On Saturday, April 9th, we are partnering with PlayWrite, Inc. to create an Urban Tellers® show that gives voice to real, true stories from a new perspective, drawn from PlayWrite’s new Youth Leadership Team. Some of the tellers are guides in the PlayWrite program, while others are young people, ranging from 15-25 years old, who have graduated from the PlayWrite program for “youth on the edge.” They are now part of PlayWrite’s new Youth Leadership Team, guiding teens currently in the program and offering help navigating school, home, and life.
Allowing tellers to feel comfortable, to open up and share their stories is a delicate process. With this unique group, creating a safe space for vulnerability is imperative for the tellers to discover the story that they need to tell. In this piece, Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy and Leigh Hancock (who is also a workshop facilitator for Portland Story Theater) reflect on how they work to enable that feeling of safety for the group.
Creating Safe Space for Real, True Stories
by Leigh Hancock and Lynne Duddy
They arrive one by one over the course of twenty minutes, shaking the rain off their coats with shy laughter. We greet each one at the door and direct them to the story circle: eight club chairs arranged around a low table packed with food, Perrier, coffee cups, wine. The air is thick with anticipation. Most of them have never met, yet they come seeking the same thing: a chance to tell a story. But somehow it is so much more.
This is Portland Story Theater’s Art of Personal Narrative, an eight-session workshop that culminates in a public performance. As facilitators, we (along with Portland Story Theater co-founder Lawrence Howard) are charged with building sufficient safety in this circle of strangers for each person to find, develop and ultimately perform—on a stage, to hundreds of people—their most significant story. It’s not a contest; there’s no competition, no catchy theme. The only prize is the transformation that comes from drinking deeply from one’s own fountain of truth. And, of course, it’s a lot of fun.
Our tellers range from early twenties to septuagenarians; they span the spectrum of races, cultures, and socio-economic class. They might find nothing in common were they to meet in another setting. But here they are linked by their desire to tell their story. Sometimes people arrive with an idea that they believe will be easy: a guaranteed success. They want to be funny or dramatic or “hit it out of the park.” But that’s not what this art form is about. The best personal storytelling requires the courage to show yourself, to be open and vulnerable to others.
Often our tellers delve into topics—betrayal, grief, mental illness—that are rarely discussed among intimates, much less with a group of strangers. Telling these stories requires courage, vulnerability, and an environment that is free from judgment, critique or even well-intentioned advice. How do we accomplish all this with complete strangers in just four weeks?
Our approach is deceptively simple. In an increasingly crowded and busy world, we hold space for each person to tell her story over and over again. We give time and room without fear of judgment for the teller to find what is really significant. Why, we ask, did you need to see your brother? What were you thinking as your mom threw your doll out the window? What did you do when that metal door clanged shut? There is no right or wrong answer, no perfect wording, no goal beyond being true to the story. At the end of each telling, we all clap.
We also model deep listening, a primary element of the storytelling art form, and we teach participants to do the same for each other. We encourage them to assume intentional open-heartedness and unconditional acceptance so they can hear the person’s story without judgment or worry what to say in response. We don’t try to fix issues that arise, but rather step aside and allow each person to find his reasons for sharing this story now. “It’s your story,” we sometimes say. “What do you think?”
One of our few hard-and-fast rules, critical to our safe environment, is that everything said in the circle stays in the circle. All stories, even one’s own, are not to be discussed with friends, family, or colleagues outside the group. Public sharing will occur near the end of our time together, when the tellers mount the stage and tell their stories to a warm and receptive audience of two hundred or more souls. Until then, we work only with one another.
“We will not let you fail,” we tell each group. “We will not let you embarrass yourself on stage. We will do what it takes to make you confident of your story by the performance night.” We have kept that promise for ten years by supporting our tellers as they search out the emotional truth of their story. Our goal is to have every teller walk onto the stage with confidence and excitement that final night.
We aren’t therapists—we’re artists—but this art form is therapeutic because it demands that people go deep, take risks, and be vulnerable. (We do provide a list of trusted therapists during the first class.) The safe, congenial environment we foster helps participants understand that it’s ok to fall apart or cry, and encourage them to process their emotions in the group—or in one-on-one sessions with us—so that by the time they walk on stage, they can take care of the audience—and not the other way around.
Here’s what we know: Everyone has a story to tell. And when we find a nurturing space to share our stories—authentically, without fear of judgment or reprisal—the world becomes more connected, a safer place for us all. One story at a time.