Story Jam is a celebration at a time when we need celebrations. Truth be told, when don’t we need a celebration? But now seems like an especially good time.
When I spoke with Stephanie Rogers earlier this month, I’d read about “Story Jam.” I knew that Stephanie had created something unique, even in a city with storytelling showcases every night of the week.
I knew that she had created an event that is always eclectic and diverse, often hilarious, sometimes sad but always life-affirming, and that you should go expecting the unexpected. Story Jam is also the only storytelling event where there's a complete band on stage and each story gets its own entirely original song.
Every Story Jam is one of a kind and will never be repeated. But the shows also have something in common. Every show becomes a pop-up community where the goal is to leave connected with new insights into other lives. You may even depart singing and dancing. It has happened many times before.
When I spoke with Stephanie in early August, Story Jam sounded like something we badly need in this world. Two weeks later, that's truer than ever.
The next Story Jam is at City Winery on Sunday, September 10 and, as always, will feature a line-up of Chicago’s top storytelling talent.
Stephanie kindly took time out from fielding stories and writing music to tell me how she went from rocker to storyteller, what makes Story Jam unique, why she says “yes” to some stories but not to others, and to offer a tantalizing glimpse into what you’ll hear if you’re fortunate enough to be at the next Jam.
Teme: How did your music and storytelling career begin?
Stephanie: I went to Northwestern in the late ‘80’s for theater and then to Los Angeles to be a big movie star. It was a depressing place and I felt like a fish out of water. I ended up coming back and changing direction. I had always been in bands at Northwestern and I became more and more interested in songwriting and singing.
Then I became a rocker in clubs, in late night dingy bars and funny outfits and big hair. I was a real rocker. It's funny to think about it. As a day job I was singing at weddings. I started my own event band orchestra. I did that for about ten years.
Then I started attending storytelling shows in Chicago. I thought, the one thing these shows are missing is music. I saw one show with music interspersed throughout the evening but it was unrelated to the stories.
So I thought it would be creative and original to have a band on stage the whole time. Let the storytellers tell their stories, but then write songs to reflect each story. That idea combined everything I love to do.
Teme: I love that you had a vision of something no one had done and then you created it.
Stephanie: I just love doing it. It's pure passion that drives me. I try to get the best storytellers in Chicago.
One of the tenets of Story Jam is that it has to include a diverse range of people, not just culturally and racially, but also a diverse range of experience. I look for people of different physical abilities, different sexuality, different races and cultures and neighborhoods in Chicago, and different socioeconomic experiences. You come to a show and you see the universality of all of us even though we may not have shared backgrounds.
Teme: That’s such a great thing about comedy and storytelling. You really feel the connections between people. It’s very powerful.
Stephanie: Isn’t it? Archy Jamjun recently performed at Story Jam. He's a Moth GrandSlam winner and such a fantastic person. He told a story about addiction. Maybe not a lot of people in the audience have that experience, but they can all relate to the pain or the hardship. That's universal. He tells the story with humor, too.
Teme: I'm always blown away by storytellers who know how to do that.
Stephanie: It's an art. I try to get Archy as often as possible. He's consistently brilliant.
At Story Jam, the stories are real and very personal. I use the music as a transition tool. The band is on stage. When the storyteller is finished, the band echoes the story in a way that uses comedy to lighten the mood. It can be anything from country to hip-hop.
I had a storyteller recently named Drew Love. He's coming back on September 10th. He tells amazing stories, very raw. His story mentioned his love for rap music so I thought, I really have to write a rap song for him. I thought I was really ill-equipped, but no way could I reflect his story without doing a rap song. So I spent a couple of weeks researching rap music.
I had been anti-rap for a while, so it was a new experience for me. That's another cool thing about the show. It broadens horizons and not just for the audience but for me, too.
Teme: I think with storytelling and comedy there's something magical that happens in the audience. It connects the audience to the person on stage and the audience members to each other.
Stephanie: I love it so much for that very reason. I'm passionate about storytelling and I would drop everything and go to a storytelling event any time.
There are people who shy away from storytelling and I don't know why. Why would you not embrace this art form? Maybe it's just too intimate for some people. My sister is one of those people who is like “I don't really know if I want to hear people's stories.” She has never been to a Story Jam even though I've been doing it for three years. She's just nervous about ... I don't know. I think she's nervous about the intimacy of it all.
Teme: Anyone who hesitates should go at least once. Once you’re there, it's easy to see immediately what it's about.
I know it must take an enormous effort, but it also blows me away how storytellers go up on stage and engage the audience in a way that seems effortless.
Stephanie: Actually, I think that's one of the keys. As an actor, I was trained to be big, big, big on stage. “Train your voice so it's big.” “Train your physicality to be big.” But as a storyteller it can take away from the actual story if it’s too much of a “performance.”
Teme: When you accept a story for Story Jam, what makes you want to say yes?
