Storytelling and Diversity Collide at the Speak Up Rise Up Festival

Melissa Slaughter

Storytelling might seem like something meant for a child at bedtime. But over the years, storytelling has gained a following as a way for people to share real-life events, and for an audience to compassionately listen to the person at the mic. It’s a different type of stage. It’s not theatre, it’s not film. It’s everyday people telling their own stories.

Storytelling events are all over NYC, but if you can’t make it maybe try a podcast. The Moth is a very well-known podcast, but Risk! Is close at its heels. With millions and millions of downloads each episode, Risk! Is a storytelling podcast recorded live around the country. Each episode features harrowing stories that border on embarrassing, vulnerable, scary or overwhelming. Creator/host Kevin Allison wouldn’t have it any other way.

This week, Kevin is a part of the Speak Up, Rise Up Festival. In its inaugural year, the Speak Up Rise Up Festival is a storytelling festival whose focus is “ to raise the profile of people and communities of stories we don't often hear.   The idea is to bring together people's stories and put them, literally, on the big stage with other featured performances throughout the week.” Kevin is hosting “IN IT TOGETHER: Stories of Strength in Diversity.” It’s an evening of storytelling featuring several performers of color, myself included.

I had a few questions for Kevin about the event, Risk!, and storytelling. If you want to know more, tickets for Speak Up Rise Up Festival at the Connelly Theatre are on sale now. Speak Up Rise Up Festival will be going on through August 20th.

1- Kevin, you're best known for your podcasts RISK! and the sketch team The State. How did you get involved with the Speak Up Rise Up Festival?

Asher Novek reached out to me a long time ago and told me he's a fan of the RISK! podcast. RISK! gets 2.5 million downloads per month now, but whenever someone reaches out to say they like the show, I encourage them to pitch us a story. So Asher has now been featured telling a story on the podcast. We got to talking when he did the show and he said he loved how I'm always telling the podcast audience that it's hugely important to us to be featuring people of different walks of life on the show.

Liberals, conservatives, rich, poor, men, women, trans and queer people. People of different religions, colors, cultures, backgrounds, ages, abilities and more. So he thought that philosophy fit it beautifully with the Speak Up, Rise Up festival he was producing and he asked us to curate our own evening of stories. We're calling it, "In It Together: Stories of Strength in Diversity."

2- How will these stories differ from those on RISK!, that is, if they do at all? And how did you chose which stories to tell?

They're actually not very different from stories told on RISK!, it's just that this particular evening was specifically curated to focus on stories wherein people learned they were "different" in some way and came to embrace that.

3- You're involved in two very niche mediums: storytelling and podcasts. (1 in 3 Americans listen to podcasts, so many in the country don't even know what podcasts are.) While the two go hand in hand, how would you explain IN IT TOGETHER to someone who's never participated in storytelling or listened to a podcast?

Storytelling is a little bit like creating little movies for people, but with your words. The true storytelling boom started with The Moth in the late 90s. With the shows I curate, like RISK! and IN IT TOGETHER, I encourage the storyteller to think of one or two very emotional moments from their life. Like the day of a high stakes altercation... or the weekend of a terrible accident... or the morning of a transcendent realization. Then we encourage the storyteller to try to remember all the details of those peak experience moments and start to describe for us what someone said... or the look in someone's eyes... or a sensation they felt in their stomach. You start to build a really fleshed out story that you can share with others so that you can "take us there" to have that vicarious experience along with you.

Audio podcasts are the most powerful format for sharing these stories with a worldwide audience. They're radio shows that anyone can download any time of day they feel like listening. Audio podcasts are extremely intimate. Most listeners use earbuds, so it's almost as if the storyteller is speaking directly into their ear. And the great thing about podcasts is that the Internet is still a free and uncensored realm, so we can create art without a corporation telling us what we can and can't say.

4- Besides RISK! What storytelling podcasts do you recommend?

To be super frank, I don't listen to many storytelling podcasts, because I'm listening to RISK! stories so often that when I turn to podcasts for my own listening, it's usually podcasts about politics, music, or Eastern Philosophy that I listen to! But some that are made by RISK! contributors are "What's Ray Saying" by Ray Christian, "The Lapse Storytelling Podcast" by Kyle Gest, and "The Whole Story Podcast" by Asher Novek and Julia Weideman.

5- Why do you think storytelling is such a powerful medium?

Stories are the way we make sense of our lives. They are the way we keep track of where we have been and where we are going. They are the place where we connect the dots between our ideas, our feelings and the experiences we lived through that triggered them.

So if you want to communicate literally anything (some statistics, research data, anything) in a way that people will find emotionally engaging, you should try to frame it as a narrative about human experience.

And if you find yourself really stuck with any issue in your life, you might want to sit down with a friend or a therapist and see if you can make sense of it all by telling the story of it. It's not just important for us to share our own stories, it's important for us to listen with open hearts and minds to other people's stories. This great melting pot of a country works best when we are listening to one another.