Saturday, April 23, 2016
True-Life Tales with a Twist
By Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons
Write Your Story. Perform Someone Else’s. Almost four years ago, I created a new kind of reading series based around this basic idea. No, YOU Tell It! (NYTI) is a “switched-up” storytelling series dedicated to performing true-life tales with a twist: Each NYTI participant develops their own story on the page and then flips scripts with a partner to present each other’s story on stage.
I have a background in theater as a playwright and an actress, but I created No, YOU Tell It! when I was a student in Fairleigh Dickinson’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing program. Earning my degree in creative nonfiction, I became enthralled by the broad range of personal experience presented by my fellow students during our writing workshops. I wondered what it would be like to not only share in those experiences on the page but to get up and trade stories.
For each installment of No, YOU Tell It!, the NYTI creative team, Erika Iverson, Mike Dressel and I, work with a group of four storytellers as they develop their true-life tales based around a theme in a creative writing workshop setting. In about a month, participants go from strangers to collaborators as we all work together to revise their stories on the page. During this time, the storytellers are often far more concerned with doing their partner’s story justice than how their own piece is going to turn out. This communal energy invigorates the performance of the swapped stories and often moves audience members to approach us about taking part in future installments.
While the stories aren't memorized, each of our storytellers participates in a one-on-one rehearsal session with a member of the NYTI creative team to work out how to best embody their partner's story as their own experience. And, as we like to say, give the piece a little “oomph” on stage.
My favorite thing about No, YOU Tell It! started by accident. Our first show was packed (a great problem to have), so the switched-up storytellers sat on stage the whole time to make room for the audience. That night, audience members kept watching the person whose story it was, looking for their reactions and what surprised THEM, as their partner presented their story. So many people told us how much they loved watching the writer experience their story being performed that we’ve had the storytellers sit up on stage during the show ever since.
Many No, YOU Tell It! participants want to take part in the series because they wouldn’t have felt comfortable reading their own story in front of an audience, due to the personal nature of the material. Our specialized format of pairing and partnering gives people the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and develop the stories that need to be told. Also, I love when I see friendships between story partners continue to thrive after the show, whether it be on Facebook or through other artistic collaborations.
What began as me being curious about what it would be like to step into someone else’s shoes has become the most satisfying artistic endeavor of my life. My goal is to keep finding ways for the series to grow. Along with the live shows, we now teach collaborative No, YOU Tell It! workshops that focus on trading true-life tales as a camaraderie-building experience for all involved. Want to host a “switched-up” storytelling workshop at your school, office, or organization? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This year, we also launched a podcast to help our marvelous No, YOU Tell It! storytellers reach a larger audience. Each episode features a pair of flipped stories from our live shows. Look for us on iTunes or give a listen at noyoutellit.com.
Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Her recent work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Newtown Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, Liars’ League NYC, Serving House Journal, and Hypertext Magazine. Earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, she combined her love for theater and writing to create No, YOU Tell It! More info and podcast at noyoutellit.com. Follow her on Twitter @NoYouTellIt.