What Your Social Life Needs Now Is Live and Its Local

judetrederwolff
6 min readJun 18, 2024

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As the theater and entertainment world continues to find its post-pandemic footing, all the perils and problems that plague arts-based projects are amplified: operational costs, scarce resources, risk-averse behavior on every side. New York magazine’s recent “We’ve Hit Peak Theater” article laid out the brutal challenges of producing Broadway, off-Broadway and theater in general these days. But we need what theater provides: Stories. Insight, Laughs. Emotional connection. No one knows how this will all play out, and somehow the plays must go on, but in the midst of all this, local storytelling and improv shows are thriving. The community that grows around these shows can richly expand our social life at a time when we need accessible, available avenues for personal connection more than ever.

“I think there is a hunger for connection and a heightened appreciation for in-person connection. Storytelling creates a space where people build bridges to one another.” says Amy Saidman, Executive Artistic Director of Story District, a not-profit organization that sells out storytelling shows in Washington D.C., and offers storytelling classes. “Our siloed digital media online existence needs a balance with in-person, real-life human encounters.”

“For the storytellers, there is an opportunity to actually become friends with people you might not otherwise have met, because you got through this storytelling journey together,” Saidman explains. “Story District has the cast of storytellers rehearse together over a series of meetings prior to a performance, which allows for a greater depth of connection among the people performing together.”

Story and poetry slams, curated or open mic, improv teams that practice together over time as well as improv jams that welcome anyone to jump in require minimal tech can be promoted through social media to stretch publicity budgets for maximum impact. And when social media contacts lead to people meeting for live arts events in local areas, relationships grow.

Fernando Funes — who has produced storytelling, comedy, poetry and improv shows in San Francisco, LA and Orange County — sees friendships form in an organic, unforced way this kind of fun makes possible. “Making connections is hard in the real world, but when you’re at a show, it’s easier to cross barriers and make contact with people in a real way that can lead to something bigger and more meaningful,” he states. “A live show is a great way to check in with other people without having to know everyone. When you bring people together, it’s going to happen.”

A show called Better Said Than Done is selling out semi monthly in-person shows at Clare and Don’s Beach Shack in Falls Church, VA and offers online shows as well as classes in the area. “We have built a following/community around storytelling locally here in Northern Virginia,” says founder Jessica Robinson. “People who take our workshops, get up and perform stories with us are often having their first time time at the mic. It’s like a community within a community.”

Adam Wade, who performs a monthly show with new material and a guest storyteller at Under St. Marks Theater in NYC, teaches storytelling for organizations and is on the faculty at Magnet Theater views the vibrant, active New York storytelling scene as “full of caring people you want to be friends with. People interested and attracted to storytelling classes and storytelling shows are genuinely incredible human beings. If you enroll or attend shows, there’s a very strong chance that you are going to be surrounded by people you would want to be friends with. And those people would want to be friends with YOU.”

Wade engages his students in a way of thinking and sharing that generates interest in what’s going on in the community and in one another right from the start. He gives them homework, “to go grab a special coffee or dessert, go see a new movie or play, AND DO IT FOR YOU!!!! I want them to push themselves to do something nice specifically for themselves!” he explains. “And then we share them at the beginning of each class. When students talk about their ‘one fun thing’ we get to start each class on a very positive note, continue to know each other better by doing this exercise week in and week out, and when presented, students are in fact sharing short stories. It works as a perfect warm-up exercise for the type of class I teach.

These storytelling organizations across the country are aligned in their dedication to diversity and inclusion, another way in which this art form brings people together who might not otherwise meet, and bridges cultural divides when people share their unique perspective and experiences.

“Our Better Said Than Done storytelling community is often more diverse than what you’d see if you walked into a given venue on another night of the week,” says Robinson. Saidman shares that Story District has a true commitment to diverse voices and building bridges between cultures, empowered by the impact of storytelling as an art form. “There is a simplicity and authenticity to true storytelling,” she explains. “It allows for personal intimacy and understanding that is very hard to cultivate on your own or find elsewhere, and creates a space in which people are building bridges that can change the way people think about others. Your listeners fall in love.”

“When your mind is open, your heart is open.” Amy Saidman, Story District

Improv creates community through the full-throttle engagement it takes to do it. The comedy and super-charged fun it provides has significant benefits for everyone involved. Learning to improvise is learning to form connections rapidly in order to play together, generating shared experiences that are truly unique to that group of people in that moment. The audience becomes part of a once-in-a-lifetime show every single performance.

Fernando Funes decided to create his own opportunities to perform for himself and his improv and poetry colleagues and now produces a range of successful shows, including:
Dazed & Confused Poetry Club at The Glendale Room in Glendale CA- inspired by high school poetry clubs, featuring both booked poets and an open mic for community poets to get stage time;
Duplex at The Glendale Room-in which 8 duos do 8-minute sets;
Duo It Again — LA’s biggest improv show! — at The Lyric Hyperion in LA, in which 20+ improv duoes do the same scene over and over again. “It’s been described as a big game of psychedelic telephone,” Funes explains, “and Mike Bridenstein, Lyric Hyperion general manager and author of The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s Northside, said ‘That was like watching a fever dream.’ I’m very proud of this show as it’s the biggest thing I produce every month!”

Local arts events are ground in which new relationships can blossom.

Bonnie Gardner, a consultant and retired software product developer who lives in the north Virginia with her husband and teenage daughter, took Better Said Than Done’s five-week storytelling course taught by Robinson. “I loved the class,” she shared, “but Jessica and I really clicked. She cast me in a show after I finished the class, and then we just fell into this pattern of phone calls, texts, lunches. Beyond helping me build my storytelling career, our friendship has really deepened over the years, and now she’s my rock and in my inner circle. We have the same taste in a lot of things, find the same things funny or annoying. This all has been a wonderful surprise and fills me with gratitude because, as everyone knows, it’s so hard to make friends as an adult.”

Robinson sees storytelling as a giving rise to social connections in a number of ways. “As a producer, I am privileged to hear a lot of stories about how people formed friendships. In some cases, it’s storytellers who share a connection based on creation and style. Lots of tellers have met through us and gone on to work together. In some cases, people have become friends because they found a connection in someone’s story.”

Adam Wade shares that he has met many of his closest friends — “dear friends, I mean emergency contacts” — through storytelling.

Amy Saidman sums it up: “When I hear a great story, I feel love. That is what makes me relate. That is what makes me feel less alone. We are all part of this struggle of the human experience.”

Check out your local storytelling scene. Experiencing other peoples’ stories can give us courage. And insight. And comedy that is about what we all go through in life. Take a storytelling or improv class. Go to an open mic and maybe even share what it’s like to go do a fun thing just for you. Share the poem you wrote. People will be engaged by it. You just might meet someone who becomes your emergency contact. It’s live. It’s local. And it’s good for your heart.

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judetrederwolff

LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs