torytelling has been around for thousands of years and has been woven into a multitude of textures as a vital part of the social tapestry of every culture in the world. The art of storytelling has transcended, and will continue to transcend, time and technology.
Our modern introduction began early. Parents, reading aloud to their children. Story time. In elementary classrooms. In public and school libraries. As children, we sat cross-legged on the carpet, knee-to-knee with our peers, listening intently to magical stories read aloud. But as adults, no one reads stories to us anymore—until now.
A trend has been developing on the two coasts, slowly building more visibility and gaining popularity across the country, a growing movement of grassroots storytelling.
Spoken-word storytelling has grown out of the Poetry Slam movement, but is a kinder, gentler sister experience that focuses on sharing spoken personal essays rather than the traditional slam competition.
Spoken-word readings, also known as story salons, bring readers, writers, and story lovers together to share an experience that is intimate, entertaining, and communal.
Today, we have Wendy Kamenoff, founder of Tasty Words here to tell you how she created a place for readers and writers to listen and share their stories.
(At the end of the interview, I’ll share an inside peek at what the experience
was like to share my writing in a spoken-word salon for the first time.)
Wendy Kamenoff is a wildly devoted mother to her 11 year-old son Griffin (an exceptional human being), an actress and stand-up comic, a playwright, storyteller, solo show producer, and teacher. Wendy recently wrote and produced The Hungry & Horny Show—an original monologue-style show about the various hungers of women. Wendy coaches writers and performers in her Write at Home classes in Los Angeles, California. Every month, on a Wednesday night, Wendy hosts Tasty Words—an evening of spoken-word stories.
Wendy is an absolute dynamo and fortunately for you, dear readers, I managed to tie her down for a quick interview, just days after Garth, her Prince Charming proposed!
WOW: Let’s jump right in. Wendy, how did you first discover spoken word readings?
WENDY: I can't remember not being aware of them. I had been a stand up comic for (at that time) nearly twenty years, and a solo theatre artist for just as long, I was performing or producing one form of storytelling or another for what seems like forever.
I remember working with the wonderful director Mark W. Travis on my second solo show, Undressing New Jersey (and Other States of Mind). He invited me to do an excerpt of it as part of an evening sampling the work he was doing. He called the show Word of Mouth. I welcomed the opportunity to perform, of course, but I loved the sense of community I felt there as well. Sharing the stage with other artists and getting to each offer up a slice of our bigger stories was really exciting to me.
Also, the notion of not having to produce or perform or be responsible for the whole evening—the marketing, putting butts in seats all on my own, not to mention doing an entire show...this was all wildly appealing to me.
WOW: I’m sure many of our readers have never attended spoken-word readings. How and where would you say they originated?
WENDY: Storytelling is one of the oldest forms we have of passing along legacy. Songwriting is storytelling, be it gospel or country western or rap. All great art—painting, dancing, photography—are forms of storytelling. Cave painting is storytelling, too, just without words.
Specifically, in terms of spoken-word, two of the first places doing it in Los Angeles, that I was aware of, were Bev Mickens' Story Salon and Comedy Central’s Sit n' Spin. Bev is an old friend and a stand-up comic from New York, so I am guessing she came to it as a natural outgrowth of stand-up in the clubs, as I did. Telling jokes to drunken people in bars was fun and it paid, but it was limiting artistically. Imagine that!
"Sharing the stage with other artists and getting to each offer up a slice of our bigger stories was really exciting to me."
WOW: There is such a huge performance culture on the two U.S. coasts. Would you say spoken-word salons are unique only to big cities like Los Angeles and New York?
WENDY: I don't think so. I know they have The Moth in NY, which I hear is great. If these salons don't exist everywhere yet, it is my hope and belief that they will. I know there is some good work going on in Chicago and San Francisco.
The bottom line: people have a lot on their minds. There is no reality in reality television (at the moment, there is a writer’s strike, so there is no new television). The media is manipulated, and the government lies.
My dear friend Arlene Malinowski says people have stopped telling stories because as a culture we have stopped listening. It’s time to change that.
WOW: I think that is so true. Is that what made you want to start your show, Tasty Words?
