Outside, the late October evening was bracing and clear, while inside, a crowd gathered around the stage at Know Theatre, generating warmth. It was about to be Cincinnati’s first experience with TRUE Theatre, a new dramatic adventure in unscripted storytelling accompanied by an accordion. I settled in my seat, enjoying the hum of a lively venue and happily tucked into a beer. That was one moment. The next, I was rapt, listening.
The evening’s theme was fear. One storyteller retraced the brutal steps of her double-lung transplant. Another described being diagnosed with an aggressive, likely terminal cancer and his walk with God. Another, a difficult childhood with a mentally ill parent. Equally searing were stories told about the fear that comes with running a business, having other people depend on you for their livelihood. And the fear that comes with roller coasters.
These stories, very candidly and honestly shared, were personal, chilling … and true.
Later on the phone, TRUE storyteller Jen Osborn paused for a moment, putting her thoughts in order.
“When you have a mentally ill parent,” she said, “you know you’re not in the norm of society. It’s not something people talk about. A woman approached me that evening and said, ‘My mother is mentally ill. I’ve never told anyone that.’ I felt honored that she would share that experience with me.
Stories really show the commonality between us. We think we’re so different. These stories bring us together.”
Over coffee at Sitwell’s, longtime theater buddies and TRUE Theatre co-creators David Levy and Jeff Groh rehash their own story of getting the project off the ground. Inspired by the storytelling at the Moth Theatre in New York City, Levy mentioned to Groh that he wanted to create a similar storytelling project in Cincinnati, something with a living-room feel.
“Jeff said, ‘I’ll give you until the end of the summer and, if you don’t do it, I’m going to.’ He really loved the idea,” Levy said.
It’s a simple premise with a humble, earthy vibe: five storytellers, some selected, some volunteers, each take the microphone for 10 minutes, sans notes, to tell a true story from their own lives that is in line with a theme. Between sets, an accordion plays, allowing listeners to metabolize what they’ve just heard. The first TRUE Theatre event, around Halloween, was about fear. For the next installment (Monday), the theme will be “beginnings.” In April it’s “foolishness” and, in July, “independence.”
Groh and Levy agree that campfire-style storytelling was a big part of what was missing from the local theater scene; classics, standards and edgy new work were all being done. There’s been a resurgence of interest, Jeff pointed out, in stories, evidenced not only by the Moth, but also This American Life and StoryCorps’ anecdotes heard on National Public Radio.
The first TRUE Theatre show sold out — the house was capped at 100 and people were turned away. While delighted with their initial success, part of TRUE Theatre’s mission is community building. Groh and Levy wrestle with the evolution of their project: Can you have intimacy, they wonder, with 100 people in the house? Can you have community, but lock the door?
Clearly, their project has touched people. They gush about the people they have met through TRUE Theatre: parents, ministers, survivors, doctors and others.
Last October, sitting serenely in my chair, just listening, it occurred to me that the person onstage in front of me had a story, the person to my right had a story, the person to my left did as well. Even I had a story.
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