Stories your neighbors have told around campfires and dinner tables are now being told through a microphone to a public audience during occasional live storytelling sessions on Friday evenings at Odie’s Deli in Soldotna.
The event’s trio of organizers have given it a transparently descriptive name — “True Tales Told Live” — and a Facebook page for announcing the sessions, the most recent of which was last Friday, and the next planned for October.
True Tales co-founder Kaitlin Vadla, professionally a community organizer for the conservation nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, said she began to think about storytelling — how it’s done and what it’s good for — about 10 years ago during a college course called “Leadership and Storytelling.” The class, she said, was “very much about storytelling as a unit of understanding.”
“It helps you understand yourself and understand others in a way that sharing facts or talking about politics doesn’t, really,” Vadla said.
Her course came before live storytelling gained national prominence with programs such as The Moth, or similar state-level events such as Arctic Entries in Anchorage, Vadla said. Upon returning from college to her hometown of Soldotna, Vadla continued to think and talk about storytelling, now with friends Pegge Erkeneff, a communications liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and Jenny Nyman, presently general manager of local public radio station KDLL.
“We all love sharing stories,” Erkeneff said. “And we said we should have some live local storytelling thing, like the Moth. So after bouncing the idea around for several months, we kicked the first one off on April 1, 2016.”
That session — with the date-appropriate theme of “fools” — set the pattern that the five True Tales events since have followed: seven storytellers, who are either invited or volunteer, speaking for seven minutes without notes about a theme. All have been at Odie’s Deli, on a Friday at 6:00 p.m, and feature local musicians performing between stories. Themes have included “Strange but True,” “Scary stories,” and “Lost and Found.” The tone has ranged from humor to mourning.
“We’ve had stories where people cry,” Vadla said. “It’s Friday night at Odie’s and people are drinking beer, and then they’re also crying. It’s different than going to a movie and crying, because there’s your neighbor standing in front of you telling a story you’ve never heard, even though you’ve known them for twenty or thirty years. And it’s like you see them in a whole new way.”
Last week’s storytellers riffed on the theme of “Nature versus Not-sure,” a play on the phrase “nature versus nurture.” As an audience assembled in Odie’s Friday evening, the organizers spoke with the seven storytellers, adjusted audio equipment (Friday’s session was the first to be recorded and will be released online by KDLL public radio) and greeted friends. Among the sandwich-munching crowd was Bill Holt — Kenai Peninsula Board of Education member, Tsalteshi Trails maintenance manager, commercial fisherman, and practiced raconteur — who was wondering what might come out of his mouth when, in a few moments, he would step to the mic as the first storyteller.
“To be honest, I’m not quite sure what story I’m going to tell,” Holt said. “I’m flipping coins in my mind right now.”
About a minute later, Holt was looking over the crowd from the carpeted platform that served as a stage. He began telling what he called “another fishing story” about a fall commercial trip to net silvers on the west side of Cook Inlet.
Holt’s arms waved this way and that as he layered complications onto his fish story: a zealous Fish and Game enforcer who may have been hiding in the bushes, a bear chewing on the buoy, and finally a shark in the net. Having poised his audience on the edge of laughter and suspense, Holt mounted to his conclusion.
“…And it was one of the very best silver salmon sets I have ever had,” he said. “There’s probably a moral here — I don’t know. We were all three predators after the same prey.”
Other storytellers followed Holt across the stage — Matt Pyhala’s imagined conversation between the bears who made off with his bear canister, Erkeneff’s story of an orphaned moose, Abbie Cunningham’s account of the post-holing hike that preceded her wedding in a backcountry cabin, and others.
The event’s three leaders are all to some degree professional storytellers. Nyman had been a long-time local reporter before her work at KDLL, serving for 8 years as founding editor of the now-inactive Redoubt Reporter weekly newspaper. Prior to working for the school district, Erkeneff worked in Christian ministry and led retreats that she said were “all about sharing true stories and deep listening.” For her, the mandatory seven minute story-length is an important element of True Tales.
“What makes it really real and significant for me is that often we don’t listen to somebody for that length of time,” Erkeneff said. “We might hear tidbits or bits and pieces on social media, but to give your full attention to somebody for seven minutes — no questions, no asking for clarification, just listening to somebody share a true story — to watch the emotions go through their face, whether it’s laughter, confusion, tears — and to receive that story from somebody and take it into ourselves, the whole experience is powerful.”
“True Tales Told Live” is taking a break for the summer. The next session will be Oct. 13 at Odie’s at 6 p.m, with the tentative theme of “Family.”