Stephanie: A fantastic story could be about somebody who got gas at the gas station if they fill it in with interesting insights and details.
If someone has a transformational awakening, it makes for a great story.
Comedic stories are always really well received.
Really sexy hot stories are well received. There's a storyteller named Erin Diamond who will be at the show in September. She has a naughty story about discovering her sexuality. I think everybody has a little bit of a voyeuristic streak. We always want to hear what Erin Diamond is going to say because her stories tend to be pretty sexy.
I also look for stories where you hear something new. We go for the 17-and-over stories, not that they're all edgy and sexy or raunchy. It's not an unclassy show. But one guy tells a story about how he and his buddies wanted to have sex with hookers. They all got into a hotel room and he included the detail that he hadn't seen his mother for about ten years. Then the prostitutes came into the hotel and one of them was his mom.
Teme: Whoa, what a story.
Stephanie: I know. When I see a story like that, I know it’s going to blow people's minds. But it was a real story and a transformational one. Nestor Gomez has a lot of transformational stories, too.
Something deeply heartfelt makes a great story. It doesn't have to be some huge statement or a huge occurrence. Those are fun to have, too. I try to fit all the stories together so there's a range at each show.
Teme: When you say no to a story, what are some common places where it might fall short?
Stephanie: Well, sometimes people think they have a great story, but there's no substance to it. Somebody just sent me a story about meeting his wife. It's a beautiful story for him. He didn't know how special she was going to be and he meets her and realizes he's madly in love. That is a cool idea of a story, but he needed to fill it in with insights and backstory. It lacked a real beginning, middle and end.
He’s a neat guy and he probably has great stage presence, but if I just tell you I met someone and now I'm madly in love with him, that's not as interesting as telling you what heartache I've had before or my emotional state.
Teme: How does one develop the ability to recognize those details and tell a compelling story?
Stephanie: If you want to tell stories but don’t know how, I recommend studying. There are two people I know that teach storytelling, Arlene Malinowski and Scott Whitehair. I've taken Arlene’s classes. She teaches people individually and in class.
Scott has helped a lot of beginners get going. Scott is very down to earth. Arlene is very cerebral and intellectual. She wants your work to be at the very highest level you can summon. Scott is also cerebral and intellectual but he’s more, “how much heart can you summon?”
How do the great storytellers become great? I think some of them are just built that way. Like Archy and Nestor work on their craft very much, but they have something. They have some special magic.
As a producer of a storytelling show, I know what moves me. I don’t necessarily have an all-comedic show, but if I find someone who brings a little comedy to a great story, that's a magic combination.
Teme: I don’t want to ask you to give away too much, but what stories will we hear on September 10th?
Stephanie: Lynne Jordan is a singer in Chicago and I actually asked her for a specific story. She's done three stories at Story Jam, including one about her grandfather who escaped a lynching. It's an unbelievably moving story, although not the one she’ll tell in September. I asked her if she'd tell her story about singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a Bulls game.
It's very funny. She goes through the emotions of what brought her there, who she meets and how she gets through it. Then she actually sings it and takes you through the moment. Her mother was there with her, yelling at her the whole time.
I'm pretty sure Erin Diamond is going to give us something very sexy. Nestor, I don't know what he's going to tell, but it’s always heartfelt. He was smuggled into the country as a child and grew up extremely poor. I've asked him to do a story about that because it's very topical. But we need to see if he does that, because you don't really tell Nestor Gomez what story to do!
Drew Love is Hispanic. He grew up with a mom he calls a “rolling stone.” His perspective is of raising himself, versus Erin Diamond who grew up comfortably, but suppressing her sexuality, which makes for some exciting theater, in my opinion.
Steve Glickman often talks about his experience as a gay man, but this time, he’ll tell a great story about a big lie he told, then had to live out. Anne Purky has a hilarious shoplifting story; Drew Love will reveal some amazing facts about his family; and Archy is doing an awesome new piece. I can’t give away too much!
I always feel that it's a privilege to sit in the green room and be part of a show with these storytellers.
Teme: Sometimes I forget, just bouncing around in my own stresses or whatever has to get done, I forget how connected we all are. This event is a beautiful reminder that “oh right, I am part of this universe and we're all part of each other.” It's so easy to forget.
Stephanie: It is. We are so lucky to connect with each other like this. It isn't online. It's human and vibrant and immediate. I’m not reading about a kid who came from Guatemala to Mexico to the United States. I'm actually talking to him.
Teme: What would you say is the most unexpected thing that ever happened at Story Jam?
Stephanie: I have a portion of the show where audience members can tell a one-minute story. It's like an open mic moment. In April, we had a guy come up and hijack the mic. He made a political statement and went on a rant and criticized me and the show for not being politically correct. He started out being cute and funny, but then he hit us. It was like a Trojan horse storytelling ambush.
