Park Sloper’s new storytelling series seeks to unite through collective thought

With a history steeped in literary culture, Brooklyn has long been home to some of the most talented and influential storytellers. Over the years, New York City has preserved the “spoken tradition” through a variety of series, among them The Moth and How I Learned. Now, Brooklyn-based poet Terence Degnan will host a new storytelling series at Park Slope’s Open Source Gallery titled “How to Build a Fire: Advancing the Oral Tradition.”

Beginning March 27 and held the last Thursday of every month through March 2015 in Park Slope’s Open Source Gallery, Degnan’s series will explore the course of the narrative, not only as it is heard, but also as it experiences its reiterations. “My goal is to find out what the whole heart-of-the-matter — the muck of all of us existing now — looks like. If we tell our stories, maybe we can see what the heart is shaped like,” Degnan said.  

The first event, on March 27, begins at 7:30 p.m. and will feature stories from husband and wife Scott Adkins and Erin Courtney (playwrights and book publishers who founded Brooklyn Writers Space and Sock Monkey Press), Park Slope resident Reggie Cunningham (songwriter, actor and local bartender who will be telling a story about an autistic lawnmower enthusiast), Shawn Lyons (owner at RABBITHOLESTUDIO/Rabbit Movers and performance artist) and Mateo Prendergast (an actor who will tell a story about a young Jewish man hiding his cultural identity from his fellow gang members).

Mateo Prendergast. Photo courtesy of Matero  Prendergast

“The first writer or person who I thought about [to participate in the series] is Scott Adkins,” Degnan said. Adkins runs the Brooklyn Writers’ Space and co-produces the annual Folk Play Project at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange. His wife, Obie Award-winning playwright and Guggenheim Fellow Erin Courtney, writes plays that Degnan describes as “not only heartbreaking but they’re steeped in humanity.” The couple will tell a story together.

“I've never told a personal story in a venue before, at least never intentionally,” Adkins said. “I like to perform through other people’s words and I write stories in my plays, but recounting a story like this is different. I embellish a lot and Erin is very literal, so I am excited to see how our story mashes up.”

“I have never been asked to tell a story in public before,” Erin Courtney said. “As a playwright, my characters tell stories all the time, but they are fictional and rehearsed and performed by an actor. I am not an actor, and Terence asked Scott and I to each tell a story describing the same event. This seemed scary to me to share a personal event in real time without a script. So I said yes.”  

Erin Courtney. Photo courtesy of Erin Courtney

Each session will present four storytellers or stories that reveal pivotal tales. Among the participating speakers are playwrights, actors, poets, bartenders, artists, doctors, social workers, psychologists, barbers, skaters and politicians. Storytellers are not required to memorize and recite their accounts, nor are they required to convey stories that are entirely truthfully accurate; Degnan points out that stories often surprise their tellers. Some accounts will be presented by two speakers in dialogues to enhance the complex and often hilarious nature of the stories.

“I don’t think there’s a better way of framing what’s going on right now […] the collective subconscious in New York […] than by storytelling,” Degnan said. “The oral tradition is kind of dying and I’m a big fan of other artists who have used this tradition — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger — where the narrative is the preceding art form.”

“I’ve been so lucky as a poet and as an author in New York that I felt like I wanted to do something other than a poetry series and instead pay it forward in a way that doesn’t have such self-interest,” Degnan explained. He hopes he can entice Mayor Bill de Blasio to tell a story.

“There are series that exist to entertain, but that’s not the point of this series,” said Degnan. “To some degree we’re all thinking about a lot of the same things. My goal in this storytelling series is to kind of find that we’re collectively thinking these thoughts together.”

The series is booked until July 2014, but if you have a good story to tell and would like to participate this upcoming summer, contact Open Source Gallery for details ([email protected]).

Reggie Cunningham. Photo courtesy of Reggie Cunningham