True Stories Told Live
One of the most fascinating nights out in town is in an Islington pub where normal people narrate stories from their lives. Time Out pulls up a pew
Once upon a time (well, a couple of years ago), in a faraway land (well, America) a journalist called David Hepworth (of Q, Mojo and The Word fame) interviewed a writer called Malcolm Gladwell (of 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink' fame). During their conversation Gladwell mentioned The Moth, a New York storytelling club where authors, actors and ordinary folk stand up in front of a small audience and recount true tales from their lives. Hepworth thought this was a brilliant idea and returned home full of plans to start a similar night in London. A few months later he and his friends radio producer Kate Bland and actor Kerry Shale held their first storytelling session in the upstairs room of an Islington pub, naming it True Stories Told Live.
That first event featured an adopted woman's moving and extraordinary account of finding her birth mother and subsequently discovering the existence of several half-sisters; someone admitting stealing a picture from an art gallery; the journalist and broadcaster Andrew Collins's graphic and very funny reminiscence about his and his siblings' childhood car-sickness; and a musical interlude from ex-Squeeze bard Chris Difford. Four very different stories united by True Stories Told Live's two main rules: the anecdotes must be true and must be delivered without notes. The thinking was that if people were relating stories from their own experience, they shouldn't need a prompt - but the lack of a script also helped the speaker connect with their audience more freely, as if the storytelling were part of a conversation rather than a performance.
Since then True Stories Told Live has continued monthly with four turns plus a musician on each occasion. After a few sessions Hepworth instituted a third rule - a ten-minute time limit - realising that, 'like a fourminute pop single or 22-minute sitcom episode', there's an optimum duration for a story. A ten-minute framework helps the narrator structure what they want to say and the audience focus their attention. Shale, who MCs proceedings, sits in the front row holding up an iPad clock so each storyteller can monitor their own timekeeping.
This hi-tech stopwatch and the room's modest PA system are the only concessions to modernity in what is otherwise a pleasingly and peculiarly old-fashioned evening of entertainment. Homer and Aesop and Shakespeare probably spun their yarns in settings not unlike this. Add in some cigar smoke and embroidery and we could be participating in a post-prandial Victorian parlour game. The cosy room in The Compass pub on Chapel Market which True Stories Told Live has made its home even has a fireplace and mantelpiece. Every month, 100 or so people gather round the hearth to listen to some other people talking. It really is as simple as that. And in contrast to the way we now communicate rapidly and remotely with our hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers, the sense of leisurely intimacy between these 100 strangers is palpable. It isn't just those who take to the mic who participate in True Stories Told Live - the audience very much contributes to the atmosphere of shared experience too.
A recent evening was opened by a woman who began by describing her family's jet black kitten and how he loved to play inside the washing machine. After a couple of minutes everyone listening was under no illusion as to how this story would end, but when the narrator eventually confirmed that she had indeed spun the poor kitten to death, the audience gasped as one nonetheless. Interestingly, the beloved pet's demise was not the punchline to this tale. The real story here was his owner's subsequent struggle to forgive herself for what she'd done - a moral paralysis the whole audience clearly empathised with.
That evening we were also regaled with stories about UFOs and a Beyoncé stalker in Texas, a severed ear with a Mafia connection and a man having his face peeled off during cranial surgery in Bangkok. Coincidentally, all four contributors were writers of one kind or another, and this particular show was compered by author Meg Rosoff as Shale was away on holiday. David Hepworth admits that what was missing was an extraordinary story from an 'ordinary person', citing past favourites including a Gulf War veteran, an ex-ecstasy dealer who spent six years in the USA's nastiest prison, a London Underground employee who'd been the victim of an armed robbery and a plain old brain surgeon.
Up till now True Stories Told Live has been a word-of-mouth hit. Admission is free but names have to be submitted in advance via www.truestoriestoldlive.com. Each month, twice as many people apply as there's room for, so Hepworth painstakingly compiles a guest list of newcomers and people who haven't attended for a while, in order to keep things fair. Satellite events have been started in Brighton, Cardiff, Yorkshire and St Andrews with more planned. And on Tuesday July 5 2011 the whole operation decamps to the 200-capacity Crypt in Clerkenwell for a ticketed benefit gig, a one-off show with a line-up comprising the best raconteurs from past editions. Tickets cost £22, which includes a drink, with the proceeds going towards True Stories Told Live's running costs, future development and website improvements. If past form is anything to go by, it should be a night worth talking about.
The True Stories Told Live Benefit takes place Tue July 5 2011 at Crypt on the Green, St James Clerkenwell, Clerkenwell Close, EC1R 0EA (www.wegottickets.com/event/122278). A new season of free
events starts in September.