WENDY: After doing a few Word of Mouth evenings, a group of us decided to create our own evenings. We called ourselves Dish, because we were dishing, ya know, talking and speaking our truths. Eventually we created a show called Losin' It. Each one of us—there were five women—were telling a story about losing something: weight, freedom, time for ourselves, our mind, etc.
We performed the show at the (sadly) now defunct Court Theatre on La Cienega in Los Angeles. We did it in November of 2001, just two months after the World Trade Center nightmare. The audience laughed and cried together. The need to laugh and connect and be part of a community and not think about what the whole world was thinking about—just for a few hours—was necessary. The need to laugh out loud and exhale was palpable. You could really feel it in the theatre. I'd been doing stand-up for years at that point, but I'd never felt anything quite like it. It truly made an impression on me.
"The audience laughed and cried together..."
So, that was the beginning. I fell in love with the short story form. Whether it was read as a personal essay or memorized as an actor’s monologue, I didn't care.
In the next six months, my dear friend Judy Toll passed away and I made a decision to end my marriage of 14 years. Between all that loss and change, I was starving for a forum to express and make sense out of my life. I am fond of saying each month at my shows that I created Tasty Words because I felt if my friends and I didn't have a place to get on stage and tell our stories, our heads would explode. That is really the deal. I wanted to listen and tell stories. That was what motivated it all in the beginning, and what continues to drive me now.
WOW: That’s such a compelling story about why you wanted to create the shows! But when it came time to execute your idea, how did you choose the theme for an entire evening of stories?
WENDY: Several ways. I have a terrible sense of direction and am useless with math, but I never forget a good story. Ya see, everyone’s got something. Between my friends and students and colleagues, I am blessed to hear tons of stories. The glorious ones stick in my head. My mind is like a warehouse of creative artists and their stories. So, I catalogue them.
Then one day, I'll think, I know three people who have stories about their moms or their bad dates or their brush with fame, and I create an evening around it. Sometimes, someone will send me or tell me a story so great that it will inspire a night.
"I felt if my friends and I didn't have a place to get on stage
and tell our stories, our heads would explode."
WOW: What type of stories do writers bring to read at Tasty Words?
WENDY: The stories at my shows are 90 to 100% based in truth. That is just what interests me. I'd say that is pretty true with the various shows I've seen in L.A. So, true and personal.
For our salons, I like to describe them as collections of stories that run the gamut from the hilarious to the horrifying. Ya know, just like life. I also like them to be revealing in a way that the classic stand-up comedy form doesn't allow or invite.
Of course, I love funny. But many of the stories are not funny at all. I like poignant. I like heartbreaking. Claudia Shear had a line in her one-woman show Blown Sideways through Life—"Every person in this room has a story that could stop your heart." I believe that to be true and it interests me.
WOW: What components make a story good for presenting at a spoken-word reading?
WENDY: The ones I've mentioned above. There are exceptions but generally speaking, a personal story with a beginning, middle and end that can be told in 6 to 8 minutes. I'm looking for million-dollar moments. Turning points. Big ah-ha's. You've got to get in and get out.
"Every person in this room has a story
that could stop your heart."
WOW: What do you look for when choosing stories to include in your shows?
1) True and personal
2) Revealing and insightful
3) Funny. Out loud funny is great, but even in the somber or serious pieces, I welcome the writers who know how to use humor as a tool to open the listeners' hearts.
4) Perspective, as in, “This is what I learned from this experience.”
5) Variety. I am actively seeking stories from people of color and those with other worldviews. It really is part of what Tasty Words is about, and a direction in which I'd like to grow.
WOW: Your shows are based in Santa Monica, California, but we have thousands of readers from across the nation and overseas. Do you have any resources they could use to find out more information about spoken-word readings?
WENDY: They should Google spoken-word salons and see what comes up. The internet is obviously a good place to start. There are some great online essay blogs and sites, such as Hilary Carlips' Fresh Yarn (www.freshyarn.com), and Common Ties (www.commonties.com), both are worth checking out. The bottom line is: find or create a creative community where you can do your work.
I've put together a pretty good list for Los Angeles. It is a place to start. (Ed. note: see Wendy’s list at the end of this article.)
WOW: Creating their own story salon is such a great idea and the perfect way to spread this wonderful experience! How would you suggest our readers go about coordinating a spoken-word evening in their town?
