Stepping up to the mic

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Laura and Stephanie Halfmann, Audience Favorite storytellers from last May's event, performing in "The Duo" format. Photo courtesy of Kat Berger.

There has never been a time without storytelling. It’s a way to express ourselves, build relationships and keep history alive. Everyone has a story to tell, but some never have the opportunity to be heard.

In an attempt to find those stories, five Milwaukeeans formed a storytelling group of their own last year, called Ex Fabula, and it’s coming to Turner Hall Ballroom to present its December Spectacular this Saturday.

Ex Fabula, loosely translated from Latin as “from stories,” is a group on a mission to unite the Milwaukee community through the spoken word. It began in September 2009 when Leah Delaney, Megan McGee, Amy Allen Schleicher, Matt Sabljak and Adam Weise were brought together by mutual acquaintances and a shared passion for storytelling.

“We all wanted to promote storytelling in Milwaukee and the story slam aspect of it, all while involving the community,” Delaney said.

According to McGee, there wasn’t anything already existing locally for the group to get involved with, so they decided to form their own storytelling organization.

“It went from being an idea for something that would be cool to do to being an idea that we were going to make a reality,” McGee said.

The five hammered out their mission, set guidelines for storytelling slams and booked their first event. Ex Fabula took off, and the group now hosts monthly slams at various bars in the city, especially the Bay View Brew Haus and Stone Fly Brewery.

A standard event features individuals telling personal, true stories without using notes or props. Some performers are preselected, but there are always spots reserved for audience members who come prepared to speak. All stories are wrapped around a predetermined theme of the evening and may be told in four different storytelling formats.

“The idea is to get as many different people telling stories as possible,” McGee said.

The first format option is “The Solo,” where individuals who have signed up to tell five-minute stories are drawn at random from the audience to perform on stage. Then there is “The Terkel,” a five-minute question-and-answer interview format named after the late Studs Terkel, a radio personality and award-winning author of numerous oral history books.

There’s also “The Rashomon” and “The Duo,” both two-person formats lasting 10 minutes each. “The Rashomon” is named after Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of the same name, known for its use of multiple perspectives. Similar to the movie, this format features two or more storytellers dictating their independent versions of the same story.

“The Duo” is just what it sounds like — two people take the stage and tell about a shared experience, building on what each other has to say.

“(‘The Duo’) is a much more natural flow,” Delaney said. “They kind of help each other along as they tell one story, so it’s a little more fluid.”

At the end of each event, the audience votes on their favorite storyteller of the night. These winners then perform at the All Stars event that closes out each Ex Fabula season in late spring.

This weekend’s performance at Turner Hall Ballroom differs from Ex Fabula’s regular events in that all of the storytellers are predetermined soloists, save for one random slot to kick off the show. The storytellers will not be competing, so the event will just be Milwaukeeans coming together to share in each other’s personal histories.

“They are people that we know to be fabulous tellers, not necessarily winners (of previous shows), but people we wanted to bring recognition to,” Delaney said.

She added that people can come to the show prepared with a story and put their name in the hat to try and claim the opening spot.

Each individual will perform a 10-minute story on the theme of gifts, a topic appropriate to the holiday season. In a month known for lack of sunlight and frigid temperatures, McGee said it’s refreshing to have a positive theme.

“We thought it would be nice to gather a bunch of people into Turner Hall and enjoy each other’s company in this dreary winter,” McGee said.

Bringing people together is what Ex Fabula is all about, and the group has found that revealing something personal about oneself is an overlooked way to make connections. Delaney said their events draw a diverse group, and people who have never met each other are able to build instant relationships through the stories.

“That’s the reason why people come,” Delaney said. “They’re instantly compelled by what happens on the stage because it is immediately relatable.”

In between all of the storytelling on stage, people in attendance tend to open up and share their own experiences. Delaney said audience members often come up to the group after the show and say they thought they didn’t have a story until they saw Ex Fabula.

“We all kind of secretly high-five each other and even tear up sometimes when people come up to us because that’s exactly why we’re here,” Delaney said.

McGee said she always comes away from Ex Fabula events feeling optimistic.

“I think there are things out there that are feel-good, but then they lose some of their effect,” McGee said. “Whereas with this I feel like the good feelings stay with you.”

The Ex Fabula December Spectacular will be at Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. 4th St., Saturday at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $10 at the door.

The audience looks on at last May's Ex Fabula All Star's storytelling event at Turner Hall Ballroom. Photo courtesy of Kat Berger.

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