Jill Howe & Rachael Smith of Story Sessions discuss the merits of live lit with Abby Sheaffer

Jill Howe & Rachael Smith of Story Sessions discuss the merits of live lit with Abby Sheaffer
(Image credit: Story Sessions)

Friendship first, this is the mantra for Jill Howe and Rachael Smith, the co-producers of Story Sessions. Each month these two incredible women put on a fantastic show complete with a cozy setting (The City Winery), great music (Dog 1) and a long line of awesome storytellers. But all of this wouldn't be possible if it weren't for their friendship. Read my exclusive interview with them and discover how Story Sessions came to be, the trials and tribulations they face with each production, and when you can catch their next show. Interview after the jump.

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

 

Tell our readers a little bit more about Story Sessions and how it came to be.

Rachael: Before being co-producers, we are friends, and have been from the moment we met. Jill’s birthday is in March and every year she has a storytelling party where she asks people to bring stories as gifts. In 2013, she asked me if she could have the party at my place. I agreed and then panicked when I saw the guest list was over 100. Weeks before the party, I stumbled upon a bar in the area on their opening night- The Dogs Bollox at 3210 N. Lincoln. They had great food, an extensive beer list and a perfectly coifed back room that might be able to accommodate Jill’s huge party. When I showed this magical room to Jill, we realized that this space was meant for much more than a birthday party. It would house the show we had talked about starting “someday”. And just like that, Story Sessions was born, with its first show themed, “Beginnings”, on April 21, 2013. From the very start, we agreed our priorities would always be 1) our friendship, 2) having fun and 3) the show. These values, though simple and maybe corny, have made the show what it is today­– growing from 50 people in a back room to 250 at City Winery in only 10 months.

So far, what has been your favorite installment of the series? Why?

Jill: Tandem stories. We go cuckoo for tandem tales. It’s such an art form, like a tennis match ballet of ideas. Just a week before the tandem show, I found out I had to have emergency surgery. Rachael brought her laptop to the hospital and we kept going, through the morphine. Just six days later, one organ lighter, I still made it to the show. I told everyone, “Tandems! You guys, this doesn’t happen often! A show of only amazing tandem stories! I’m FINE!”

Another great event was our cabin retreat at The Little House of Glencoe this past December. More than 50 writers and storytellers gathered around the hearth and participated in a day of workshops and open mics. We’re thrilled with the stage, but we’re also thrilled with the process that gets you there. It’s not all about the spotlight. It’s about honoring the story.

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

In your mind, what makes Story Sessions different than most series? Why?

Rachael: We give a lot of freedom and support to the storytellers, both experienced and novice. Each show has a theme to tie the stories together as well as a wacky poster (it’s one of my favorite things to do) to help promote the event. Out show starts out with bluegrass music from our resident band, Dog 1. Host, Deanna Moffitt, encourages the audience to write their own stories that connect to our theme on notes that we collect throughout the show. She reads the audience submissions out loud between the feature stories. In addition, resident artist, Betsy Cypert, draws her unique interpretation of each of the stories. To wrap up the night, we give the audience and performers bookmarks that have our favorite quotes from the stories as a unique memento. And after the show, we produce the stories on our podcast, which can be found on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

Why did you choose City Winery as the location for the series? How did that partnership take place?

Jill: When our show outgrew The Dog’s Bollox as well as many other potential spaces in the city, we took a chance on a new part of the city and on a venue that traditionally houses mostly musical acts. City Winery is a beautiful space and an inspiring venue for all the artists involved. City Winery gets what we do and has been an incredible partner in promoting the show and helping to create a really special night. In the variety of spaces that Story Sessions has filled, we’ve found home is really where the heart is, and the community is really what makes a location ideal.

What are some adversities you face with putting the show on?

Rachael: As a full time job, producing Story Sessions would be a great gig. However, Jill and I both work full time jobs and spend a good portion of our free time on perfecting all the details of the show. I guess the adversity is time and of course, the need to sleep- a little. One of our other challenges is collecting stories that all connect to the show’s theme and making sure that collection has good variety. Jill is especially great at programming and is sensitive to an audience’s attention span and emotional limit.

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

(Image credit: Story Sessions)

Who do you wish to have read at Story Sessions?

Jill: We wish for people to come to us with fresh work that they feel they must share- that they will burst if they don’t. We are interested in people who are engaged in the craft of storytelling both on the page and on the stage. We’ve had teachers, scientists, comedians, playwrights, professional speakers, published authors, singers, lawyers and first-time tellers. We look for genuine interest and kindness, people who want to listen as much as they want to tell.

Can you tell our readers when the next show will be and what the theme will be?

Rachael: Our next show is March 16th at City Winery and the theme is Phoenix Rising. We love the idea of rising up from the ashes anew, the mythological phoenix. We’re excited to share stories with lessons that come out of a rebirth or triumph over evil (or other dramatic adversity). Even the smallest victories have meaning, and sometimes the best!

Do the shows help feed your own writing?

Jill: Unique to storytelling show production in this town, we don’t perform at every show we produce. That doesn’t mean we don’t tell though. Rachael shared a story at our “Creature Comforts” show and I performed at 20 storytelling shows around Chicago last year (it was a personal dare). Rachael even went back to her alma mater, the Latin School of Chicago, and told a story for their 125th anniversary last month. We are truly an active part of storytelling in Chicago. We fill the well by listening to stories at our show and many others all over the city. Producing is a BIG job, getting people there (my forte), marketing (Rachael’s forte), and taking care of our tellers, musicians, artist, audience, and venue… BIG job. That said, somehow we still find the time. Rachael is due to publish her memoir, Forever Maybe, this coming year, and I have a membership at Amy Davis’ The Writer’s WorkSpace in Edgewater where I’m concentrating on getting a few of my million ideas on the page. This show is the logical extension of our pursuit of the creative life, it’s our “daring greatly” as Brene Brown says. It can be so isolating to write and so threatening to self-esteem (see Life of a Project graph from Steal Like an Artist) that we also host monthly meet-ups for writers to give each other feedback, potluck food and hugs. We strive to keep creative lives afloat, including our own, by sharing our work and our vulnerability in a safe environment. The stage is the final expression of that, but the journey is immeasurably satisfying as well.

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