WENDY: Have dinner with the most interesting people you know. Sit around and tell stories and see what emerges. Then invite all your friends. And their friends. Don't charge, or charge and donate the proceeds to a charity. Consider a theme. Or simply have it be a collection of great stories.
Make an email flyer and send it to everyone you know. Hand out flyers. Be fearless, unabashed, and resourceful. Get passionate about doing this and the rest will fall into place. Oh, and be willing to fail. You can't get anything done if you've got to do it perfectly.
“The bottom line is: find or create a creative community where you can do your work.”
WOW: I know that after reading this interview, many of our readers will be excited by the possibility of performing or even starting their own spoken-word evening. But many writers are very introverted. Do you have any tips you can share to help them feel more comfortable about standing up and telling their stories to an audience of strangers?
WENDY: Yes. My teacher and colleague, the actor Jeffrey Tambor, talked about the concept of creating living room theatre. I think if you think of it that way—creating work that you love—for you and your friends—it takes the pressure off. Another thing Jeffrey is fond of saying, (it has stayed with me) is—if you are pleasing everyone, then you are doing something wrong. I agree. Create work that you love. Start with that.
Now, as far as shy goes, what can I say? Take a deep breath, have a glass of wine if that works for you, invite your friends (or no one) and get up and do it. Think of it this way: You've been given a gift. Perhaps a gift as a writer and/or a teller, but surely a gift of being a member of the human race who has survived something and has lived to tell the tale. So, bring that.
"Be fearless, unabashed, and resourceful. Get passionate
about doing this and the rest will fall into place."
There is a great quote that Martha Graham said to Agnes De Mille about—forgive me, I am paraphrasing—about how it is not your job to judge your gift but rather just use it. If you do not, the world will not have it.
So, you can hold your stories inside due to your own fear, but the world will not have them. Plus, you will rob yourself of the experience of feeling connected to this tribe known as the human race.
WOW: I couldn’t agree more! Wendy, thank you so much for sharing your passion for spoken-word with our readers! I hope they come to love the experience of spoken-word readings as much as I have.
For more information about Wendy, check out her website www.wendykamenoff.com. If you are interested in writing classes and/or submitting work for Tasty Words, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you will be in Los Angeles, California for any reason, I highly recommend making arrangements to attend at least one of the shows listed below.
If you don’t plan to ever leave your corner of the world (or even if you do), read the submissions guidelines for each venue and they will give you great ideas for the variety of ways you can create your own spoken-word evening!
L.A. SPOKEN WORD VENUE LIST:
Salon: Tasty Words
Venue: Every Picture Tells a Story Gallery
Location: 1411 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Submission policy: send me the best 7 -10 minute story you've got. I will read it, and file it away. When I am producing a theme that dovetails with your story, I will contact you and invite you to be on the bill. I also like everyone to see at least one show before they do the show, so they get the flavor. Finally, come work on your material in class (shameless plug). Then I can get to know your work.
Producer: Wendy Kamenoff
To submit: email WendyKamenoff@aol.com
Salon: Sit n' Spin
Venue: Comedy Central at the Hudson Backstage
Location: Hudson Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard
Hollywood, CA 90038
Producers: Maggie Rowe and Jill Soloway
To Submit: email no more than 1200 words to email@example.com
Salon: WORDPLAY: A New Spin On Storytelling
It's part This American Life, part stand-up comedy. It's where some of L.A.'s best writers and comedians come and share their true stories while our DJ spins a real-time soundtrack - like an organ player in a silent movie theater, but less Olde-Tyme.
Also, there's free beer and wine.
Spinning by DJ Chris Simental
The Fake Gallery
4319 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
$10 - Reservations Recommended:
323.644.4946 or firstname.lastname@example.org
NEW PARKING NOTE: Try Sacred Fools Theater valet parking
on Heliotrope, just south of Melrose. $5
Otherwise, street parking only. Please allow time. (If there is nothing on Melrose, try north on Heliotrope or on New Hampshire.)
Salon: Show and Tell
Venue: The Hudson Avenue Theater
Location: 6539 Santa Monica Blvd (5 blks east of Highland, enter on Hudson)
Tix $5 at the door - no reservations required Valet Parking available.
