Want to hear a story? You’ve come to the right city. As the Stoop Storytelling series celebrates its 12th anniversary, it has been joined by a number of others in both live and digital venues around Baltimore.
The Stoop was founded in 2006 by writer Laura Wexler and improv performer Jessica Henkin, who also works for Baltimore City Public Schools. Their format was inspired by an event Wexler had attended on the West Coast, Porchlight San Francisco, which in turn was inspired by The Moth, a storytelling series founded in New York in 1997, now running in 29 cities.
Still, back in ’06, Wexler remembers that when you said “storytelling show,” people thought you were talking about an event for little kids at the public library.
They booked the theater at Creative Alliance, signed up some notable local raconteurs–author Laura Lippman, Baltimore magazine editor Max Weiss, TV host Marty Bass and museum director Gark Vikan, among others–and chose a theme that seemed foolproof: failure, with the clever title “Legends of the Fall.”
They arranged for some musical entertainment before the show and at intermission, set up liquor sales, turned on the microphone, and let it roll. To take advantage of the fact that hearing a story often inspires the listener to remember his or her own similar tale, they added an impromptu aspect to the evening, inviting audience members to enter their names into a raffle to tell an unscripted three-minute story after intermission.
People seemed to like it. Over the next 12 years, keeping that same minimalist format, The Stoop moved to Center Stage, with 540 seats, and then to the Senator, with 733. Jessica and Laura developed their chemistry as an onstage duo, Laura usually playing straight man to Jessica’s inappropriate, oversharing, personal-question-asking persona; the Amy Poehler to Laura’s Tina Fey.
“You never know what she’s going to say,” Laura notes of her companion, offering an example: “‘The only reason she looks so good is that she’s had so much plastic surgery.’ She says that all the time. Can you tell people I have not had plastic surgery?”
They produced radio and special holiday editions with the “A Prairie Home Companion” format, incorporating skits and additional musical guests. They began to collaborate with organizations like the Bolton Street Synagogue, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In 2014, they kicked off a series of open-mic shows–Second Stoop–held in a more intimate venue. They inaugurated a weekly podcast, now on its 100th episode, with more than 30,000 downloads per month.
In 2016, they drew national attention when 13 of 26 Baltimore mayoral candidates accepted their invitation to tell a five-minute story about their own first job. Excerpts from the stories of these former fry cooks, church janitors and grocery baggers ran in The New York Times. In 2016, they did a show honoring Sen. Barbara Mikulski that included stories from Ben Carson, Elijah Cummings, John and Paul Sarbanes, and Nancy Faidley Divine, the seafood diva, raising a pile of money for Emerge Maryland, an organization providing support to female Democratic candidates.
One thing is clear: Baltimore loves storytelling. While The Stoop’s home theater is larger than that of any other storytelling show in the country, the city also supports a chapter of Mortified, co-produced by Alex Hewett and Adam Ruben. Mortified performers tell stories based on diaries, love letters, poetry, photos and other angsty artifacts of their childhoods. This show too regularly sells out, and is part of a national television series currently on Netflix.
On the city’s NPR affiliate, WYPR, one of the top locally produced shows is “Out of the Blocks,” which features the stories of Baltimoreans in their neighborhoods, one block at time. This show is produced by Jessica’s husband, Aaron Henkin.
And at the University of Baltimore, which has a popular class in storytelling, undergrads and graduate students put on a capstone performance for the public at the end of the semester.
The Stoop itself is running in high gear, having just presented three shows in little more than two weeks. On Feb. 22, they all but sold out an ’80s-themed show at the Senator with stories about nuclear power, the Berlin Wall, the beginning of AIDS and Prince.
The next night, at a benefit held at UB’s Wright Theater for Strong City Baltimore’s Adult Learning Center, four adult learners told moving stories about the role the organization has played in changing their lives. One man had been hiding the fact that he could not read all his life, until a judge ordered him to find a literacy program. Now, he’s been able to fulfill a lifelong dream of starting his own business. He described crying with gratitude because he was able to read and fill out his own tax forms. (“Are you crying?” said his wife. “Stop being such a punk.”)
On March 9, The Stoop collaborated with the BMA to produce “Intercambio,” a show marking the closing of the Mexican Modernist print exhibit at the BMA with stories of border crossings and immigration, which were paired with Mexican music and dance, and margaritas from Clavel.
Unlike some other storytelling show producers, Laura and Jessica do not believe in intensive rehearsal and coaching, making sure the storytellers get their tales down pat. They feel that what the audience may be looking for is not so much a polished story as an intense, unpredictable, live encounter with a real human being, if perhaps a wildly nervous one.
“The most important quality a person can have to succeed at the Stoop is likeability, as difficult as it is to explain exactly what that means,” Wexler says.
That hard-to-quantify quality is what they screen for when they meet prospective guests. They’re not necessarily looking for an amazing story, or an eloquent speaker. “In fact,” Wexler says, “professional writers often have a tougher time than ‘regular people,’ since it’s so hard for them to let go of making their story perfect, sentence by sentence.”
Their formula worked the night of “Intercambio,” as the audience radiated warmth and support to each of the seven performers, most of whom just sort of introduced themselves at length, giving an intimate glimpse into their life experience, rather than telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. A young Frida Kahlo in red plaid pants explained how easy it is to feel she’s not Salvadoran enough. A DREAMer talked about the pain of separation from his mother when she came to the States before he did. A Mexican-American painter recalled his first art lessons. A chef recalled his father’s murder. A Colombian woman described her culture shock after moving to the Maryland suburbs (“You have to call people and tell them when you are coming over!”)
So loved did the storytellers feel that all but one of them went on until a little bell from the hosts told them to stop… and then most went a bit after that.
As sometimes happens at The Stoop, the “best” story, in a traditional sense, came from an audience storyteller–someone who put their name into a hat at intermission for the impromptu section of the show. A former aid worker told of how, on his last day in Liberia, he crossed into Guinea by accident, without his passport. He spent that night not on his way back to the States, but locked in a Guinean jail.
It was just what Jessica Braiterman, community engagement manager for the BMA, was hoping for.
“The political dialogue on border control, DREAMers, and immigration has become so polarized,” she says. “The people, their lives, stories, dreams and creative spirits at the heart of the story seem lost. We were glad to privilege some of these voices in the creative space of the BMA.”
The Stoop will offer a public workshop on storytelling this Saturday, March 17, at BIG Theater (the former Everyman). Coming up on the spring schedule are a show about drugs at the Senator and one about work at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
More information and tickets for all events can be found at stoopstorytelling.com. And, by the way, they still need drug stories and work stories. Got one?