It was shocking because we are about peace and love, and so diverse, and we're all advocates for social justice. He accused us of being the exact opposite.
Teme: What was his objection?
Stephanie: Somebody told a story which included a criminal whose name was Leroy Jones, which was the actual name. This guy who attacked the show was white and thought we were implying that the criminal was black, and therefore we were being racist by saying his name was “Leroy Jones.”
Teme: Was it difficult getting the microphone back?
Stephanie: Yeah, I had a little trouble. I was a bit stunned. One of our storytellers, Chris Trani, happens to be a comedian and he saved the day. He came up to the mic and made a funny joke. He started ranting and raving in Spanish to create a diversion. Then the gentleman actually got back in his seat and stayed for the rest of the show. I thought for sure he was so incensed by us that he would just walk out of the theater. He actually went back to his seat and sat with his wife and I saw him laughing and enjoying the rest of the show.
Teme: Life is interesting. People are interesting!
Stephanie: They really are. I'm certainly not this guy’s enemy. I wish I could have told him, “We're on the same page as you. We’re fighting the same cause.”
The open mic is a little risky. I don't do it every time. That time I did it because I saw three storytellers in the audience and I thought maybe one will come up and tell a fantastic story. That's what happened. They all came up and each told a great, quick story. Then that gentleman was raising his hand. I didn't see him, and everyone in the audience was saying “Wait, one more!” I was like, “Oh sorry, sir, I didn't see you. Okay, let's do one more. Everybody wants one more!” I probably shouldn't have said “one more.” That was the one.
Teme: I wouldn’t have expected that!
Stephanie: I never would have expected it. It had been such a wonderful fun, light feeling in the room. He shocked us all, but maybe that's also kind of fun, too, in a way, because we had an open mic ambush, and that was an experience.
Teme: … and a testament to you that people feel at home. Sometimes people come into your house, and you want them to feel at home. Then they surprise you by feeling too much at home. Yet it's a compliment because the atmosphere is welcoming. He must have felt he could go up and make himself at home.
Stephanie: At the time, it seemed pretty devastating. But afterwards, I was looking at it as there's a story right there.
There have been many moments where someone said something shocking on stage and I hear a gasp in the crowd. I think that's part of the experience.
The guy that told the story that was criticized by this gentleman, he was telling his story and his version of his story. I may have told it differently. But if you come, you do have to have an open heart and open mind because you might hear something that's surprising or shocking.
Teme: You're so right. It's life and that's why everybody's there to hear about it.
Stephanie: Right. It's an entertainment platform, not a political platform. It may not always be perfectly politically correct. Sometimes even I get shocked. Lily Be told a story once that was very sexual and in great detail. My parents were in the audience. I was looking over at them thinking, “Oh no, what are they thinking? This has gone too far!” My mom later said, “Boy, didn't she tell the story!” and I was like, “Yeah! She did!” That's what's going to happen when you have real people telling real stories.
Teme: What is the best thing that’s ever happened at Story Jam?
Stephanie: Everything. Every story is always the best thing that's ever happened.
One time Archy told a story about how his mom and dad were from Thailand and very strict and academically focused. They wanted Archy to be a scientist or a doctor. He was gay and in the closet, and he was very artsy inside and a great writer. Not at all a scientist or mathematician like his parents were and wanted him to be.
He tells a story about how he would stare into the stars and daydream about his future. His dad would say, “Oh look, Archy's looking at the stars because he is studying them. He is going to be an astronomer like his father. He's a scientist.” Then we sang a song called “Scientist.”
I had an 11-piece band and they did a huge build-up. Very energetic and lively, and we sang it and sang it and sang it, and the whole crowd is standing up and dancing and clapping and then we end the song, and the crowd just keeps roaring. I was like, “Oh! Well! We should we do it again!” and the audience said back, “Yeah! Do it again!” So we did. We ended the night with that. I usually end with an Archy story because they're so entertaining. They're bigger than life. We start the night with a big, big story, and end the night with a big, big story. That was a magical moment.
When I was doing weddings, at the end of the night I would think, “I really wish I had gotten the brother-in-law up for a speech,” or “I wish we had played more Sinatra songs.” I always had something like that.
I never feel that way after Story Jam. I never feel like I missed anything or should have done something different. Even if I forget a word or make a mistake or two, I never feel like there were any mistakes because it's magic every time. I prepare for hours for each show, but I get there knowing anything can happen.
The next Story Jam is Sunday, September 10 at noon at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $18 and you can get them here.
More details about your September 10 storytellers here.
Coming up later this year:
November 17: Launch party for the Story Jam album (including “Scientist”) at 8:00 p.m. at Artifact Events, 4325 North Ravenswood, Chicago. Details here.
TBA: The Story Jam podcast.
Stay up to date with Stephanie and Story Jam at storyjamshow.com.
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