Submission Policy: We definitely take outside submissions. Our website is www.showandtellshow.com, and you can submit through there.
First Tuesday of the month at 8PM
Producers: Eric Friedman and Matt Price
To submit:email Eric (email@example.com) or Matt (Pricerman@aol.com)
Salon: Word Nerd
Location: Groundwork coffee company
1501 N. Cahuenga Blvd
Hollywood, CA 90028
Producers: Jeff Hopkins & A Karno
Word Nerd is a live event featuring fearless personal essays presented monthly by LA’s most engaging writers. We are seeking personal narratives of up to 1,800 words that could just as well be short stories. By that we mean, they arc, have a strong narrative thread, and are about something larger than simply an interesting thing that happened. Frequently written in the present tense, these stories tend to unfold in scene form rather than in after-the-fact summary, so we’re there with you in the moment. They are fueled by conflict and a driving question that produces a sense of urgency. In other words, the characters have something compelling at stake—so that the listener really wants to know what happens next. Often, they culminate in the main character having a realization, spurred by a personal situation, which is at the same time universal. While funny is good, funny/sad is better. Or, it doesn’t have to be funny at all. It just has to be compelling. And make us jealous we didn’t write it ourselves.
Word attachments are fine, but please remember to include your contact information, and the title of your piece in the document. You wouldn’t want us to love your piece and then have no idea whose it is! Hey, neither would we.
Salon: Melt in Your Mouth
Venue: Secret Rose theater (adorable, clean & cool space) in NoHo.
Location: 7PM @ The Secret Rose Theatre
11246 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91607 (one block East of Lankershim) $8
An evening of delicious stories and tasty treats.
For more info and to submit, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Gemma Roskam (email@example.com) and Lori Ada Jaroslow.
Venue: Powerhouse Theatre
Location: 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica
Reservations: 310-396-3680 ext 5
For more info email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the first Monday of every month, the theatre hosts "SPARK!"
This evening of storytelling on given themes has been playing to sold out houses every month, and the company has just initiated a solo series in which one-person shows are presented on the second Monday of every month.
Producers: Jessica Tuck, Karin Gutman, Lisa Mallory, Alicia Sedwick, Andrea Harmon, Raquel Velasquez
If you have a particular month's theme in which you are interested, please let us know. The months fill up, so I will forward your info to the lead producer heading up that particular month and she will let you know if there is space available.
Also include brief description of what your story would be about. We need to make sure that people aren't writing on the same idea. We would then get back to you and let you know if there is space for that month and if that story idea works for that theme. You might also be then asked to give a rough draft or outline of your piece.
There is a mandatory rehearsal on Saturday (usually 11am--1pm) before the Monday performance when you read your piece for time (6-8 minutes) and feedback from the producers only.
Salon: STORY SALON
Venue: The Coffee Fix
Wednesdays at 8:00 Plus first and second Fridays of the month
Location: 12508 Moorpark St. (SW corner of Moorpark, across from library), Studio City
free admission, 1-item minimum
For more info: www.storysalon.com
Introduce yourself to Beverly. Then she'll have you call her between 9am to 4pm on Monday to see if she can put you in the Wednesday show.
Producer: Lance Anderson
Salon: Scratch It
Occasional storytelling show produced by Cathy Shambley. "Groundlings and Guests reading their own nonfiction, too personal to read out loud, but they're doing it anyway!
GUESTS: call: 323-934-4747
Producer: David Nadelberg, TV writer and creator
For more info email: email@example.com
Performers read their worst poems, song lyrics and thoughts, directly from their teenage diaries
Mortified is actively looking for more freaks & freakettes to add to our growing little "empire of angst". Thus, if you or someone you know would like to read aloud utterly embarrassing childhood relics in front of total strangers... We'd LOVE to audition you.
Of course, all material must be written between the ages of 6-21 and yes, totally suck. We look for stuff that is real, written by you, laugh-out-loud funny (but not on purpose), and reveals something about yourself. Topics can range from the sweet (crushes) to the dark (depression) or in-between, just as long as they make people laugh. You should also live within the LA or NYC area as, well, that's where the monthly shows happen.
Material worth auditioning:
- Diaries / Journals
- Lyrics (tormented ballads, anthems, metal, raps...)
