Moving to Tampa Bay: How to plug into the local storytelling scene

Andrew Springer, a 36-year-old physician's assistant from Pasco County, recently did something he’d never done before; he got on stage in front of a packed house at The Box theater in Ybor City, approached a lone microphone, and shared a deeply intimate story. Within moments, he was emotionally baring it all, opening up about a work-related brush with death that had forever changed him. The story, which took about six minutes to tell, brought more than one audience member to tears.

After that, a 20-something USF student took the stage with a laugh-out-loud story about a sexual encounter gone comically wrong.
The storytelling scene is flourishing in the Tampa Bay area, building organic connections through vulnerable truth-telling. It’s a unique medium, a fantastic hybrid of creative nonfiction and oral memoir. Some performances feel like a distant cousin of stand-up comedy, others (like Springer’s) feel more like a close friend who’s simply got a great story to tell. But something they all have in common is that the performers aren't reading dryly from a podium -- instead, they’re telling their stories in a way that can only be described as conversational.

“I feel like I did it right that night,” says Springer, who performed with classmates from a local storytelling workshop. “I was just being myself and felt really engaged with the audience.”

The movement has trickled down to Florida from major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which all have vibrant storytelling communities. Wildly popular organizations like The Moth and StoryCorps have paved the way over the last decade, inviting ordinary folks to grab a mic and share their stories. The premise here is that everyone, from the corporate exec to the retired teacher to the stay-at-home parent, has a story to tell -- and the act of telling it, of being heard, is a transformative act in itself.

“When people tell a story, it’s really powerful. They’re sharing themselves with you and you’re learning about their experience and their life,” says Lisa Kirchner, the writer-slash-storyteller behind True Stories. The storytelling event has cultivated a loyal following in St. Pete, now putting up shows at Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe every second Wednesday of the month.

Spotlighting different themes

Kirchner was a regular in the New York City storytelling circuit before moving down to the Tampa area in 2015. Eager to plug into the local community, but unable to find it, she connected with Keep St. Pete Lit and launched True Stories last summer. Each show spotlights a different theme that serves as a jumping-off point for featured storytellers. Past themes have included food, music and love.
"It's helping people connect with their truth; telling your story is an empowering act," says Kirchner. "It really helps us gain valuable perspective on our lives, and to be deeply listened to is hugely impactful."

The True Stories format is similar to a Moth StorySLAM, a nationally recognized storytelling competition that's open to anyone. But not all storytelling events follow the same structure. Jay Thompson, a Tampa-area writer, moved here a little over two years ago to attend USF's creative writing MFA program. Like Kirchner, she'd come from big cities -- Chicago and Denver -- that were both brimming with frequent storytelling events.
"When I moved to Tampa, I just thought that kind of community existed everywhere, but when I got here, none of the writers here knew what storytelling was," says Thompson. 

She certainly brought a unique perspective; Chicago had exposed her to a variety of nontraditional storytelling approaches. "I really wanted to create an event that incorporated storytelling, but also allowed us to just make stuff up and do whatever we wanted in a fun way that also involved the audience," she says.

Interactive think-on-your-feet storytelling

Thompson, along with friends T.J. Murray and Colleen Kolba, filled the void by creating First Draft in 2015. The monthly storytelling event, held at Southern Brewing & Winemaking in Seminole Heights, promotes interactive, think-on-your-feet storytelling that often blurs the line between fiction and reality.

"One time, the storyteller had to pretend to be a CEO giving a business presentation, but they had no idea what was on the PowerPoint slides until they popped up," says Thompson. "So the storyteller had to just go with it and make things up on the spot. It started normal enough, but got completely ridiculous by the end; we made it look like the screen was on fire, but the storyteller had to keep up the persona that they were this CEO. It was a lot of fun and the audience loved it."

Another evening, storytellers were given a suitcase full of random objects and were asked to unpack it on stage. The game? Telling a story about their recent "vacation" based on what they found in the case.
"We do some traditional storytelling, but some of it is fictional," says Thompson. "I doubt we've made this format up, but I've never seen it anywhere else. It's so much fun and completely different every time."

Thompson is one of many voices giving rise to Tampa's growing storytelling scene. The Box theater is responding in kind, offering a six-week storytelling workshop kicking off in July.

Other local storytelling groups include: Marianne Hayes, a feature writer for 83 Degrees, is a storytelling teacher at The Box theater in Ybor City. She and her husband are team teaching the summer storytelling workshop.
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.