has begun at the recently opened Bend Performing Arts Center, next time you regale someone with something that happened to you, you can call it a rehearsal. At the first SpeakEasy event, the sign-up list was only four names long, but by the time the second performer left the stage, everyone there was eager to tell their own tale. In the converted church, which opened its doors earlier this spring, we heard two hours of true stories.
Brad Hills, the artistic director of Innovation Theatre Works and Chris Rennolds, hosted a SpeakEasy in Washington D.C. that featured a style similar to that of the Moth events, which began in New York and have expanded into a radio show and podcasts. Each night of the SpeakEasy has a theme, be it money, or "good intentions," around which stories are spun. From there the only restriction is an eight-minute time limit.
"The SpeakEasy nights in Washington D.C. began with just a handful of people, but pretty soon we had a line around the block every time. Storytelling is a celebration of our common humanity. Strangers become friends, common ground is discovered, dialogue grows," says Hills.
He has taken this idea, which he calls an "easy-to-embrace" art form, from a big city to a small town and just as anonymity added interest in a larger urban area, here it is familiarity that fuels the curiosity. Even if you don't know the storyteller, you very well may have seen him or her around and this only makes their tale all the more intriguing. The guy who works at the post office becomes the guy who works at the post office who used to graffiti trains on the New York subway.
Host Guy Jackson, who for full disclosure, I'll admit is my husband, began the night with one of his stories entitled, "Eli and the Truth" and offered his own true tales in response to the other storytellers' confessions. The story of a disastrous road trip to South Dakota, for example, prompted his own three-line anecdote about the Mount Rushmore state.
In a closing roundup, Jackson reminded us of what we had discovered that evening from the array of storytellers. This includes quips like: "You can't hijack an Amtrak train because you can't take it anywhere it's not already going." The storytelling snowballed, with each story keeping the crowd fascinated. Watching people get up on stage who never normally would, and not very confident people at that, is far more interesting than taking in polished performances.
"The less fictional, the better," was the opinion of Jackson.
The real-life stories were dramatic, funny, poignant and utterly absorbing. It was surprising, at first, that each anecdote worked so well and included all the metaphors, asides and punch lines you'd expect from a professional entertainer.
Hills spends his days working at the Census Bureau where he collects the facts and figures of the population of America. At a SpeakEasy event, the participants are living breathing manifestations of the numbers Hills gathers, with each storyteller letting us in on some very different kinds of details about their lives. Hills told his own hilarious tale about his office life, the moral of which was that you can learn a whole lot about people from a bartender.
I've saved up a few illustrations of the human condition from last week's cashiering shifts at Target, so now the decision is: Should I tell the one about the kid with explosive personality disorder, or the time the army guy straight off the plane was shouting about Nicholas Sparks?
7pm Monday, May 3. Bend
Performing Arts Center, 1155 SW
Division St.. Theme: "Who I Am"