It wasn't on purpose that Kolby Kirk—a hulking 6-foot-2-inch hiking enthusiast with a list of fascinating stories almost as long as his massive beard—shared the tale of his week sleeping on an Italian beach with an audience of strangers at Tin Pan Theater last January.
"When I arrived, I learned that stories were supposed to be ten minutes long, not twenty," explained Kirk, a practiced storyteller through his blog thehikeguy.com, but a first time attendee and participant at Bend's live storytelling forum, Armchair.
Instead of telling the story of his run-in with organized crime in La Paz, Mexico, Kirk had to reassess and ended up sharing a totally unrehearsed 10-minute story about a detour on his Italian vacation.
"In a way, that is exactly what Armchair wanted," Kirk said. "A story that had no props, no cues and no rehearsals."
Speaking at an Armchair event is the equivalent of putting together an unvarnished standup routine and throwing yourself at the mercy of the crowd. Stories must be ten minutes long, unrehearsed and without cues. What is intriguing is that the format encourages a level of raw honesty often missed in more professional and rehearsed lectures.
Armchair is based on The Moth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling that was started in 1997 and has progressed from the living room of poet and novelist George Dawes Green to a popular weekly podcast that averages more than 1 million downloads a month. Since Armchair's inception in 2012, the quarterly events have consistently sold out the 60-something capacity at Tin Pan Theater, standing room tickets included.
"It's almost cliché, but it taps into this community engagement and involvement. It's wonderful to get to know the people around you in a way you wouldn't know them," said Sarah Yellich, one of the event organizers, emcee and previous storyteller. "I always use David Staley as an example of why I love the event. He told this story about going on this Central and South American adventure and being kidnapped by the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces] in Columbia and coming out of it completely unscathed. I see him out mountain biking and at The Lot [the new food cart pod on Columbia Ave.] that he now owns. I love getting those glimpses into people's lives."
Trying to guess what stories will be presented is like trying to guess the next song on the radio. Past armchair themes have included "Up all night," filled with cocaine-riddled thrillers and "Trespassing," another topic that produced stories about drug running and college-angst, but also drew a story from a widow surviving her husband's suicide. Next week's topic, "Unsung Heroes" broaches the core of the event, soliciting honest stories that are often focused on admission or vulnerability in the teller.
"People really reveal themselves," said Yellich. "There's this idea now that we have an image to portray, that my life is all put together or I'm raising a perfect child. You get up there and you can say, 'You know what, here's a story where things went totally wrong I'm laughing at myself and inviting you to laugh with me. I'm human, too.' "
The increasing popularity of storytelling events, explains Terry Krueger, professor of literature at Central Oregon Community College, is perhaps due to a need to reconnect with our community in the digitally-obsessed age of technology.
"This may be more than a reflection of a desire for face-to-face community where so much is online," said Krueger. "In this setting you are with a person and you have the potential to interact with them further. It has some very 19th century values."
Those values are thinning in an age where stories spread in the blogosphere and in 140-character twitter blasts instead of through personal interactions. Programs like The Moth and Armchair are a reversion to the oral history of the past.
"Telling a story and the feelings that come along with connecting with an audience make me wonder if my ancient ancestors felt the same way around a community gathering place a thousand years ago," said Kirk. "Where a written story might have a broader audience in time and numbers, a story told out loud in front of a group, no matter how big, feels more intimate."
"Unsung Heroes" Armchair
Thur. Oct. 17, 7:30 pm
Tin Pan Theater, 869 NW Tin Pan Alley