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That’s Another Story

by Danny Harris | DC magazine | July 25, 2011

Sure many on Capital Hill are known for telling tall tales, but a different type of storytelling is reaching new heights in Washington. With nightclubs pulling in sold-out crowds and no fewer than four groups regularly staging story stand-up nights, the city seems to be aching for a few good yarns. Jessica Piscitelli, who recently formed Better Said Than Done, a story telling group in NoVa, is up on the boards at Jammin’ Java in Vienna on July 30.

While this trend may have finally blown up for the area, it’s been simmering for some time. The Washington Storytellers Theatre was founded in 1990, but by 1997 the professional group opened its doors to amateur performers with the creation of SpeakEasy. “Back then, storytelling was like Chinatown in the ’80s,” says Amy Saidman, the artistic executive director of the organization who merged the two factions and adopted the name SpeakeasyDC in 2006. “People didn’t even know that it existed. Many of those who did thought that storytelling was just for children.”

Saidman, who is widely considered the city’s storytelling matriach, launched a re-branding campaign when she assumed her current position. She moved away from hosting professional “on-the-circuit” storytellers and encouraged local, untrained regulars to get on stage, get personal and tell their adult stories to an adult audience. The first promo pictures were of a naked Saidman in an elevator. “We really wanted people to know that it wasn’t for kids,” she says smiling.

The group now sees 250-300 people at their monthly open mic nights at Town. Since launching classes in 2007, the organization has unleashed more than 1,000 students of elocution and folklore onto the area. Some cite a desire to be better public speakers, while others admit they’re driven by seven minutes of uninterrupted audience attention.

SpeakeasyDC’s renaissance mirrors the rise of storytelling in other cities. From Philadelphia to San Francisco, thousands are gathering for hip evenings dedicated to listening and sharing. Surprisingly, most of the stories told on DC stages don’t revolve around political Washington, but rather focus on human anecdotes about sex, life, dating, risk, family, and more sex. “If you look at everything from the rise of the memoir to American Idol,” says SpeakeasyDC alum Jessica Piscitelli, “normal stories about normal people are popular these days.”

A year ago, Piscitelli formed her own group based in Northern Virginia, Better Said Than Done. “This is a huge market, and it is only growing,” says Piscitelli who is constantly in search of bigger venues—and she isn’t alone. Vijai Nathan, a stand-up comedian, writer and SpeakeasyDC storytelling staff teacher, launched Fan-Freaking-Tastic. To Nathan, “it doesn’t matter how you tell your story, as long as it’s funny.” Her monthly standing-room-only show at Chief Ike’s features traditional storytellers, stand-up comedians, musicians, and even mimes.

S.M. Shrake, a SpeakeasyDC regular, and Cathy Alter, a writer, recently started the latest in a string of groups, Story League. According to Shrake, “We wanted to make storytelling more interactive and social.” As such, Story League operates more like a guild with a collaborative process among a group of amateur and professional raconteurs. Their performances sell out well in advance and Alter recalls someone trying to bribe her for entrance to the last sold-out show.

“Despite its rise,” Piscitelli says, “many people still have no idea what they are getting into. I overheard one couple talking about how they thought the event was going to be a motivational seminar.” Read DC magazine’s July/August coverage for more.