How true-life storytelling clubs responded to the lockdown – participation and interaction

by Kristina Gavran

As a PhD researcher, for the last three years, I have been exploring TrueLife Storytelling in the UK and the clubs that organise performance events. On these events, amateurs, re-defined as Life-Expert performers, tell short personal stories on stage. The clubs provide the context for this unique type of storytelling, and the events gather audiences of 20 to 600 people. When the lockdown started at the end of March, people turned to online entertainment – we witnessed an increase in watching live broadcast TV, while theatres responded with live streamings. However, these online events do not offer interaction and participation with others. The true-life storytelling clubs also had to adapt and provide an online alternative. Observed events demonstrate that storytelling encourages communication and engagement, fighting loneliness and fostering resilient communities. True-Life Storytelling is an art form that everyone can participate in, either as a listener or teller, and the popularity of these events show us that online entertainment has to shift from passive observation to more engaging form.

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Over the last fourteen years, true-life storytelling clubs have been spreading around the UK, finding their place in big cities like London (four active clubs!), Belfast, Manchester, Sheffield, etc. The theory behind it is highly inclusive: everyone has a story to tell, and all of us are natural storytellers as we learn storytelling throughout life. In order to understand our experience, we create a narrative out of it, so we tell stories to ourselves and people around us. We tell stories in everyday life and on different occasions. True-Life Storytelling has moved these stories to the stage and offered the opportunity to ordinary people to perform their stories in front of the audience. The performers are Life-Experts as nobody else can tell stories from their own life, as well as experts in this art form that values authenticity more than performance skill. The clubs are organised by groups of volunteers and usually have meetings once a month, with 5-10 storytellers performing true short stories from their life. The clubs have created a community in their local area, especially crucial in multicultural, metropolitan places.

Since the lockdown started at the end of March, these clubs have been shut down, just like the rest of the world. The lockdown has hit the cultural sector pretty hard; consequently,  theatres, galleries, music halls and other institutions have tried to respond by shifting their activity online so that their audience can still watch and enjoy art from the comfort of their own room. True-life storytelling clubs have also offered their individual responses, all which connect people, encourage participation and builds resilient communities.

There are three different responses to the lockdown, each one suiting individual clubs and their unique audience. For example, True Stories Told Live that has live performances in Cambridge responded with a series of email newsletters, each featuring a new true-life story by one of their club’s members. The email newsletter works best for their elderly audience who are less likely to adapt to new technology as younger generations. So far, the club has sent out 28 stories and is encouraging readers to respond with their comments that are then passed on to the author. On the other hand, Tales of Whatever from Sheffield is using their established YouTube channel publishing single video recordings of their storytellers telling stories recorded from their homes.

The third, and most used response, is the live event on Zoom as it offers the closest experience to live performance and gives a chance for immediate response and communication. Natural Born Storytellers from London started their weekly event ‘Once Upon a Tuesday’; Heard in Manchester has events every two weeks, as does Tenx9 Belfast. At the same time, Story Slam Bristol gathers every third Sunday in a month and Spark London has special events connected to fundraising for charities. Although they are all experienced in organising live events and have been doing it for the last twelve, five or three years, the Zoom events showed some challenges, as well as benefits.

Natural Born Storytellers

While live events gather around 100 to 400 people, online events happen to be smaller. Tenx9 Belfast had the maximum Zoom capacity of 100 people, Story Slam Bristol whose live events at the Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol are sold out had 60 online participants, Natural Born Storytellers 40, Heard club 20 and True Life Stories in Loughborough 10 people. The number of participants at each event greatly influenced the interaction and connection between people and smaller events allowed for more conversation and interaction.

Secondly, there were issues around the safety of the participants. After one of the events was hacked and the participants were exposed to pornography, the clubs quickly turned to a pre-booked ticket system that requires everyone to register in order to get link and password for the event. A poor internet connection cannot be influenced, and each observed Zoom event had at least one glitch. “Can you hear me?”, frozen screens and voice that is breaking became part of our reality and everyday communication. Moreover, the interruptions do not only come from the technology side, but people are dealing with different disturbances, from the postman at the door to children playing in the background. True-life storytelling clubs are strictly aimed at adults as the stories can deal with serious life issues. As an example, one of the storytellers at the Spark event apologised because her 6-year old son is with her and expressed worry if she should tell the story. But everyone encouraged her to tell it, so she gave us an abbreviate version while her son was playing with his superman around the screen. The high level of adjustment and accessibility is what makes these clubs so unique.

