Kevin Allison on the Art of Storytelling
This weekend, Kevin Allison, creator and host of the live storytelling podcast RISK!, will run a two-day storytelling workshop focusing on composing, developing and refining the personal story. As a seasoned comedian, Kevin is a member of MTV’s legendary comedy troupe The State. He has also appeared in Reno 911!, The Ten, VH1’s Best Week Ever, Comedy Central’s Viva Variety and Stella and HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. Clearly he’s an accomplished performer and storyteller, but I was curious to know how he got started working in the field of storytelling. Our interview is below.
This weekend’s storytelling workshop with Kevin Allison is sold out, but Kevin returns
to FPA the weekend of May 4th. 5 spots remain. Click here for more info and to enroll.
JM: Kevin, how did your relationship with FPA begin?
KA: One day FPA’s former Programming Coordinator, Liz Green reached out to me about having lunch and to let me know about FPA. I was so taken aback that there was so much going on in Philadelphia. She was describing these shows that FPA does, supporting people doing performance, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, we should be doing something in conjunction with you guys.” I love to see other organizations doing their own thing. I think it’s a lot healthier when more independent groups dump into the mix because there’s a lot of freedom to be found in doing things independently.
When we finally did a big show with FPA as part of the 11th Annual First Person Arts Festival
, I was so impressed with everyone on the staff. Everyone was so eager and helpful and very much behind what RISK! is about. RISK! can sometimes be funky to bring into a new town or theatre because we push the envelope; we’re bound to have a story that could offend some people or just might be so emotionally raw that people aren’t ready for something that challenging. But FPA totally got behind us and said, “Yeah, we want to see how risky some of our storytellers can get.”
It was one of the most magical nights because we had four Philly storytellers plus myself and Janeane Garofalo. There were moments when some audience members were like, “I don’t know what to do. I wasn’t expecting something so loaded.” It was a jam-packed evening of entertainment. I turned to FPA’s Executive Director, Jamie Brunson at that point and said, “We wanna get back here ASAP.”
JM: Talk to me about what these storytelling workshops will offer participants.
KA: There will be people with plenty of experience but who have never done a workshop, so they aren’t aware of the techniques that can be employed. Then there will be people who have no performing skills, who work 9-5 and they will be the person that blows everyone away. Storytelling is about your personal best. It’s so much about letting go of your inhibitions and allowing yourself to invest all the feelings, the memories, the vividness of the experience. Letting it be just as traumatic as it was at the time. It’s okay to lower your voice and slow down and maybe even cry a little bit if you come to a point in the story that fits that. If your story is about a time when you were completely a nervous wreck–it’s okay to let your storytelling be a little nervous and bouncing off the walls. It’s about encouraging people to see that your actual personality is enough to ride on, you don’t have to become some sort of master thespian; you just have to live in it.
JM: What makes for a good story?
KA: A lot of people forget that you don’t just generalize and summarize. A lot of people think, “oh it’s best to keep this as summarized as possible so it’s not getting specific and people can understand what I’m talking about and I’m not wasting anyone’s time.” In fact, we really want you to get into what was so distinct about how things looked or what the sensations going on in your body were or how a sound struck a chord in you. We want all of those sensory details; we want you to, when you get to a point in the story that was particularly significant to you, give us the play-by-play of what you were saying, hearing, thinking, and feeling. I want to teach people to get into the juicy details and really paint the picture of what it was like.
JM: How would you recommend getting started to someone wanting to tell a story?
KA: I always say the first place to look when crafting a story are your emotions. I always encourage people to think: what were the times in my life when I was most terrified? Most giddy? Head over heels in love? So excited and inspired by a new opportunity? Filled with shame or embarrassment? To get people thinking in those terms. A lot of times the big thing people struggle with is distinguishing an anecdote from a full. Once you’ve zeroed in on the emotion, then you need to start asking “how” and “why” questions. Why was I away from home that day? How did I learn the news about my dog dying? A lot of it will start coming back to you; you’ll be totally surprised–when you start composing a story,
I’m always amazed at little memories that pop up because they are the “hows” and “whys” that bridge everything together. Even after going through that process, you might realize, no, the day my dog died isn’t right, there’s not enough there, but it might occur to you after asking those questions how that incident is part of a larger story. It might be “incident no. 2” in a three part story.
JM: What will a first-time storyteller take away from these workshops?
KA: When you first start telling stories, it does strike you how therapeutic it is because you start re-living and making sense of events. It’s a necessary part of life to re-live things we’ve been through and process them a little more now that we have some time away from them. To say, “Oh yeah that changed me” or “I can learn new things from that based on the situation I’m in right now.” What you don’t expect is once you share the story, it’s no longer just about you. Then people start coming to you and saying “I heard your story and it inspired me to call my mother” and you realize your story was a jumping off point for other people’s stories. That is when some of us become storytellers–that is the real soul food, the story takes on a life of its own in the lives of others.
JM: What is your favorite part about these workshops?
KA: I’ve been teaching monthly workshops since I started RISK! in August of 2009. It took me by surprise how much I loved the teaching because now my life is continually enriched by hearing other people’s stories. There’s something that’s very humbling and a great honor to be on the receiving end as a coach of people trying some of this stuff out for the first time. I do feel like a therapist sometimes in that people will come to me with very loaded stuff. We spend so much time in our head and the time in our heads can get very negative and then it’ll be time to sit down with someone over Skype and I’ll just get lost listening to someone for a while. There’s something enormously therapeutic about that–getting out of your head, living vicariously and understanding another person’s experience and feelings. There’s something so therapeutic about listening.
The Philly workshops can be especially emotional because everyone’s aware that they only have 2 days to do something, so they bring their all. The first day is spent talking about various principles, various techniques, a person is workshopping one story throughout the day. The next day we meet is like a show, each person telling their story and getting feedback from everyone in the room. It’s the first time we hear the entire story. It can be such an emotional couple of hours. I would like to figure out, as the story studio goes on, how people can stay involved and continue to connect to one another because on the second day everyone will leave saying, “Oh we’re all family now!” I want to find a way to facilitate more of that, give them more opportunities to stay together and try new stuff.
JM: What have you learned from doing these workshops?
KA: In fact, we all have an unlimited amount of stories. The things you learn in the workshop about how to make things more vivid, how to trigger emotions–I’ll hear from HR a couple days later, Frank used to be so shy and unable to communicate the most basic thing but after going through that workshop, he has loosened up. That’s what I love to hear! That people realize that everything that we teach can be applied to even just chit-chat over lunch. It’s all very applicable to the rest of your life.
JM: If you’ve missed out on these workshops, what other options are there?
KA: The Story Studio has one-on-one coaching over Skype. I’m often meeting with someone one-on-one and coaching them through storytelling. We have our video lecture course, which you can take in your own time by watching the videos. There are a lot of opportunities even when we’re not in town.
-Janine Merolla, FPA Marketing Intern