something to write home about: pittsburgh-native storytellers gather to share unique experiences at plot device event
On Tuesday October 29th, about 50 members of the Slippery Rock and Grove City communities gathered at Beans on Broad, a coffee shop in downtown Grove City, to hear from three storytellers.
At its core, the event aimed to celebrate and demonstrate the myriad ways storytelling is a central part of our lives. “Plot Device” set out to break the stereotypes of storytelling and expand our audience’s notions of who storytellers are. Storytelling is an art as old as the human race. We have an innate compulsion to tell stories. While the forms of storytelling evolve with the advent of new technologies, the drive remains the same. We want our stories to be heard, passed down, told and retold.
Student leaders from Slippery Rock University began the program by sharing opportunities for storytelling through their organizations. Jenna Moses, senior Professional and Creative Writing major and co-managing editor of SLAB Literary Magazine, spoke about SLAB’s wide-reaching audience and their inclusivity of unique narrative forms. Piper Jones, junior Gender Studies and Social Work major and co-president of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, promoted FMLA’s monologue writing and performance collection coming Spring 2020.
You can find out more about SLAB & FMLA by following them on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook @slab.lit.mag and @fmlasru
Our first storyteller, Thomas Thompson, a recent SRU graduate, is the creator and writer of the “Dirty History” podcast. Thomas joined us virtually via video chat and his co-creator, Andrew Henley, assisted in asking and answering questions. His podcast focuses on the lesser known, unpleasant aspects of history that are frequently left out of public history. Thomas shared about his process of finding material and creating narratives, explaining that the stories he shares already exist and merely need to be uncovered. Thomas and Andrew spoke about how media and technology has changed storytelling, pointing out that podcasts are simply a modern continuation of the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. When asked why it is important to tell these stories, Thomas defended the “dirty” side of history by saying that it is often misrepresented. He said these stories deserve a place in history as they are without “sensationalizing or fetishizing them.”
You can find Thomas’s work here: Dirty History Podcast or follow him on social media @dirtyhistorypod
We transitioned to our next storyteller, the sensitive and soft-spoken Stephanie Strasburg. Stephanie is a Pittsburgh-based photojournalist who is “drawn to explore the evolving landscape, economy, and sociopolitical conditions of the Rust Belt and is interested in developing new ways for stories to be found and shared in her community.” Stephanie shared her long-term storytelling process, displaying photos and videos from some of the many stories she has given voice to. She spoke about building trust with the subjects of her stories, which requires great empathy and respect for the people whose stories she tells. Stephanie shared about the complexity of every person – no one is simply black and white, but rather we are gray, messy, fragile people.
Find the story she shared at the event here: Life and Death on Santron Avenue
You can find Stephanie’s work here: Stephanie Strasburg Photo or follow her on social media @stephaniestrasburg
Our final storyteller, Joe Wos, is a professional cartoonist, maze creator, and author. Joe is a dynamic speaker, incorporating live drawing, personal stories, and audience interaction. Joe spoke about his journey as a cartoonist, demonstrating his drawing skills with a live illustration of one of the first stories he ever wrote. He said that people are drawn to stories because there is something in every story that relates to us personally. When asked by an audience member why he believes people respond so well to cartoons, Joe explained that cartoons do two contrasting things: they exaggerate and they simplify. Cartoons help us see ourselves and others in a more understandable way.
You can find Joe’s work here: Maze Toons or follow him on social media @mazetoons
“Plot Device: Media & Storytelling” was an incredible evening. Stay tuned for future Stone House Center for Public Humanities collaborative community programs!
Every October, we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month. This October, we are hosting an event called "Plot Device: Media & Storytelling." This event will explore the idea of storytelling in the age of technology, featuring three speakers who construct their narratives through unorthodox and unique mediums.
In preparation for our event, we asked Dr. Skeele, a theater professor at Slippery Rock University who teaches acting and playwriting and has directed over 40 shows, to share his thoughts on the arts and the importance of storytelling:
What drew you to the arts?
"The answer ties completely to the idea of story! I was obsessed with story from my very earliest years. My parents read to us and told us stories nightly, and it was the best and most important part of my whole day. I had a big wooden box filled with action figures and little plastic army men and cowboys and Indians, and I would spend untold hours creating scenarios with them. I lived in a wooded rural area, so trees and boulders and rocks in a stream became fantastical 'sets.' When I started school, I was way ahead of almost everyone when it came to reading, but I absolutely floundered in my understanding of math--and that was because abstract symbols were completely meaningless to me. However, give me a word problem where I could imagine the scene with people or animals--in other words, frame it as a story--and it became not only meaningful but exciting."
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
"Absolutely! It drives everything I do as a writer, an actor and a director. In some ways, I feel I'm still out there on rocks in a stream, guiding characters through epic battles!"
Why is it important to you to tell stories?
"Stories are important to EVERYONE. They are what make sense of the total chaos of stimuli that is everyday life. They give us order and meaning and without them we would go completely insane."
What is your advice to arts students?
"Dig deep into yourself, be honest, be brave! I think artists are some of the bravest people on earth, and I admire them all. Also the luckiest and ultimately the sanest, because of the great relief it gives us to be able to hold our terrors and joys out at arms length and examine them. Not everyone is able to make a living as an art practitioner, but make sure that if you are one of those who is lucky and brave and sane enough to be driven to create, that you never stop creating!"
What inspires you?
"I just never know what is going to inspire me. Sometimes it's a news item, or sometimes it's a show where I start thinking what would happen if Character X did this instead of that? "
Why do you believe the arts are important to everyone, not just those in academia?
"I sometimes get students in my intro level theatre class who are skeptical about the importance of the arts, and we do an exercise where they are asked to consider every moment where they encounter the arts in a single day, from opening their eyes in the morning to closing them at night, and they can't believe how integral the arts are to their existence. In my opinion, the idea that the arts are some elitist, ivory-tower activity is idiotic. None of us can live without them; they are SO interwoven into the fabric of our existence."
What is something interesting that people might be surprised to learn about you?
"I love fresh-water snorkeling: my ideal retirement would involve lots of time exploring lakes and rivers looking for trout and bass and perch."
We hope you can join us next Tuesday, October 29th at 7:30 pm at Beans on Broad as we discuss and discover the multi-faceted nature of storytelling!
Our vision is to create a community of learners enriched, engaged and enlightened through the humanities.