The clubs had to respond to the new, online environment of their events. They came up with methods that still foster a pleasant atmosphere and communication between participants. But who are the participants, and how do they behave in this new environment? The audience comes through the club’s regular channels – many of them have been to live events before, they are familiar with true-life storytelling art form, and they attend Zoom events as an alternative to live performance. However, there is one gain in online events, and that is that people from different parts of the world can participate. For instance, Heard club in Manchester had people calling from Canada, America and Wales. This connection is especially important for people who are away from their hometown and community, like participants of Tenx9 club in Belfast who have moved from the city but still want to connect with people there and listen to stories related to Belfast. Natural Born Storytellers club showed that the events could be perfect ‘get-together’ for families who are stranded in different parts of the country and want to do something entertaining together. The online events also foster collaboration; the prime example is Natural Born Storytellers (NBS) club in London who co-hosted the event with Dutch International Storytelling Centre (DIST) in Hague. The event was hosted by Michael Kossew and Michael Driebeek van der Ven and featured storytellers from both clubs. This collaboration showed the difference in club’s styles as NBS tellers told strictly true-life stories, while DIST storytellers were mixing traditional and personal stories. These collaborations could greatly influence True-Life Storytelling styles in the UK. 

The majority of the participants attend the events with video as it is more personal; using just an avatar is almost considered rude and voyeuristic. On the camera, everyone is exposed and offers insight into their living room, bedroom, kitchen. Not only that, but the participants often do other activities while listening to the stories. Some of them are cooking, eating (the events usually happen in the evening, just in time for dinner), sewing, fixing a machine, doing daily walk exercise, driving, smoking, etc. Others prepare drinks and sit back on their sofa, allowing themselves to experience the event as if they were in a venue. Most of the audience members are on their own, while others are in couples or with family,.

Sharing of their video and engaging in the event is encouraged by the hosts, just as it would be in a live event where performers and audience are co-present. Nobody likes to talk to empty screens and avatars; the reactions from the audience are essential for life-expert tellers. During each performance, the microphones of listeners are muted, so the hosts encourage listeners to make their response reactions visible and even mime, clap and cheer. The true-life clubs already blurred the line between a performer and an audience member as these were crossed continuously on their live events; the performers are not coming from backstage, they are a legitimate part of the audience. The online events stressed that even more as the performance very much becomes about the people in the audience. The audience is on the screen, and observing reactions (also enlarging the window screens and observing people while they listen) becomes part of the performance. We are all developing a new social etiquette in these online events, and a small detail like unmuting all the participants after the story and encouraging them to clap and cheer can make a difference in offering that feedback to the storyteller and communal experience for the audience. When Caroline Dyer, the host of Heard club in Manchester, introduced a new storyteller by saying “Give a massive applause to Gemma!” she reminded us that we are participating in a live event. We need to interact, not just passively observe video streaming.  And right now, interaction is exactly what we need.

Although the live performance does not have the element of chatting in between stories, the online events spontaneously developed that side. People start asking direct questions like “How old were you then?” or “What happened next?”. The interaction resembles more of a conversation, not a performance. People are even showing photographs or bringing objects that are connected to their story. On the other hand, using the chat feature on the side can sometimes get disruptive if many participants are writing and chatting during the performance, and not waiting for the storyteller to finish. 

The clubs are still trying to re-create details from their live events; for example, Story Slam Bristol was hosted by their regular compère James Williams who would even stand while talking (the rest of the hosts spoke from their chairs/sofas/beds). Furthermore, they also had a person in charge of different aspects of the event with a funny sign on their head  ‘box office guy’ or ‘the door’. Tenx9 and Story Slam Bristol had 10-minute intervals during the performance, so Williams invited us to go to the free bar in our kitchen, and Paul Doran, host of the Tenx9, made comments that there is no cue for a drink in our house. Both tried to joke and find positives in this new situation.

