Storytellers in open mic format inspire laughter or deep thought
Abby Lublin plucks a name out of a coffee can and summons him to the small, makeshift stage at the front of the bar where a rapt audience waits to see what he has to say.
The man, Albany resident Chris Tomaso, isn’t a comedian or a musician. But he is, in his own way, an entertainer. He leans into the microphone, and begins to spin a tale about his cousins and the trip they all took to Europe years ago.
Tomaso’s story culminates with an entertaining account of a drunken dare to run through a peacock sanctuary late at night, and how terrifying it was. “I heard wings and flapping, and then I saw four giant silhouettes of peacocks,” he said. And when his younger cousin ran through the sanctuary, the birds defecated on her head.
“My aunt was not particularly happy with us the next morning, when my cousin had to throw away her pajamas,” he explains, to loud laughter.
Tomaso is followed by Schenectady resident Linda Wicks, who talks movingly about her older brother. “He turned the closet into a spaceship,” she says. “He used to pretend to be an alien when I was falling asleep, and ask me questions about life on Earth.”
Tomaso and Wicks are telling stories as part of The Front Parlor, a monthly storytelling series at The Ale House, a neighborhood bar in Troy. The event draws people from throughout the area who fill up the main dining room to hear amateur raconteurs and perhaps join them on stage. Before The Front Parlor gets under way, “tellers” toss their names into the coffee can, and wait for Lublin, the master of ceremonies, to tell them when they’re speaking.
The rules of The Front Parlor are pretty simple.
No notes. No props. Speaking is limited to five minutes, and the time limit is enforced by a sharp toot from a wooden train whistle. The genre is narrative nonfiction, but “we encourage embellishment,” Lublin said. “We like to say that ‘Truth is in the mouth of the teller.’ ”
“There’s a real mixture of sublime and ridiculous,” she said. “People will be howling and crying with laughter.” But other stories provoke more thoughtful reactions; one story, about a brother’s suicide, starts off as a collection of humorous and meandering anecdotes about a beloved sibling, before ending in a tragedy that leaves the room silent.
Different theme each time
Each month there is a theme, and June’s Front Parlor topic was brothers and sisters. Many of the stories seem to suggest that sibling bonding is fueled by drinking copious amounts of alcohol, with one speaker reflecting on the drunken family picnics he attended as a child, another reminiscing about drinking with his sisters and another confessing that the only time she ever got along with her sister was when they were both smoking marijuana.
The Front Parlor got started about a year ago, and is partly modeled on the popular New York City-based open mic storytelling series The Moth, which sometimes draws celebrities such as the author Malcolm Gladwell and comedian Margaret Cho, and is available for free via a weekly podcast.
Lublin once worked at a bar in the East Village that hosted The Moth, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. When she moved to Troy, she decided she wanted to start a similar event.
“I love storytelling,” said Lublin, who described herself as a fan of NPR shows with an emphasis on storytelling, such as “This American Life,” and Garrison Keillor’s popular radio variety show “The Prairie Home Companion.” “Everyone has stories. Storytelling is an incredible way of connecting with people, a way to be around really cool people.” It’s also a way to bring people together at a time when there are fewer public spaces, she said. “It’s a reclaiming of the commons,” she said.
Lublin is an upbeat and encouraging host; she said she rarely tells stories, but her commentary is peppered with jokes and personal asides. Before the show, she distributes index cards, which she refers to as “flash nonfiction,” and invites people in the audience to write a sentence or two about “sibling torture or salvation (received or delivered)” and return it to her. While waiting for Tomaso to take the stage, she pulls out one of the index cards, and reads: “I ran over my sister’s legs with my bicycle. I don’t remember this story, but she does. Did it really happen?”
“I’m a story curator,” Lublin, 35, said. “I love drawing stories out of people.” She said she supports herself through a mix of substitute teaching, tutoring and community organizing; she is responsible for launching Collard City Growers, a gardening and composting project in North Central Troy, and is also active with the Troy Bike Rescue and the Sanctuary for Independent Media.
Act of being brave
As Wicks walks toward the stage, Lublin shouts, “She’s a first-time teller, give her some love!”
Wicks, 44, has never attended The Front Parlor before tonight. But she shows no signs of stage fright, and when she sits down she says that she enjoyed herself, and that telling a story to a live audience was “an act of being brave.”
“I would definitely do it again,” she said. “It’s a fabulous concept. I’ve been to open mics where people play music. Here, anyone can share something. It’s so accessible. It’s almost like a family dinner.”
Tomaso, 35, is a regular at Front Parlor events, and is known for telling stories; his family nickname is Seanachie, which is a Celtic word for storyteller. He said he checked out the theme for the last Front Parlor session in advance, and initially had trouble coming up with a story — because his parents were divorced and, although he had step-siblings, he didn’t grow up with them. Then he thought of his cousins, who in many ways are like siblings to him.
The Front Parlor crowd “is a different crowd than anywhere else,” he said.
A driving St. Bernard?
Ninety-year-old Troy resident and Ale House regular Eddie Albert tells a story at every Front Parlor event. “I come here every night,” he said. “The first time they had [the Front Parlor], I didn’t know what it was, and I left.”
But eventually he decided to give storytelling a try. “I’ve lived through everything,” the World War II veteran explained. “Whatever the theme is, I must have experienced it before.”
At one event, the theme was animals, and Albert decided to talk about his 1951 Jaguar roadster, and how he once took a St. Bernard for a ride in the vehicle. He said the dog sat up so tall in his seat, that unsuspecting passers-by thought the dog was driving the car. “I put up my hands, and pretended that he was!” Albert said. “That story went over so good that I said, ‘This is fun.’ ”
“Most of the people who get up have never told stories before,” Albert said. “I like to see how they do it.”
Brian Gilchrist has owned The Ale House for the past 21 years. The Front Parlor is a new type of event for his bar. “It’s a little different thing from anything I’ve ever done before or had done here before,” he said. “I was surprised by the turnout initially, and it’s only built since then.”
Local musician Troy Pohl provides The Front Parlor with its sound system. He said he read about the Front Parlor on the local website All Over Albany, thought it sounded interesting, and decided to check it out. The only problem: “I couldn’t hear the stories because they were talking through an old guitar amplifier.” So he volunteered to help.
Pohl tells stories on occasion. Once, when the theme was food, he talked about his mother’s poor cooking. “I’ve always been into storytelling,” he said. When he used to play live shows with his band, the Kamikaze Hearts, “I did my fair share of talking. I like being able to have a little idea that I make up into a story as I go along.”
Tim Dawkins, 32, attended The Front Parlor last summer, loved it, and has been a regular ever since. He also hosts an Albany-based Front Parlor once a month at The Olde English Pub in Albany.
“It’s hard not to want to get up and tell a story,” he said.