From the time of the cave paintings at Lascaux some 18,000 years ago to the present day, humans have felt the need to share stories. We’ve evolved, and the latest adult storytelling form consists of a teller taking the stage to convey real-life experience in front of a live audience.
These performances range from laugh-out-loud funny to tears-running-down-your-cheeks emotional. The topics are as varied as the tellers, but it’s all real — true personal stories drawing the audience in, while remaining entertaining.
One place to experience top storytellers is at the monthly Back Room Stories at Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park. Margaret Burk and Peter Le Grand co-produce and co-host this show as well as Do Not Submit Oak Park, which is a monthly drop-in storytelling open mic at Eastgate Café, held on second Fridays.
“We are made of stories; 80 percent of our communication is through stories; our brains are wired for stories,” said Burk, of Oak Park. “When you see a PowerPoint presentation, there’s a part of your brain that lights on and there’s a part of your brain that translates words to meaning. But when you hear a story, every part of your brain that is engaged in a story lights up.”
The next Back Room Stories lineup includes Archy Jamjun, curator for OUTspoken! LGBTQ Stories at Sidetrack Lounge, Chicago; Victoria Reeves, who celebrates feminism in her solo show, Brassy + Intrepid; and award-winning storyteller Megan Wells. September brings a teller who talks about his family’s experience with the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
“It’s not just entertaining — it’s nourishing, it’s inspiring,” Burk said. “We would like to expand people’s horizons. We like for our shows to be ethnically diverse, age diverse, gender diverse, politically diverse, so that you come here and maybe get expanded in some way.”
Burk has a mission to include more local tellers at Back Room Stories. While Do Not Submit Oak Park invites beginners and experienced tellers, the curated show at Hamburger Mary’s includes four tellers, along with a story by Burk or Le Grand, and calls for tellers who have more experience.
“It is my goal to get one local teller,” Burk said. “I know there are tons of local people who have stories.”
Storytellers can be anyone, from those with acting or writing experience willing to get up on stage and speak their truth, to those who takes workshops, also offered by Burk, to someone who has practiced at venues like Do Not Submit. In fact, there are multiple monthly Do Not Submit locations, and some 30 storytelling events across Chicagoland monthly, according to Burk.
Another way the art of storytelling is making its way into people’s lives is through Storytelling in the Schools, funded by the Oak Park Area Arts Council.
“We send storytellers, members of Illinois Storytelling, into local area schools — in Austin, Oak Park, Maywood, Forest Park,” said Burk, who has been president of Illinois Storytelling Inc., since 2015. “We’re really promoting the art of storytelling.”
This program leads up to the Family Festival of Stories held annually at Dominican University, River Forest, in October. Along with other family-friendly activities, a nationally recognized family-focused storyteller is the main attraction at this free event.
“This year, the feature is Donna Washington, who is a big name in storytelling. She’s coming in from North Carolina.” Burk said. “Last year we brought in Antonio Sacre from Los Angeles. These are the big names from around the country that are particularly good at children’s stories.”
One more local event, focused on adult storytelling, also takes place at Dominican. It is an open mic with a featured teller on the first Saturday of each month during the school year. Produced by Illinois Storytelling and the School of Library and Information Sciences (SOIS), Burk hosts with Janice Del Negro, associate professor, SOIS. “Traditions and Truth: An Open Mic for Folktales, Fairy Tales, and Personal Stories” starts up again in September and is free.
Experience the next Back Room Stories on Sunday, July 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m., Hamburger Mary’s, 155 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park. $10, at the door. Info and workshops: margaretburk.com.