OMKAR KHANDEKAR visits Tall Tales, a live storytelling initiative, and tells us that tale.
Do you have a story to tell? Not the one when a man walked into a bar with a Democrat, Republican and a polar bear. Not even the time you got high at a cocktail party and went around telling whoever would listen why ‘bubbles’ is a funny word. Stories that are more than snippets or a series of events where you lived the highest highs to the lowest lows; stories now seem like they were born to be told, ones that will pop out a chuckle or a plop out a tear at a moment you least expect it to.
“I have seven such stories,” says Michael Burns, a documentary filmmaker. At 36 years of age, you might wonder if Burns has led a particularly uneventful life. But on Friday, October 25, at a storytelling event ‘Tall Tales’ held at Studio X in Fort area, as a motley audience of hundred odd people heard Burns narrate the time he had was staring down the barrel of a revolver pointed at him, struggling to stifle his laughter because of the ridiculous engraving of a tree, a wild stallion, a hill and native-Americans on the handle of the gun, all doubts were laid to rest.
“There are stories that are just a list of things that happened,” Burns had told me a few days before he was to go on stage. “And then there are great stories.” At Tall Tales, a live storytelling initiative that Burns started in the month of June this year, the endeavour is to share such ‘great’ stories that might come from just about anyone who is willing – be it your high school physics teacher or your regular dhobiwallah who fights crime by night. “You would be surprised at the range of unique experiences people have had and want to share,” said Burns.
Storytelling in itself is not a particularly new form of entertainment. However, most of what one encounters is cloaked and layered in various other art-forms: novels, poetry, dance et al. Tall Tales takes it back to the basics where all you have on you is a spotlight, a script if you need one, a little pre-performance grooming and a rapt audience, hanging on your every word. In such an ambiance, complete with wine and nibbles, stories spring from every strata and genre.
Last Saturday, for example, in his story titled ‘Tea and Me’ the bespectacled investment banker Anurag Byas narrated the time of his first rendezvous with a cuppa: “In my adolescence, I never drank tea. I had a belief that God grants your wishes if you give up stuff.” Over the next ten minutes, Byas went on to narrate how he finally managed to break the shackles of his “tea celibacy” and lead a life that involved downing more than 15,300 cups over the years.
“Back home, I used to listen to this public radio broadcast called ‘This American Life’,” said Burns, who hails from Connecticut region of United States. “In every show, they had stories based on the theme-of-the-week. That was the primary influence for Tall Tales.”
Other than the radio show, live storytelling – whether in the austere form or spoken word poetry – is quite a norm in various parts of the US. When he moved to Mumbai in 2011 with his partner, Burns found it striking that there were hardly such platforms in the city. When he had settled down in the city, his second job as a lecturer in English at YMCA going steady, he decided to collaborate with two of his friends Kaneez Surka, an improv actress, and Vishal Jadhani and launched Tall Tales. Contributors were invited from across the city. Burns curated and edited stories they submitted, drew from his own experience from the days he was an improve actor to train them before finally holding the first edition earlier this year.
Conceived as an occasional event, Tall Tales has snowballed into a bi-monthly. Stories, says Burns, are now received every other day. Each session features 4-5 storytellers, their narration ranging between 10-20 minutes. It has even caught the eye of the organisers of Mumbai Literature Festival that will be hosting some of them in their upcoming edition in December.
“When it comes to live storytelling, there is a direct relationship waiting for you in the audience. All you have to do is embrace it,” said Burns. The team has decided to take it up a notch and launch ‘Small Tales’ in the coming summer, aimed at children below 15 years of age.
Other than a distinct addition to the city’s culturescape, the initiative has gone a long way in enriching some of the participants’ lives. Take Rohit Nair who had never had any prior public speaking experience. Since June, he has already featured in three of the sessions, one of which was an encore. “I never knew I had this capacity of impromptu shenanigans,” he says, half-embarrassed. It’s no wonder that when Burns took to the stage on Saturday, Nair’s cheer rang the loudest – “Michael for President!”
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