Historic Fourth Avenue is abounding with stories waiting to be discovered and just around the corner at The Sea of Glass — Center for the Arts, they are being told by Odyssey Storytelling.
As the first community storytelling event in Arizona, Odyssey Storytelling has a distinguished reputation. However, according to volunteer Joseph Silins, the narratives spun at their events are honest, genuine and human, which sets them apart.
An ancient tradition
Oral storytelling is an age-old human tradition, told around campfires beneath the late-night porch light or in bars and coffee shops. Stories are as old as time, but this one begins 15 years ago with a tale of two Penelope’s.
“When I conceived Odyssey Storytelling, I was thinking more of a journey than a destination,” Penelope Starr said, introducing the 15th anniversary show “Journeys” last March.
Odyssey Storytelling takes its name from the Homeric epic of the same name, Odyssey, which follows the fabled Odysseus’ long journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In it, Odysseus has many wondrous adventures but longs to return to his wife — another Penelope.
Thousands of years later, in a modern and realistic world, Starr founded Odyssey Storytelling and could not resist.
“The connection between that idea of taking a journey and my name — I just had to do it, sorry,” Starr said.
Starr had found something missing in the stories told by other storytelling organizations like The Moth and Porchlight Storytelling — the human element of it all.
“Everybody brings their own experiences to the table,” executive producer Ana Gaskin said. “You learn unexpected, intimate things about people that you probably wouldn’t otherwise.”
Every month, the staff and volunteers of Odyssey Storytelling put on a show in which several storytellers share 10-minute, unscripted, personal narratives centered around a theme.
September’s theme was “Disaster.” The show featured great forest fires and fatal earthquakes, an epic tale of drunken absurdity in a corn maze, the heartbreaking journey of a local journalist as he covered the Tucson mass shooting of Jan. 8, 2011 and more.
“Hearing someone’s story, you learn about their life, their challenges, and it’s made me a better person,” said Roscoe Mutz, a volunteer and co-curator of September’s storytelling. “There is no greater way to get to know someone than to hear their life-story on the first meeting. There is no better way to build community.”
“Our biggest goal is to create community,” Silins said. “I believe everyone can find the humanity in these stories and that helps connect people.”
Save for Gaskin, Odyssey Storytelling is run entirely by volunteers who want to see the storytelling community grow.
Even the regular show attendees know to show up early and to stick around after the show. Like dominoes, the newbies follow the veterans’ footsteps, folding up their chairs and setting them in the corner of the room in gratitude for a marvelous production.
After a show on Thursday, Sept. 5, the staff bought drinks for the storytellers at the Surly Wench Pub down the street, a regular inauguration ritual for the storytellers, according to Mutz. Everyone in the audience was also invited to tag along.
“There may be a lot of things, culturally speaking, that keep you apart — politics, religion, et cetera — but when you start telling stories and listening to others tell their stories, those barriers come down,” said one of Thursday’s storytellers Karla Campillo-Soto, who told a heartfelt story of how her family dealt with the aftermath of one of Mexico City’s most devastating earthquakes. “That’s what made me fall in love with storytelling.”
A modern addition, the podcast
Odyssey Storytelling was only a local event until Miles Schneiderman, current outreach coordinator and freelance media producer, entered the ring alongside the previous executive producer, Jen Nowicki Clark.
As the world advanced into a modern era of audio books and podcasting, the Odyssey Storytelling staff searched for ways to spread their message further than ever before.
“Every piece of new media technology ever invented from smoke signals to smartphones has served the purpose of helping us tell stories,” Schneiderman said. “Podcasts are the primary storytelling device of our era, at least in purely audio form. It's harder to be heard if you can't embrace the new ways in which the world listens.”
The Odyssey Storytelling Podcast is a series in tandem with the monthly event, recorded live at each show and uploaded at the end of the month. It has continuously made the Feedspot list of Top 15 Storytelling Podcasts since May of 2017.
According to Schneiderman, the podcast encourages the ancient tradition of oral storytelling on a larger scale, enabling local storytellers to share their words with family and friends who could not attend the shows and, hopefully, inspiring others to build their communities of storytellers.
“The fact that we are preserving our stories in podcast form gives them more resonance and allows them to reach more people who might need to hear them,” Schneiderman said. “The more people who hear our stories, the more our message spreads.”
Next month’s theme is “Spirits,” which could entail ghosts, demons or even alcoholic beverages. After that, Tucsonans can attend “Second Chances” in November or “Chill” this December — typically on the first Saturday of each month — before the staff crafts a new list of themes for 2020. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students.
“Storytelling is how humans tell one another who we are,” Schneiderman said. “There is no more important act than telling stories.”
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