Tripped up (and out) by storytelling

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A couple of days ago, I directed your attention to "Caffeinated Confessions of Mormon Comics," a comedy showcase that Bengt Washburn periodically organizes in different cities.

William Shunn at Up Comedy Club, April 17, 2013
The reason this show is on my radar is that Bengt has invited me to participate in an April 24 edition of "Caffeinated Confessions" at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, CA. I'm ridiculously thrilled for the chance to be part of this, taking the stage alongside real, working standup comics—even in the capacity of a storyteller, which is what I will be, relating the tale of my missionary misadventures.

The problem is, live storytelling in front of an audience of strangers terrifies me.

This is not a theory. This is a fact. I have no problem telling a story for a small audience of friends, and I have no problem getting up in front of an audience of strangers with a script in my hand. But when you ask me to wing it in front of those same strangers, even when I have all the bullet points of my story firmly in mind, it's classic stage fright. My mouth gets dry. My hands shake. My lungs constrict. My tongue thickens, and the words fall out of my head.

At least, that's how it feels. I first tried my hand at live storytelling two years ago, at Fray Café 14 in Austin, Texas, and the experience was so awful (at least from my side of the microphone) that I have never been able to bring myself to listen to the audio:

After that, I figured I'd better put away my dream of competing in a Moth StorySlam and stick to simply reading my work.

But then, a couple of months ago, Bengt and I were chatting online when he suggested I join his "Caffeinated Confessions" crew in Mill Valley. Suddenly the dream was alive again, but this time I couldn't allow myself to back down from the challenge. And that meant I needed to practice.

Talking Therapy: A New York City Storytelling + Open Mic Show
Fortunately, New York is lousy these days with open mics for storytelling. The first one I tried was February's Talk Therapy at Q.E.D. (which is the same venue that will be hosting my new reading series, Line Break, which debuts tomorrow). Actually, I came with every intention of watching and taking notes and checking out the scene but not participating. However, the storytellers were so inspiring, and the audience was so friendly and supportive, that I found myself sneaking up front to throw my name in the hat at the very last minute.

I'm glad I did. I still felt all those distressing symptoms through all those endless six minutes, and I know I messed up parts of the story, but the feedback I got afterward was immediate and positive. I made new friends that night, and I sold two copies of my book, and I knew I would have to do it again as many more times as possible.

The next open mic I could get to was also at Q.E.D., this one on a Sunday afternoon. I dragged my feet getting there, and I nearly walked right past the venue, but I told myself that I'd done it once already and I could do it again. So I went inside and put my name in the bucket—

The Dump! A Storytelling Open Mic
—and it was only after sitting down in the dark that I realized that what had been billed as an open mic for performances of any type was in fact populated entirely by standup comics working out new material.

Again, I almost got up and walked out. But I stayed in my chair, with my beer, and an hour and a half later my name was called. I had four minutes at the mic. Given the circumstances, I told a different story from the one I wanted to practice, one I hoped would be funny. There was very little laughter.

But that was fine! I had gotten up on stage between comics, and I had stood up straight, and I had told a coherent story, and I hadn't been quite as nervous as before. What's more, on the way home I didn't beat myself up over the parts I'd flubbed.

This past Tuesday, I finally managed to make it to The Dump!, the infamous series at The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City where people tell stories about horrible, shameful things they've done. I walked past the entrance three times before finally making myself go in.

This time my name got called fairly early, which was a relief except for the fact that when the host, Jake Hart, looked at the slip of paper he said, "Oh, here's a name I don't know."

So I got up and told the mission story in six minutes, and this time I was only half nervous, and the audience of strangers cheered when I got to the part about the bomb threat.

I stuck around for the rest of the night to watch the other storytellers. The last name called was a kid from the Bronx who barely looked old enough to be in the back room of a bar. He launched into what began to sound like a braggartly, misogynistic tale of conquest, but thankfully he kept dissolving into giggles and going off on tangents before promising he'd get back on track because we had to hear this it was a really great story. Oh, and early on he admitted that he'd just done acid in the bar ten minutes earlier.

I couldn't help it. The poor kid's inability to get through his story, and the weird, offensive tangents that swallowed him up, were so damn painful to watch that I hurt myself laughing—as did everyone else.

One of the other storytellers leaned over to me after that amazing performance and said, "I thought yours was going to be the best story of the night. Until this."

And that was coming from the comedian who got punched in the face by a heckler.

What's the moral of this long, rambling tale? That tripping on acid in public is not funny. Except, you know, when it is.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on March 4, 2016 1:13 PM.

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