The Grapevine Storytelling Series

The Grapevine Storytelling Series, by Tim Livengood, storytellertimlivengood@gmail.com

The Grapevine is a monthly storytelling program on the second Wednesday evening of each month from September through June, run by Noa Baum and Tim Livengood in Takoma Park, Maryland. We’re in the middle of our 4th season, the second at our current location. Our typical audience number is 30-50, with a peak of 87 the night that we hosted the incomparable Elizabeth Ellis. The Grapevine is presented at Busboys and Poets (BB&P), a small local chain with an arts and literary focus, named in honor of poet (and one-time busboy) Langston Hughes. The restaurant provides a dedicated performance space with food service.

I couldn’t claim to be an authority on what makes a successful, For the Florida Storytelling Association, “InSideStory” storytelling program, but I know what we do, and why we do it, and what level of success we’ve had. We have divided the labor to produce the Grapevine, by accident and by inclination, so that Noa has provided the artistic direction and Tim has handled organization and promotional materials. Noa and Tim swap hosting duties from one evening to another. The program opens with up to three open-mic tellers (five minutes each), followed by usually two (but occasionally just one) featured teller. Total performance time is about an hour and a half. We aren’t very specific in instructions to our tellers. We ask for whatever they are inspired to tell – fiction, nonfiction, myth, legend, autobiography, folk, or literary stories, in whatever mode they want – but no reading! We are supported by audience donations and by sponsorships. The program is free to anyone who wishes to be there, but we ask for donations of $15 per person if they can do it, and the collection shows that most people are able to pitch in for the full request. The collected donations are split between our featured tellers for the night. Our biggest single sponsor at this time is the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, which provides a reliable baseline payment for our artists in addition to the donations and which also accepts donations directed to the Grapevine by commercial sponsors, passing them through to the tellers and enabling the sponsors to take a tax deduction, since FSGW is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. FSGW covers the venue fee and the cost to produce promotional materials, and advertises the Grapevine through communications to its membership. BB&P is our other largest sponsor, as they give us a big price break on the venue fee, they feature the Grapevine on their monthly online performance calendar, and promote it in-house. Tellers are able to sell merchandise at the show.

We have learned a few lessons. We were advised from the beginning by Loren Niemi that in hosting a show, it is not the host’s show, although it took a little experience to believe him fully. The host introduces the program, keeps it moving, reminds the audience of the mechanics (what they can expect, please donate, please turn off your cell phone, please donate, honor our sponsors, and please donate), runs the open-mic program, and introduces the featured tellers. Hosting is not a call to tell stories of our own each night, although we do reward ourselves by each appearing as a featured teller one night per season. Starting the program with the open-mic session, instead of at the end or middle, is intentional. Audience tends to trickle in, no matter what you do, and it’s tough to tell a long and intricate story while the room fills and half the audience missed the beginning. Starting the program with the open-mic encourages audience to come in, get settled, and support their friends for the open-mic, and it encourages new tellers to come up and tell a story without embarrassment from following a seasoned professional.

A really big lesson has been the importance of food. We started in a lovely auditorium with great sound, appearing on local public-access TV as an arts program sponsored by the City of Takoma Park. The facility was great, but audience was small. We were in a noncommercial area with no food service, forcing potential audiences to choose whether to eat early, eat late, skip dinner, or skip us. We sought and gained a member grant from the National Storytelling Network to make the jump from the Community Center to cover the venue fee at Busboys and Poets for our third season. Having set the plan, we worked with FSGW to expand the budget for the fourth season, with additional support from commercial sponsors who receive recognition during the program.

The Grapevine is drawing a good audience (although we cherish dreams of growing just… a bit… bigger). We have had autobiographical storytellers, traditional tellers, local and out-of-town tellers, Griot tellers, bilingual tellers and musical tellers, funny tellers and serious tellers; we have tellers coming who tell through movement, and tellers who tell in group performance. Soon, we will be scouting for tellers to fill the program for our fifth season, September 2017 through June 2018, looking for every flavor of story and every mode of live-performance storytelling. Come hear it (and tell it) through the Grapevine!

Submitted by Tim Livengood, written for the Florida Storytelling Association, “InSideStory”