State of the Arts
Listening to stories is the essence of entertainment: Your own troubles drift away and another person’s trials or triumphs take center stage. And, if the mood is right, the storyteller will forge a connection with you.
Last Tuesday night, I found the modern version of sitting around a campfire at Kismet restaurant in Montpelier, where an informal event called Extempo  drew a packed house to hear nine storytellers tell true stories about their lives. Each story was about six minutes long — just enough time to launch a good tale and deliver it with enthusiasm. The storytellers were required to prepare in advance but to relate their stories without notes.
Two of the nine storytellers were new to the calling, while the others had some experience at Extempo or in other settings. All of them were brave enough to face a room full of strangers and showed a sincere desire to connect and entertain. Some storytellers displayed tiny signs of nervousness, such as rushing the pace or forgetting certain details, but the crowd warmly received each of them.
Now that we’ve turned most of our entertainment over to professionals, it can feel a bit exotic — and empowering — to discover we can provide it ourselves. When we see the performer around town in the days following their show, it underscores the idea that both storytellers and audience members are part of a community.
Jen Dole started Extempo three years ago and has organized an event just about monthly ever since. The storytellers, the three judges and a timekeeper get in free, while the audience puts five bucks in Dole’s hat. This pays for maintaining a website and provides prize money for an annual tournament of storyteller champions from the season.
Dole has taken the show around central Vermont, but she stages it most frequently at Kismet in Montpelier and Espresso Bueno in Barre. The multiple venues have helped attract new people and given the event healthy momentum, a regular attendee says. According to the Extempo website, new locations in Brookfield and Maple Corner are on tap this year.
Last Tuesday, the judges awarded Dennis McSorley and Recille Hamrell a tie for first place, and Lauren Walker an honorable mention. The simplicity of the event is reflected in the prize: an MP3 file of the winners’ stories posted on Extempo’s website, which presumably generates an extra little ripple of attention. Also, Carl Etnier of WGDR-FM at Goddard College plays some of the stories on-air.
What the stories may lack in spellbinding details, they more than make up for with the richness of truth. These are real people telling about their experiences, so character becomes as important as plot. Humor appears in nearly every tale, but this is not standup comedy; it’s a window into someone’s real life. Last week at Kismet, the audience was warm and quick to laugh — in participation rather than judgment.
It’s nearly impossible to feel out of place at Extempo. Collectively, the storytellers and audience hit most of the points on Vermont’s demographic map. (One storyteller was there with her husband and baby. “Perfect timing!” Ella Malamud cried when summoned to the stage just as her infant fell asleep.) The audience might skew a little female, a little young, but everyone is welcome, and Dole cheerfully encourages people to sign up to tell their stories. It’s just a short step, after all, from listening to them.
Kismet’s cozy surroundings suit the occasion. The glow of the range-hood light and a stack of plates in the quiet kitchen form the backdrop for the simple performance space, with a low platform, mic stand and portable sound system. Dole books Kismet on Tuesdays when the restaurant is normally closed, but the bar is open. It’s a win-win — bar revenue for Kismet on a night otherwise lost to commerce, and a no-cost venue for Extempo.
Which isn’t to say it’s the ideal performance space. Kismet is narrow and long, and the best seats go to early arrivals. The waitstaff serves $5 beers, pricier wine and mixed drinks. But the night is about getting buzzed on the stories, not alcohol.
The stories themselves are memorable more for the energy and honesty of their telling than for any spectacular plots. Last week the audience heard about Rowly Brucken’s slapdash effort at his first triathlon, Malamud’s bug-riddled camping trip, Eric Bachman’s ability to find hidden joy in Sarajevo during the war, Hamrell’s surprising turn as a 74-year-old model and Bettina Desrochers’ reflections on caring for people in hospice.
Paul Boffa told about a truck that coincidentally entered his life twice. McSorley offered a batch of stories about his sprawling Irish family. Theo Exploration talked about being the main character in your own story instead of believing someone else’s story about you. And Walker capped off the evening with a story of a crazy ski-slope date, which included the unauthorized use of a $200,000 snow groomer.
Ultimately, stories are how we learn about almost everything. Extempo offers a chance to learn about the tellers as well as the tales. As the evening at Kismet ended, people walked up to the storytellers to chat, eager to keep the connections going.
Everyone has a story, and Extempo is a great place to tell it.
The next Extempo event is Tuesday, May 14, 8 p.m., at Kismet in Montpelier. Register via the website if you want to tell a story. extempovt.com