Storytellers still slam - online
Most people had a story at one time or another that they hoped their mother would not find out about.
Organizers of Ship Story Slam are inviting community members to share those stories in five minutes or less beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 14 at the free Don’t Tell Mom-themed event live on the Zoom online platform.
“Story Slam is a monthly gathering where anyone can take a turn at the microphone and tell a true story based on that month’s theme. You can come just to listen to other people tell stories, or you can sign up to tell a story,” said Allen Dieterich-Ward, Ship Story Slam coordinator.
The Shippensburg, Pa.-based series is part of a growing regional offering of open mic story slam events that began with West Chester Story Slam in 2010 and has grown to include Lancaster, York and Harrisburg Story Slam groups.
Similar in style to prolific storytelling group The Moth and National Public Radio's popular “This American Life,” Ship Story Slam live events began last September and typically are held the second Thursday of each month at Appalachian Brewing Company in Shippensburg.
The series, sponsored by Appalachian Brewing Company, ShippenStitch, and the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center, has been temporarily moved to an online forum due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Top tale-tellers win prizes valued at more than $100, including a custom wall hanging commemorating the win and tickets to Luhrs Center events.
Monthly themes usually connect to specific times or events during the year, Dieterich-Ward said. The March theme was Just My Luck, taking inspiration from St. Patrick's Day and the luck o' the Irish.
“Don't Tell Mom falls into that same vein with Mother's Day,” he said. “We try to find themes pertinent and relevant to the world that are broad enough and sort of vague enough so that folks have different kinds of interpretations of them.”
Dieterich-Ward, a professor of history at Shippensburg University and member of the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, said the goal of Ship Story Slam is to foster community development and to create connections among community members.
Connecting people and revitalizing community
The process of storytelling encourages people to open up, thus setting the groundwork for mutual understanding.
“It brings in a group of diverse people and helps them to identify aspects that they have in common,” Dieterich-Ward said.
Story slam attracts a cross-section of the community, drawing both young poets and “old-timers who enjoy sitting on the back porch with friends spinning a yarn,” he said.
“People walk in the door and they look different than each other. Someone might look around and say, 'I'm not going to like that person very much. I don't see what we could have in common,'” he said. “Then they get up, open up and tell a story about some aspect of their life, and you feel a sense of connection. That is what the heart of community is.”
Dieterich-Ward said the choice of the Story Slam model was deliberate and focuses on the power of the humanities to foster civic engagement and development.
“It's not just about the infrastructure, about building the next restaurant or having some great park, but also about how do we connect people with one another in a way that maybe has broken down over the last few years,” he said.
Ship Story Slam also partners with Shippensburg Revitalization Group in that organization's efforts to use evidence-based solutions for revitalizing downtown areas.
“We are building off of the experience of Story Slam events in other communities all over the country, but particularly here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It worked for places like York and West Chester as one of the tools used to foster downtown development. If it worked there, it can work here too.”
To continue engaging participants during the shutdown, Dietrich-Ward posted a video primer on how to tell a great story, including the idea that a good story must have a solid beginning, middle and end.
“I think, from my perspective, there are technical elements of good storytelling that are obvious to anyone who has had to speak — maintain something at least approaching eye contact, try not to mumble, move around a little bit but not so much that it's distracting,” he said.
Sometimes people who initially take part in the event just to listen end up feeling compelled to tell a story.
“At intermission, we regularly have people come and put their name in the hat,” Dieterich-Ward said. “It can be intimidating thinking, 'Oh man. I gotta stand up in front of people and tell a story. But once the first couple go, it tends to make people feel much more comfortable and willing to tell their story.”
December 2019 Ship Story Slam winner Rochelle Plummer told a story about being new to the community and going to pick up a Wonder Woman cake during a blizzard.
“When she attended, she was nervous. I don't want to twist anyone's arm, but I encouraged her to tell a story. She went last or second to last and ended up winning,” he said.
Plummer, who is Shippensburg University’s executive director of student retention, said the experience was “a wonderful opportunity for self-enhancement.”
“I didn’t win because of what others thought of my story, but because I had the courage to face this challenge,” she said.
While the Story Slam online format can't provide an in-person connection, it has proven to have at least one benefit over an in-house setting in that it draws people from remote locations.
“When we are online, we are able to attract folks who may have a connection to the Shippensburg area but may not still live here,” Dieterich-Ward said. “Also, there may be people in the region who would not come out physically on a Thursday night.”
Among them is April's Ship Story Slam winner Sara Thompson of Jacksonville, Fla., whose husband attended Shippensburg University during the 1990s.
“Because it was online, she was able to engage,” Dieterich-Ward said.
Ship Story Slam plans to host a Grand Slam event this September at the Luhrs Center, featuring the first year's monthly winners.
There typically is a ticket fee of $6.25 to $8 for Ship Story Slam events, but there is no charge for online slams. In addition to the live online event in May, stories will be posted to the Ship Story Slam YouTube channel. Interested? Register online at www.shipstoryslam.org.
Top photo: December 2019 Ship Story Slam winner Rochelle Plummer, right, poses with ShippenStitch owner Tim Diehl. Shippenstitch provides custom wall hangings for Ship Story Slam monthly winners. (Submitted photo)