In the 19th century, before electricity gave us those entertainments that isolated us from each other, people had to learn and practice the arts at home. Concerts and public performances were privileges for the urban rich; singing parties, amateur theatricals, and dances were how most people experienced the latest in arts fashions. We're seeing a resurgence of family and friends musical participation at home with the advent of computer games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But, at the beginning of the 21st century, actual arts learning and practice are situated almost entirely in institutions outside the home.
So it was a wonderful moment of nostalgia for what I've never had, that visiting the Tell It On Tuesday storytelling series reminded me of this kind of DIY, at-home arts participation. A monthly performance storytelling night (last Tuesdays) at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley, Tell it on Tuesday is like sitting down after dinner in a very talented family's living room. In atmosphere and attitude, the event succeeds where many arts events fail, creating a sense of community, camaraderie, and warmth
Intended as a showcase for Bay Area solo performance of all stamps, the event has a simple formula: four storytellers from four different genres, each telling or performing a complete story to the audience. These can be fairy tales, anecdotes, episodes, myths, mini-morality plays, or combinations. As you might imagine, there's a lot of crossover here with a variety of other formats popular in the Bay Area: stand up comedy and whatever's playing at The Marsh. And TIOT is definitely not to be confused with the Porchlight Storytelling series, a This American Life analogue that has performers and nonperformers alike telling stories about a theme in an informal, unscripted manner.
No, Tell it on Tuesday is rather an opportunity for performers to practice a slightly different performance genre, and the results seem to depend greatly on the performer's training and background. December 2008's performance included a stand-up comic, a traditional actor, a solo performer, and a newbie. The comic's (Dave Pokorny) piece -- the best of the bunch that night -- was interesting in how it hadn't fully transformed from the fragmentation and story-less arc of a standup routine. In telling the story of how he came to be a comic in the first place, you could see Pokorny struggling -- and sometimes failing -- not to put a punchline at the end of each episode, not to play towards the twist ending. It made for an interesting meld that underlined how standup is the closest thing we have to popular storytelling, without actually being that.
Palestinian American Jennifer Jajeh, an actor moving into solo performance, dramatized a personal anecdote of Israeli airport harassment drawn from her one-woman show I Heart Hamas. This piece, which undoubtedly would have melted seamlessly into a larger performance, seemed strange in this context: why act out a story when you have permission to tell it? My takeaway there was, again, about the limitations of genre. Showing is not always better than telling; a small anecdote should not be made to carry too much dramatic weight, it is rather in the exposition that a small incident can illuminate great historical streams.
Seasoned solo performer Carolyn Doyle, puzzlingly enough, read to the audience, podium and all, from a lovely, literary, but not performative piece of memoir. And the best surprise of the night came from newbie Lee Granas, whose story of the world's worst college Japanese music ensemble was Goldilocks-sized. (The fact that TIOT runs a 9-week storytelling workshop gives me a clue as to where this performer came from.) The whole opened up with music from the Hobohemian Boxcar Band, your cousins' folk group that would disappear into the garage for rehearsals right around Christmas dinner cleanup time, and reappear instruments in hand, just before someone put on the TV.
One of the best elements of this series is the audience. Everyone came in smiling (at each other!) and anticipating a good time. Everyone knew the score and supported the experimentation, laughed at the jokes, clapped to the music. You couldn't ask for a more appreciative audience unless you were, indeed, playing your parents' parlor.
I've been trying to get out to see this show since June; you'd be shocked at how busy Tuesdays can be. And I'm not gonna say this is the one thing that should not be missed all year, etc. although I'm glad I finally made it out there. This is rather a very warm and welcoming living room you can go to when the excitement and edge of the arts scene is a little too much. It's also a supportive space for local performers to experiment with and broaden their performance practice. Check it out.
The next Tell It On Tuesday event is Tuesday, January 27, 2009. For further information visit tellitontuesday.org.