Presented by Art House Productions and No Dominion Theatre Co.
Weekly, Thursdays at 7pm EST, online via Zoom
Right now, it's pretty hard to imagine sitting arm-to-arm with other audience members in a packed theater any time soon. But theaters and arts organizations have been implementing creative ways to bring their work into virtual spaces during this period of enforced isolation. Jersey City-based Art House Productions is one of these organizations, offering a selection of online events, including Drag Bingo on Fridays, live virtual stand-up on Saturdays, and, our subject here, storytelling slams on Thursdays, all presented via Zoom. Each edition of Virtual Storyslam!, co-hosted by Art House Productions and No Dominion Theatre Co., also based in Jersey City, and sponsored by real estate company Silverman, presents five storytellers who share personal stories related in some way to that week's theme. Each story is approximately 5-8 minutes, making the whole show around an hour, and the only criteria are that stories must be true and cannot feature crude language or be stand-up (Art House's website has submission guidelines for prospective storytellers, who do not need to have experience). The shows are free, but a $5 donation is suggested (and of course, you can always give more).
We logged on to the April 30th edition, the theme of which was the storyteller's "Achilles' Heel," which the participants interpreted in varying ways. Audience members have the option to be unmuted as long as there is not a lot of background noise in their space so that the storytellers get a sense of audience reactions in real-time, but having the camera and/or mic on is not required. After a musical intro while waiting for things to get started, host Courtney Little, Producing Director of Art House, welcomed everyone and explained the house rules. She then turned the proceedings over to Michael Joel and Kaitlin Overton, Artistic Director and Executive Director of No Dominion, respectively, who alternated introducing the individual storytellers for the evening.
First up was Mark from Massachusetts, whose tale included the most literal connection to the Achilles' heel theme as it recounted an unlucky period of injuries, drug side-effects, surgery, and almost getting squashed by his own car. Next came Ken from New Jersey, a retired public school teacher whose former student turned out by chance to be in the audience. Ken's Achilles' heel was his love of motorcycles (expressed these days through bicycling), and he narrated the less than thrilled reaction of his parents (and his priest) to his 17 year-old self buying a Honda S90. His bike took him, in pre-helmet-law 1967, to an uncle's farm in upstate New York and, ultimately, to an encounter, while flying along with his cousin onboard, with a trio of dogs and the surprising reaction of their owner.
Third was Andrew, also from Massachusetts, who decided in his late 30s that he wanted to be able to say that he was a triathlete and so signed up for an event and started training. While Andrew felt good about the training, when it came to the event itself, facing, among other obstacles, the chaos of hundreds of swimmers in the open water of a river, the excruciating transition from biking to running, and the competition of a 10 year-old boy, he realized that he hadn't counted on just how humbling an experience this would be (his story though, did end on a positive note, with his figuring out that a volunteer was encouraging him and not pointing out that he was in last place).
The penultimate story came from Erica from Los Angeles. Erica described herself as a former die-hard New Yorker and detailed the slide from her initial infatuation with the city (or, The City, in the parlance of locals) and its theater, music, and bar scenes to the disenchantment after a decade with a changed, more exclusive and sanitized New York and with how her life there had progressed. Luckily, finding kinship with a depressed polar bear named Gus in the Central Park Zoo, another typical neurotic New Yorker, helped her to feel the confidence to set out again and go west.
Rounding out the evening was Julia from Hollywood, who graduated from summer camp kid to summer camp counselor in South Jersey (ironically, both West Coast storytellers' yarns took place on the East Coast). Julia's strategy for tiring out her charges as much as possible before lights out led her to take 25 seven year-old girls on a hike in the Pine Barrens, based on her co-counselor's insistence that she knew the trails. It would be a less entertaining story had that been true, of course, and, in the end, having been found by telling everyone to sing The Black Eyed Peas as loudly as possible as "a game," she found out that it really is true that as long as a counselor doesn't lose or kill a kid, parents are just happy to have them off their hands for the day.
At the end, Meredith returned to thank everyone, invite a final round of applause, provide a link for donations, and announce the next theme, the great outdoors, concluding what was an entertaining and often funny hour. The experience reminded us in some ways of Wil Petre's A Cocktail Party Social Experiment, which generates rounds of conversation among eight volunteers at each event, and, although these stories are more prepared than what would come out at those events, there is a similar sense of generating connection among a group of people who are mostly strangers, as well as of the acceptance of vulnerability needed to share oneself with strangers in this way. (Then and again, that is part of what "theater" in all its forms involves.) The potential to bring together people from otherwise far-flung locations is a perk of the virtual space, something less likely on your typical night in a black-box theater. The experience of Virtual Storyslam! is engaging and enjoyable; it brings a batch of new stories with new surprises each week -- and the drinks are cheap! - Leah Richards & John Ziegler