Pop-up events share spoken word

HADDONFIELD, N.J. — Tucked within the well of Haddonfield’s Inkwood Books one Sunday afternoon, Shirley Hough settled in for a chat with rapt teenagers gathered there to hear her stories.

The longtime widow told them about her beloved husband’s marriage proposal and the happy life they built together in Haddonfield — all prompted when he caught sight of her photograph.

“I’m so grateful,” Hough told the teens, as a smile danced over her 86-year-old features at the memory. “I’ve been lucky.”

In libraries, bookstores, nursing homes, arts centers and festivals, storytelling events are seeping into the nation’s cultural scene, elevating stories from everyday lives and offering new opportunities for listeners to absorb an ancient art form, The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J., reported.

“Storytelling is not just a way to have a conversation, but to truly build a community,” said Benita Cooper of Haddonfield, founder of The Best Day of My Life So Far. The nonprofit prompts older participants like Hough to share their memories with young people in casual settings, such as its recent pop-up event here, “Real Life. Real Stories.”

Done right, a story connects people and creates relationships, said Cooper.

That same communal spirit flutters within The Butterfly, a monthly storytelling forum hosted by Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood.

Performances at The Butterfly aren’t judged, as they are in some competitive storytelling forums, such as The Moth at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, said Karen Abdul-Malik, aka Queen Nur, director of Perkins’ Folklife Center.

Rather, they are celebrated.

At one Butterfly event, Abdul-Malik recalled, a woman relayed a true story about finding a love note from her deceased husband, during a moment when she was shattered with grief. As she tried to explain it away as a coincidence, the audience told her no — it could only be a message from the other side.

“Being able to tell that story lifted her,” Abdul-Malik told The Courier-Post. “To me, that had more meaning. That’s what it’s meant to do.”

At New Jersey Storytelling Network’s festival in September, listeners can become tellers during the annual event’s Story Slam held at the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township, Mercer County.

Though it’s said many people fear public speaking more than death, the festival’s story slams remain popular year after year, drawing smiles, frowns, laughter and tears from every audience, Weidener said.

Why are amateurs stepping up to the mic?

“People are a little more open because of social media,” mused Weidener. “I also think people may feel this is a live thing and, gee, what do live people think of me? They’re willing to put themselves out there.”

Professional teller Denise McCormack of Bordentown City has noticed a theme among the stories she’s heard at such events. Often, people share personal stories about how they endured the trials and tribulations of life.

“It’s almost like sharing miracles,” said McCormack. “Today where churches are losing their membership, this is almost a place to go connect with people so that people can be empathetic to the teller.”

Irma Gardner-Hammond of Philadelphia weaves professional storytelling into her work as a music therapist.

Older people always have stories to tell, she said, but they don’t always pass them down.

“We have an obligation to tell stories and help other people,” Gardner-Hammond said. “Everybody’s story is important.”

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