“When explaining Listen to This: Stories in Performance to newcomers, I will often describe it as This American Life life onstage but with better reception and more beer,” says local comedian Tom Chalmers, the host of the storytelling series, held monthly at 35below, Asheville Community Theatre’s black-box space. The show, which turns crowd-sourced personal tales into theatrical performance, begins its 2014 season on Thursday, Jan. 30.
For Chalmers, it all started decades ago. “When I was in New York City in the 1990s, there was an explosion of different writing and performing options,” he said in an email interview. Wanting to write and perform as much as possible, he dived into that scene and was eventually invited to present as part of an early show of The Moth. That New York-based nonprofit group, founded in ’97, is often credited with launching the contemporary storytelling revival movement. In fact, it’s hard for anyone to present a story series these days without drawing comparisons to The Moth — which now holds events around the country and a weekly podcast.
“I loved the format of real people telling real stories, all based around a central theme, as an evening of entertainment,” Chalmers says. Even before his work with The Moth (that program’s roots stem from late-night storytelling sessions held by creator George Dawes Green and his friends on their porches on St. Simon’s Island, Ga.), he’d understood the possibility of personal narratives as performance. Seeing Spalding Gray perform his monologue “Monster in a Box” in the early ’90s was the first indication to Chalmers that storytelling made for riveting theater.
So, when he relocated to Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium, Chalmers was ready to pitch his own monthly series. Sacred Fools Theater Company was receptive, and there Chalmers — who cut his theater teeth while still attending Columbia University — began work on what would become Listen to This.
Chalmers’ varied background in comedy and performance has been integral to the development of his series. After college, he wrote and performed with the New York arm of The Groundlings, the improv troupe and school that launched Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the careers of many Saturday Night Live alumni. Like those variety shows, each Listen To This performance includes musical interludes and plenty of audience interaction. Storytellers range from comedians and musicians to those Chalmers calls “regular-type folks.”
The diversity of the format recalls public radio programs like Wits and the seminal This American Life. Those similarities are no coincidence: Hearing David Sedaris on Public Radio International’s TAL was a "gospel moment for me,” Chalmers says. “Like many others, I was smitten by [Sedaris’] ability to take painful and awkward moments and turn them into hilarious personal essays, something I try to do in my writing.” Chalmers channeled those inspirations into Listen to This, which premiered at Sacred Fools in February 2001 and ran monthly for two years. Then, Chalmers packed up his show and moved it to North Carolina.
In a way, the local comedian brought the New York and L.A.-popularized format full circle. Held for the past four years at 35below, Listen to This is now closer to The Moth’s start on Southern porches. Chalmers’ series, a mixture of topical discussion, personal yarn-spinning and humor, is a natural fit not just for the porch, but the stage as well. He says, “I am always impressed with how the Asheville audience will follow the presenters in whatever direction they want to go; whether funny or frightening, shocking or sentimental, as long as it is a good story.”
Upcoming topics include:
• Don't Pull the Trigger, Squeeze It: Straight-Shootin' Stories about Guns on Thursday, Jan. 30. In a press release, Chalmers writes, “I know this is potentially a sensitive topic. I don't necessarily want to shy away from that so the stories can be serious and speak to the dangers and dire consequences of firearms, but they can also be lighter and reference the culture, the rituals, the coming-of-age quality to getting one's first gun, etc.”
• “Febru-80s: Decadent Stories from the Storied Decade,” on Thursday, Feb. 27.
• Hikes: The Glorious and Those That Went Terribly Wrong, on Thursday, March 27.
what: Listen to This: Stories in performance presents
Don't Pull the Trigger, Squeeze It: straight-shootin' stories about guns
where: Asheville Community Theatre, ashevilletheatre.org
when: Thursday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. $10.