On with the Show

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It’s a natural tool for unifying and entertaining, and it celebrates what makes each of us unique and courageous. Or so Penelope Starr has found about storytelling, after more than a decade of the community phenomenon called Odyssey.

Individuals who step onto the Odyssey stage open doors of self-discovery, and pass along life lessons, humor, culture, even gossip, as well. “We get to know our neighbors, figuring ourselves out, while realizing we all feel the same emotions,” she says.

Penelope created the Odyssey Storytelling process (having participants relate life experiences on a monthly theme) in March 2004. BorderLore asked her to share some stories in this Q&A:

B: Why did you create Odyssey?

PS: I’m nosy; I love to listen to stories. They teach me and help me understand my own personal experiences. I’m really fascinated with how other people figure out life; how they survive difficulties and celebrate joys. I believe that you can impart information better with a story than by trying to hammer a point home. A personal experience: When I heard a story told by a German American woman at an Odyssey show about how her father fought in the German army in the 2nd world war, my immediate reaction was negative and I shut down. But, as I listened to her vivid and sad descriptions of the fear and pressures that ordinary German people were under, I began to see her father’s humanity and empathize with his plight. It challenged my prejudices and did not allow me to stay stuck in learned judgments.

B: Would you comment on how community storytelling allows individuals to grow, to heal, to celebrate or even to mourn?

PS: Tony was a mechanic. He and his wife lived an easy and sweet life in a trailer in the desert on the outskirts of town. When she got sick, they had no insurance so they had to go on medical public assistance. She had cancer and many other complications to the point where she needed full time help, so Tony left his job and became her caretaker. That’s when welfare kicked in. They lived on the edge, using food stamps and all the help they could get and fought Susan’s illness together. When she died nine years later, Tony was completely broke, had no job and was heartbroken.

Some people might look at this able-bodied, unemployed man as a “deadbeat” if you didn’t know his story. He was kind enough to share it at Odyssey Storytelling’s “Breast Cancer Stories” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. He received lots of support and many hugs from audience members at the end of the evening. A few weeks later I got a call from Tony saying he was starting work, maintaining a fleet of trucks for a small company. He told me that he felt that telling his story to an empathetic audience was a key to his healing.

B: Do you have any comments about the folklife or community celebration that surrounds a storytelling experience?

PS: We gather people from many different walks of life and communities, folks that might not meet each other in their everyday life. Each monthly group has a rehearsal to practice, telling their story and giving each other feedback. This is a very fun and bonding experience. They become a group of cohorts working towards the same goal, and they support each other in the kindest way. After each show, we invite the tellers out for refreshments, so that they can reinforce each other’s experience by having a little more time with each other. For some it can become the beginning of a friendship. For others it’s an opportunity to get to know people outside of their own personal circle. For everyone, it’s a time to share their mutual achievement. We started inviting the audience to come along, and often we get a crowd of 20 or more people that continue sharing their stories with each other.

An essential cornerstone of Odyssey has always been community announcements. The guiding principal of community storytelling, in my view, is to make connections. We encourage our tellers to “shamelessly promote” their interests, be it a book they just published or a charity they love.

B: Is storytelling still a passion of yours?

PS: I bumped into a storyteller from the first show last night. She’s now doing improv at Tucson Improv Movement and has returned in the last few years to tell another story at Odyssey. I have seen how storytelling has changed lives. It certainly has changed mine.

Odyssey Storytelling
Odyssey Storytelling early days, at the Wilde Playhouse.

The big picture is that sharing stories is about building community. On a personal level it is about being honest and being seen for who you are. Both of these things are basic human needs. Everyone benefits from a storytelling event either as a teller or as a listener. Odyssey Storytelling offers a showcase for people of all ages, cultures, gender expressions and sexual orientations.


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