Norah Dooley, the co-founder and executive director of MassMouth, is energetic and smiling as she walks into the coffee shop in Central Square with Paula Junn, the organization’s social media director.
MassMouth is an undertaking with a literary mission: promoting the art of storytelling through social media, education, and live performance.
Norah is a storyteller first and foremost, and she’ll be the first to happily explain what that title entails, why the art of storytelling is so essential in our culture, and why it is just that—a legitimate art form.
“People are hard wired for storytelling, for appreciation of and even the telling of a good story,” Dooly tells me.
“Yet, when I would tell people that I am a storyteller they would say to me ‘oh, so you read books to children.’ I knew storytelling was in trouble.
Storytelling is so much more than reading. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an anti-literacy advocate. I write picture books, but storytelling is rich interpersonal communication on so many ‘channels’—even in a performance situation a storyteller sends personal massages with their tone of voice, gestures, movements, tempo, and facial expressions—it is beautiful.”
“Before I worked for MassMouth, I didn’t even know that storytelling was a thing … ” says Junn. “I was going to grad school for Expressive Arts Therapy, but even then I didn’t really connect the dots between therapy and storytelling.
Therapy is sharing your story in a safe environment where you can really be heard, I realized later.”
MassMouth, Inc. formed in 2008, and officially became a 501c3 nonprofit in late 2010. According to Dooly the formation happened informally, a handful of like-minded writers agreeing to just do something, spurring the creation of a storytelling blog in 2005. This small group of co-founders included Dooly, Andrea Lovett (who is still involved), Doria Hughes, and Stu Mendelson. The blog began with on-line video and audio content focusing on raising awareness of storytelling in the digital age.
“It was clear that we storytellers needed to do something to bring this timeless art back into mainstream culture,” Dooley explains. “Our art form was dying—and people are hungry for connection. Rather than seeing technology as an enemy, we embraced digital media and the Internet and that allowed us to get started without any physical or financial resources.”
Since its conception, MassMouth has evolved into a local literary force to be reckoned with, holding workshops in high schools all around Boston
(the organization’s StoriesLive series is the only inter-school slam in the country) and putting on story slams at different venues in our fair city. And if you’re wondering, yes, the NPR storytelling program The Moth was MassMouth’s model for their live events.
Wondering what in sweet hell a story slam is? Think of your basic poetry slam … a small stage, a microphone, and individuals sharing their own work to a live audience, often while consuming some sort of alcohol. Got a mental image? Now imagine the same thing, but for storytellers—ranging from experienced performers to first-timers—sharing a real-life story in five minutes or less. Each slam has a theme—an organizing principle to give the storytellers a focus when they hit the stage, “because as human beings we like to categorize,” Dooley contests.
Each theme tends to be a double entendre, such as ‘homegrown,’ ‘labels,’ or in the case of the upcoming story slam on Sunday at Doyle’s Café, ‘sixth sense.’
A figure of speech in which a spoken phrase is devised to be understood in either of two ways, so that the teller might share a tale about being a homegrown Masshole, or a thigh-slapping account of trying to home-grow tomatoes. Get it?
Each story slam is judged by volunteers going off of a list of criteria (story arc, presentation, time, and connection to the night’s theme). The storytelling becomes a pub game, and prizes are awarded depending on how each storyteller progresses within a given series of story slams. (The big prize being a week in a house in Italy. No, seriously) If you hassle the judges for a better score, you’re banned from sharing at the slams for the rest of the year, but storytellers and audiences alike are encouraged to get involved and have fun. “Through stories we build community,” says Junn.
“I love that feeling after each slam or storytelling event I feel like my world just got a little bigger, and lot richer.”
The next MassMouth story slam is scheduled for October 14th at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain. Make new friends and be entertained. Come connect with strangers, bare your soul to total strangers, and knock back a few pints for in the process. “Storytelling is a powerful yet very accessible art form,” Dooley insists. “We all use and appreciate stories in everyday life. Stories help us understand and value our own lives.
Since the dawn of human language people have shared wisdom, joy and troubles through story.”
STORY SLAM, “SIXTH SENSE”
3484 WASHINGTON ST.