In recent years, the term “storytelling” has crept out of the realm of folklore, and into journalism courses, advertising, and popular radio programs. In Bloomington, the term is undergoing active redefinition in the Storyzilla Story Show. Last month, in the first show of the series, performers shared autobiographical stories on the theme of “The Devil You Know.” The series continues October 29 at Rachael’s Café with a showcase of stories on the subject of “Skeletons in the Closet”.
“The Storyzilla comes from a very focused effort to take the word ‘story’ and give it a big intense quality,” explains Nell Weatherwax, who created Storyzilla, and produces and directs the show. “It’s not bedtime story; it’s not the librarian on the stool with the little storybook. We’re adults, and it’s going to be pretty real. That’s the ‘zilla’.”
It’s not bedtime story; it’s not the librarian on the stool with the little storybook. We’re adults, and it’s going to be pretty real. That’s the ‘zilla’
“What you have to understand is that mental illness runs like a black oily river through generation after generation in my family.” —Cairril Adaire, from the September Storyzilla show
Cairril Adaire shared her wrenching personal narrative with the standing-room only crowd at Rachael’s Cafe September 10. Like Adaire, Weatherwax has not avoided the more painful aspects of her autobiography on stage: “I did a whole show once,” Weatherwax recalls, “about my brother, who passed away in 2006.”
The performances Weatherwax was doing at that time–and still sometimes does–were solo improvisations, with a heavy dose of movement theatre. She didn’t exactly have a name for the genre, she concedes, but “I had never thought of myself as a storyteller.”
It took Richard Perez, then-director of the Bloomington Playwrights Project, to point that out—
“He wrote a testimonial for me, for a grant I was applying for,” Weatherwax remembers, “and he referred to me as a master storyteller.”
The Go-Figure Storyteller
That description took Weatherwax by surprise, but it wasn’t the first time her work didn’t fit neatly into a previously defined box. “I feel like it’s somehow my calling,” she reflects, “to be doing some art form or work that has to be really deeply explained.”
Take her first foray into theatre—
“I was known in Bloomington as the mime,” admits the impresario, with a chuckle.
Yes, that’s mime. It was the late 70s, after all, long before that word became a punchline. And anyway, she wasn’t your average mime. She was a mime who spoke. Having studied with the Boulder Mime Theatre, Weatherwax mimed until the late 80s, and in fact, still uses illusory mime techniques in her storytelling.
As if having to explain that line of work wasn’t enough of a challenge, now she’s a licensed hypnotherapist, “which means that people think it’s like,’ ah, you gonna make me bok like a chicken?’” jokes Weatherwax.
So, she has to spend plenty of time explaining that she’s not an evil Svengali. Weatherwax’s constant redefinition of shopworn job descriptions clearly extends to storytelling. “I’m expanding the word,” she explains. “I’m helping us remember that there are so many stories!”
A Rogues’ Gallery
And so many unlikely storytellers! The program for the September Storyzilla show bore only one name local radio listeners might identify as a bona fide storyteller–
“And this old woman continues to pray… ‘We just come before you now with all these petitions…”
Arbutus Cunningham has been spinning tales on Bloomington’s WFHB for the better part of two decades.
“And twenty minutes later I notice, that she’s not speaking English. She’s into the whole [nonsense sounds]. And I don’t know if it’s tongues or what but her tongue begins to start licking her lips like this and she begins to drool and she has this mad look in her eye. And I realize she’s a demon.”
But besides Cunningham, the others telling stories that night weren’t card-carrying raconteurs. Some were musicians, used to vamping a bit between songs, maybe, but the roster included visual artists, a builder, a former drug dealer, and a day care worker.
“I’m trying to find out, am I a city girl, at heart? I just have this burning question. And, you know, what better way to find out than to join a giant puppet troupe in the Mission district? Right?”–Amy Roche
“And there she was: the English customs official. She looked just like Peter O’Toole. She says, ‘I wonder, why there are so many work permits in the back of your passport?’ I said, ‘Well [stammering]…I used to be a musician.”–Krista Detor
“There’s a very nice woman sitting across this round table across from me and she’s asking me all these questions, and my skin is on fire and there’s all this shouting and shrieking in my head are these lights flashing, and … I’m looking at my body, and I’m saying, ‘Now wait a minute, I’m in charge here, what the f**k is going on?!’ And she says, ‘You can’t leave here.’ And I say, ‘You don’t understand, I’ve got a client meeting in twenty minutes’.–Cairril Adaire
“Nobody is going to be stepping up on stage and doing something that’s going to leave the audience wondering, ‘Who’s got their therapist on speed-dial?'”
Dilemmas, big and small, lay at the heart of these stories, told by locals for whom storytelling is merely a sidebar. Why did they get involved? Was the prospect of resolving something painful what prompted them to participate? Bert Gilbert, who’s a builder and a sculptor, told a story about the big kind of dilemma–
“It was a big tractor, an Allis Chalmers D-17, 50-horsepower tractor, 6500 pounds, with rear wheels that stood as high as my shoulder…and as I watched, the front wheels continued to rise, and then they rose a little higher. The steering wheel slammed into my chest, and the full weight of the tractor came down on my arm.”
Having endured such a trauma, was it therapeutic to tell that story? That seems to be a false lead. “I think I’m kind of past the need for therapy on this one,” Gilbert claims.
“Nobody is going to be stepping up on stage and doing something that’s going to leave the audience wondering, ‘Who’s got their therapist on speed-dial?'” Weatherwax promises.
A Walking Talking Happy Ending
So Storyzilla is not therapy, and the audience is not the therapist. These stories have been curated, and refined. The very fact that the storyteller is standing in front of you, Weatherwax asserts, guiding you from beginning to end, implies that the conflict has been resolved. “You can look at me [up on stage] and see that I’m all there, I’m whole; so it’s a walking, talking happy ending.”
“I was pretty bruised up but they let me go the next morning. Stitched up my face, pushed one of my teeth back–it’s still back a little bit–but they sent me home with a big jug of Vicodin. Everything was fine, except for my right arm.”
Gilbert had survived an accident that had a ten percent survival rate, and within a year, his right arm came back, too. The accident happened twelve years ago, and, as he mentioned, he’s already processed it. So why tell the story on stage, now? If there were one incentive many of the performers shared, it seemed to have something to do with developing the ability to express oneself artistically.
“That experiential remembering, the details and the way it impacted you,” Gilbert suggests, “is a really powerful tool to take into other fine art too.”
“I don’t think of it as, I needed to get up there to tell my story to be healed,” echoes Adaire. “It was a performance. It is an art form.”
“The art that moves me the most,” muses Weatherwax, “reminds me of that sentence that Carl Rogers said–he’s the father of client-centered therapy–‘That which is the most specific is the most universal.’ So when you tell a story or when I tell a story that’s very specific about our own heartfelt experience, that’s the story that can touch other people the most.”
The Storyzilla Story Show: Skeletons in the Closet
A showcase of short, true stories told live on stage. Created by and featuring Nell Weatherwax. With William Bennett, Rachael Himsel, Amanda Biggs, and Julia Dadds.
Rachael's Cafe, 300 East Third Street, Bloomington, IN
Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 6:30 pm (door), 7:00 pm (curtain)