By B.J. Coleman
Is oral history dead?
Before the prevalence of electronic communications and printing presses, narrators who spoke directly to audiences provided the main way for passing along history accounts, personal stories and moral lessons. Is all that really passé?
If you think so, go visit a storytelling performance event staged by So Say We All (SSWA). The literary and performing arts nonprofit organization brought eight coached speakers to the microphone at Whistle Stop neighborhood bar on Fern Street, for an evening of storytelling on Thursday, March 28. The theme of the night for storytellers was “You Had One Job,” wryly introducing personal tales of messing up in life.
Justin Hudnall sat down for an interview to discuss SSWA in early February. Hudnall is one of three co-founders of the organization, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary that month. SSWA was created from a writing workshop, when the founders dared to start a show. The show sold out that first time, and most of the performances sell out to this day.
Hudnall explained that SSWA reaches out to members of communities that are often talked about but not heard from.
“If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will and they will get it wrong,” Hudnall said.
The potential storytelling performers take part in a three-week boot camp to prepare. They have writing coaches, feedback from their cohort, and performance coaches to hone their skills.
Jennifer Coburn is a communications professional who works with and supports SSWA.
“If you attend in the audience, you walk out a better person than you were before,” Coburn said. “These performances are about real life, no space. Justin has done something incredible.”
The stories told that Thursday night in March at Whistle Stop dealt for the most part with life crises and questioning life decisions. While the topics covered were serious, splashes of self-deprecating humor lightened the mood. The audience sat with rapt attention as the performers recounted some of the saddest details of their lives.
The first performing storyteller, Rozzi Hafner, kicked off the evening with an account of spending a difficult childhood camping trip to Mexico with her father, who landed in a Mexican jail on charges of drug possession.
The last performance of the night recalled the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt. The performers dealt with parenthood failures, parent illness and death, inability to have children, medical diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and family wedding trouble foreshadowing early divorce.
Ed Farragut had the most specific and compact tale of the evening. Farragut talked about how he messed up during a stint as one of his school’s newspaper editors. Farragut began by recounting the thrill of envisioning his work as investigative journalism and challenging school authorities. Farragut’s beat was features. After publishing one issue, school officials and teachers confiscated it completely, and the journalism teacher was temporarily removed. Farragut recalled his initial annoyance about the incident for the audience, and then he turned to explaining his remorse. In the features section, a small note falsely outed and touted the courage of a fellow high school boy by name as openly HIV-positive. Farragut seemed to be near tears as he concluded, admitting that he had not done sufficient research and fact-checking before going to print with falsehoods.
SSWA charges small fees for show tickets. The nonprofit also solicits volunteers and donations. SSWA describes its mission as teaching people to tell their stories through publishing, performance and education. SSWA will be a featured group at the San Diego Writers Festival, in the Downtown Central Library on Saturday, April 13. SSWA plans an afternoon set of performances from military veteran writers and then an evening showcase of encore performers. More information is available at www.sosayweallonline.com.
— B.J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.