How a storytelling course dragged me back to the stage

The Toronto Storytelling Festival is on from March 24 to April 2


As a kid I loved performing – until a wave of fear during a school concert left me shaking. Throughout adulthood, my stage fright deepened. Although I attended theatre schools and studied with amazing teachers, I rarely perform. Instead, I became a writer, then a reviewer. I mostly stay behind my keyboard, where words can be edited before they reach an audience.

I may be entering a mid-life crisis, or maybe I’ve seen too many Facebook memes about taking risks, but either way, I decided it’s time to get back on a stage. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

I got discouraged in a stand-up comedy class, where the pressure was so high that I chickened out before the end. While I adore improvisation and sketch, I’ve seen them turn into a blood sport for laughs.

Then I remembered a live storytelling show I attended: five performers followed by an open mic. I eyed that microphone like a hungry raccoon near an unlatched green bin, but had no idea how to dive in. The best storytellers relayed complex, true snapshots of their lives, a mix of funny and dramatic moments. One of the most compelling was Sage Tyrtle.

***

I find out that Tyrtle teaches storytelling workshops and decide to give the seven-week course a shot. At Cahoots Theatre on a Sunday in January, I’m feeling uncertain and slightly nauseated. Eight others arrive, a mix of performers and people with day jobs.

In the first class, we discuss what makes a story strong onstage and how to make every word count. Tyrtle uses theatre and improv exercises to demonstrate concepts. We try a bunch in class. 

I leave wondering if the soul-crushing corporate jobs of my adult life have permanently eroded my childhood stage confidence. I’m determined to find out if this is true and promise myself from now on I’ll park my fears outside.

“I need one brave volunteer,” Tyrtle requests in the next class. I leap up. The exercise is about tying an emotion to dialogue and, ironically, I’m given fear. The exercise becomes my first step in letting go. The more I commit to the techniques, the more my performance fears fade. Each week, characters spring out of me: a seven-year-old girl chasing dropped Skittles, a narrator at a high school reunion. It’s a joyful exploration.

We discuss emotions in storytelling.

“We must have an emotional connection but be far enough from the emotion to make sure the audience feels okay,” Tyrtle explains as we ponder what stories to tell in front of an audience for the final class. I want to talk about my dad’s battle with brain cancer but wonder if enough time has passed for me to share previously unspoken details.

I’m falling in love with storytelling because it promotes community, both onstage and in our classroom. As each of us feels more comfortable, we share intimate moments from our lives. It’s different from the stand-up I tried, because, ultimately, success isn’t dependent on making people laugh.

Our class is a safe and non-competitive space. When I check out other shows, I see this is a reflection of the storytelling community as a whole, which is on full display at the Toronto Storytelling Festival, March 24 to April 2. 

“Storytelling creates empathy,” Tyrtle says. “To get up in front of a group and say, ‘Here’s my experience,’ and feel that empathy, it’s so important.”

My classmate Marsha Shandur observes this firsthand at True Stories (Told Live), the show she produces.

“Storytelling is a way for us to truly feel connected, something we’re desperate for,” she says, “whether we’re telling or listening.”

At the final class, I’m up fourth. No notes allowed in storytelling, just me in the bright spotlight.

The suspense in my story builds slowly, and I feel the audience engage. As I speak, I’m propelled back in time, images unspooling in my head like an old family movie.

But then my biggest fear comes true: I freeze. Silence. People breathing, waiting. My mind churns, grasping for the next thought.

It’s 8 o’clock. I know this because the local church bell tolls eight times. I say, “Saved by the bell,” to break the tension. People laugh, and I magically remember what comes next and finish my story.

The experience is scary and amazing. The audience is generous, and my heart surges with gratitude. I’ve finally found my way off the page and back onto the stage.

For Tyrtle’s next seven-week workshop go to Cahoots. See her 14-week course at Seneca College.

Tyrtle and Shandur do a workshop March 30, 1:45 pm, at the Toronto Storytelling Festival. 

See Tyrtle’s High Stakes Storytelling night and Shandur’s True Stories (Told Live).

stage@nowtoronto.com

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