The clubs also transferred their audience participation games to the online context. Story Slam Bristol and Spark London had anonymous stories from the audience that the host would receive privately and then read in between performed stories. The Heard club encouraged the audience to write down memorable quotes and share them at the end of the performance in the chat window while the host was reading them out loud. Some of the audience reactions happen spontaneously. At the end of the NBS event, all the participants were unmuted, and they started chatting over each other, showing their cats and dogs, even teddy bears. One man mentioned it is his birthday and everyone started singing “Happy Birthday”. These spontaneous reactions show how much people miss the interaction and how true-life clubs can offer solutions in fighting loneliness and isolation. What we lost in these strange times is chatting with strangers and meeting people that we don’t know. In order to foster those, clubs use Zoom breakout rooms, a feature where the host can break the audience into smaller groups of 2-5 to have a private conversation. Story Slam Bristol invited audiences to share stories from the lockdown, and everyone was happily chatting with people they don’t know. The Heard club asked for stories about ghosts from a sleepover, NBS asked to share a memory of an inspirational person from our life, and True Life Tales to recall different types of jobs we used to do.

The storytellers are also adjusting to the online context. Some of them start by saying “Hello everybody” and waving to the audience on screen and showing their appreciation when people wave back. A storyteller also might ask “Have you ever been to Paris? Nod with your head”, and after a few nodes replying “Great, I can see you. So I am talking to you.”

How much is the lockdown affecting true-life stories that are told on these online events? Based on observations of six clubs, not much. Although each event had a theme like ‘Holidays’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Kindness of strangers’ or ‘Ghosts’ storytellers responded with a range of themes and genres of their stories that reflected on their past experiences, not the immediate effect of the lockdown. That was most apparent during the Spark London event that had the theme ‘Stranded’. Although one could expect stories about being stranded in isolation, all of the featured stories were connected to travelling, holidays, being stranded in a foreign land. The lockdown was only mentioned as a side comment, for example just as the storyteller would begin the story: “At the moment, we are all not going anywhere” or “This is a story about suffering jetlag. I have to say, I can’t wait to suffer it again”, and “The story takes us to the time when we were allowed to travel.”

However, that is not to say that people did not need to talk about the lockdown experience; it appeared in many breakout room conversations, anonymous audience stories and interval conversations. But true-life stories usually reflect on the past events and need time to be shaped and crafted; it seems like the lockdown is a new situation for everyone that still needs to be processed in order to form coherent stories. On the other hand, the 2-3 sentence anonymous stories from the audience gave the opportunity to reflect on lockdown experience. For example, although there was no set topic, the stories from Story Slam Bristol featured stories: “We started dating on 15th March, just before lockdown and we got stuck together, but it was great because we had so much sex that we got a complaint from the neighbours that they can’t stand it anymore”, and “I am building a relationship with my mum during this lockdown, and that is lovely”, as well as “My husband is furloughed, and now he is cooking amazing food at home” and “I finally decided to shave my head”. These anonymous audience stories captured the range of lockdown experiences, and it is expected that in the future they will develop in longer narratives and be told on the live events.

The importance of the clubs in the community can also be observed in their charitable function and response to the urgent matters in their locality.  Story Slam Bristol collected donations for Women’s Aid as there has been an increase of violence towards women since the lockdown started; Spark London being part of the  Solidarity Sounds festival raised money for the Refuge charity and  Open-Mic Story Night for the mental health charity Mind.

During the lockdown, the cultural sector has been struck hard, and live art forms tried to find ways to shift online. However, many of them offered passive entertainment, forgetting that consuming culture has an important social aspect, and we rarely do it on our own. True-Life Storytelling has proved to be a participatory and inclusive art form both in live events, as well as online. In times of isolation, people crave activities that encourage sharing, communication and interaction. This experience had a significant impact on our knowledge of what it means to be human, but one thing is sure – we are definitely storytelling animals. If anything can help us to heal, process and understand the lockdown, it is telling our stories and listening to others.

Observed events:

Story Slam Bristol, 7.5.2020., Silver lining

Spark London, 8.5.2020., Stranded, Part of the Solidarity Sounds festival

Heard Manchester, 10.5.2020., Ghosts

Natural Born Storytellers, 12.5.2020.,  Kindness of strangers

Tenx9 Belfast, 13.5.2020., Holidays

Natural Born Storytellers and Dutch International Storytelling centre, 14.5.2020., Friendship

True Life Stories, Loughborough, 18.5.2020., 9 to 5