- Locker Notes
- School Assignments
- Plays / Scripts
- D&D Player Profiles (pleeease?)
AUDITION INFO HERE: http://www.getmortified.com/live/casting/
Salon: The Speakeasy
"A monthly mixer with guest hosts, local artists, parlor games, conversation, and moonshine."
8:00 - 10:00, last Sunday of every month
Mt. Hollywood Underground
4607 Prospect Ave, Silver Lake
(underneath Mt. Hollywood Church - corner of Rodney - N. of Hollywood Blvd., E. of Vermont. Enter on Rodney.
www.smartgals.org or 310-572-7347 Christine Barry
Host: Ellen Switkes
No submission guidelines for Cornucopia. If you know people who want to be in the show, they should come and see it first.
Direct them to this email, firstname.lastname@example.org to make themselves known to me, and I'll take it from there.
If you want, you can tell them I'm NOT looking for good writing, I am looking for good listening. How does their piece sound and look from the stage? In other words, presentation and performance is very important to me.
Note from Wendy: As an overall suggestion, go and see these shows. Support the other artists, have fun, laugh, cry, get inspired. Then introduce yourself to the person or people in charge. If you don't know what to say, thank them for creating a place for this kind of work to go on. Tell them you'd love to submit work for consideration. If you’d like, mention that I suggested you check out the show. Good luck and go get out there. Love, Wendala
A Peek Behind the Curtain: My First Spoken Word Experience
Wendy’s Tasty Words show was where I experienced my first spoken-word reading. I took my husband with me to see a show and it has become our favorite monthly date-night activity. For weeks after each show, he is still talking about the stories he heard that moved him or made him laugh out loud.
I’ve taken other friends to the shows who have admitted afterward, that initially, they weren’t expecting much, and had only attended to finally end my passionate urging to try it—and they were completely blown away by the feelings they had from listening to talented writers sharing their personal essays. Now they attend regularly.
The experience is addictive. Tasty Words is held in a children’s book and illustration art gallery. The venue seats approximately 40 people on folding chairs, though the evenings are often so well-attended that adults also sit together on the floor (much like we did when we were children) and others stand, lining the back of the room for the hour-long show.
Usually, there are six to seven writer/performers on the bill. Some read from the page, others, in true storytelling style, hold the audience rapt with their movement and expression.
Many of the stories I’ve heard have stayed so fully drawn in my mind that I could tell them to others as if they were my own. The power of words on a page can translate seamlessly to become a well-told tale. It’s a magical experience for the listener and the writer.
I was so enthralled by the stories shared at the readings that I attended classes in Wendy’s Write at Home program. I hadn’t tried writing personal essays or short stories before—it was another new experience for me. And I took her advice to try performing in one of her Tasty Words evenings.
That night, when I stood up in front of the audience, I was so nervous I thought I would pass out. But then I remembered what it was like when I was a listener—I wasn’t there to judge or ridicule, I was there, open and welcoming like a child, excited to hear a good story. When I looked up from the page and saw the faces of the people in the audience, I saw them wearing that same expression.
The audience laughed at the awkwardly funny parts of my story, and a few brushed tears away when I revealed some universal truths in my struggles. After the show, several people tentatively approached me to thank me for sharing my story with them. And I was hooked.
* * *
Annette Fix is the Senior Editor for WOW! Women On Writing, an author, and spoken-word storyteller living in Laguna Niguel, California with her Danish Prince Charming, her aspiring photographer son, and two rescued dogs. Annette’s memoir, The Break-Up Diet will be available Valentine’s Day 2008. You can read break-up stories and share your own at her new story forum: www.mybreakupstory.com.
Resources to check out:
This link goes to a map of the U.S., listing spoken-word venues across the country.
Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution by Alix Olson
In this book, Editor Alix Olson brought together a variety of astounding spoken word artists for Word Warriors. Included in this collection are Patricia Smith and Eileen Myles, two of our most formidable and famous spoken-word foremothers, Tony-award winner Sarah Jones, Lynn Breedlove from the infamous dyke-punk band Tribe 8, Palestinian-born and raised Suheir Hummadd, and many more. These women join other amazing artists from many different backgrounds to create Word Warriors, a powerful and comprehensive collection of work from the best and brightest female spoken-word artists today. © Sept 2007