The Healing Power of Stories | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

The Porch Stories returned on April 29th after a COVID hiatus, selling out 225 seats at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli. People showed up ready to be entertained, filling the space with good energy before the storytelling started. Beth Broun, the first storyteller, went deep into the emotions behind feeling left out, running away from home (To France! Because Cher said so!) and her father's death. The material was weighty, but the storyteller knew how and where to infuse humor, and she had the audience roaring and relating. In addition to being good medicine, laughter is infectious (in a good way!), and it tore through the crowd. 

Joey Shavelle, The Porch's producer, shifted the tone midway by sharing a video of novelist Paul La Farge telling a story about realizing our unmastered skills and the memories we savor. La Farge, who was also a professor at Bard and a beloved local storyteller, died in January. 

Storytelling keeps us emotionally agile and helps us pivot between conflicting emotions, offering outlets to process grief, share joy, and metabolize the wide range of emotions the human experience dishes out on the regular. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication, and it's how we come to know ourselves and each other. Author Joan Didion famously said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," but we also tell each other stories as a way to connect. 

click to enlarge The Healing Power of Stories
Jane Brien onstage at a Porch storytelling event in 2023 at Kaatsbaan in Tivoli.

In 2023, as we peel away from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have another epidemic to deal with—loneliness. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy warned that social disconnection is as bad for our health as a daily smoking habit and possibly worse than obesity. As it turns out, we need connection like we need food and water.

"When we are less invested in one another, we are more susceptible to polarization and less able to pull together to face the challenges that we cannot solve alone—from climate change and gun violence to economic inequality and future pandemics," Dr. Murthy wrote. 

A Break from Screen Time

Shavelle's creative roots are in film, and he sets the stage with intention. The storyteller stands illuminated against a blue background with a white rocking-chair logo while the light in the rest of the room is dim and cozy, evocative of sitting on a porch telling stories. No phones are allowed, offering a much-needed break from screen time and an opportunity to sink into a community event that feels like a throwback to simpler times. "The Porch is the room," Shavelle says. "It's people getting together."

Tivoli resident Jim O'Grady has told hundreds of stories live and is a "Moth" GrandSLAM storytelling champion. He's also an accomplished reporter and editor—and he makes storytelling look easy—but on the day of The Porch, he said he spent the day memorizing his story, which is to say that despite being a pro, he's a lot like the rest of us. "Ordinary people in the audience are watching ordinary people on stage," O'Grady says, "So it's easy for them to feel a connection."

The Porch features local storytellers and one pro, while The Artichoke in Beacon features seasoned storytellers from the New York City and one local. Like The Porch, The Artichoke doesn't have themes, but they do have a requirement. "The stories must be funny and uplifting," producer and host Drew Prochaska says. "I want the audience left on a high note."

Laughter Is (Somewhat) Mandatory

"This doesn't mean the storyteller can't take the listener down a dark road," says Prochaska, whose background is in comedy, "but they have to leave the listener where they found them." In many cases, the listener will be left in a better place because through witnessing other people, we see ourselves.

The Artichoke is the most consistent storytelling event in the Hudson Valley, with shows every other month at Beacon's Howland Cultural Center, plus an open mic the second Thursday of each month at Norma's in Wappingers Falls. The open-mic stories are shorter—around six minutes compared to 10—but like all of the previously mentioned storytelling events, the stories must be true, they must be about the teller, and they must be told without notes. 

click to enlarge The Healing Power of Stories
Photo by Michael Isabell

Although live storytelling events like The Porch and The Artichoke aren't therapy sessions, storytellers often reveal some of their most difficult and vulnerable moments, which is terrific, because stories where everything goes right aren't very interesting. Stories with suspense and tension keep audiences engaged and invite empathy as listeners recall sticky points in their own lives. 

Sharing What's at Stake

The audience invests in a story when they understand what's at stake for the storyteller and why the story is significant to them. The connection between the storyteller and the audience happens at the intersection of vulnerability and witnessing.

Karen Faith is an ethnographer and corporate empathy trainer who tells stories on local Hudson Valley stages and also presented a TEDx where she said, "I share not to set me apart from you but to welcome you in here with me." "Here" represents the deepest recesses of our inner world or the physical "here," where stories are told.

Faith talks about how finding the laugh in the story is cathartic. "When you're laughing, you're not in your victimhood," she says, elaborating on a story she told at The Artichoke, which wasn't a funny story at all, yet she delivered it almost as a stand-up routine. "We're not laughing about abuse," Faith says, "We're laughing at everything I did getting over it."

"If you stay silent, you stay alone," says Eva Tenuto, executive director and co-founder of Kingston-based TMI Project, whose mission is to ignite and inspire human connection through storytelling. "Like most people, many TMI Project storytellers have been lugging around a life experience they've never given voice to," Tenuto says. "They've been holding on to it tightly, usually in isolation, most often fueled by a sense of shame." 

click to enlarge The Healing Power of Stories
Photo by Michael Isabell

Tenuto notes that she loves watching storytellers come off the stage looking taller and lighter, as if they've left something heavy behind. "When they can share that experience with others, the sense of community can create a crack in the protective isolation shell," she says. Storytelling helps the storyteller realize they're stronger and more resilient than they thought, while audiences relate and have their experiences validated. In the end, everyone feels less alone. To facilitate connection among populations that often feel silenced, TMI Project offers workshops and live performances that tackle topics such as anti-racism, gender equity, LGBTQIA+ rights, and mental health. 

The sticking point is believing that the risk of exposing ourselves is worth it. Finding the courage to be vulnerable often pales in contrast to the power of the voices inside us that silence our voices, leaving us disconnected not only from other people but also from ourselves. 

Finding Your Voice

Celeste Lecesne, a Kingston resident who is a 2023 Guggenheim fellow, blames the TMI project for his relocation to the Hudson Valley from New York City. Lecesne identifies most as a storyteller because it's a synthesis of everything else he is—an actor, entertainer, and activist. "I'm not somebody who lives in one lane," Lecesne says.

click to enlarge The Healing Power of Stories
People mingle at a Porch event at Bard's Spiegeltent.

Lecesne's storytelling won him an Academy Award for the short film Trevor, which led to the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth who may be questioning suicide or need support as they navigate gender identity and sexuality. Often, what they need most is an ear, but they also need a voice. Lecesne also founded the Future Perfect Project, which helps teens develop their voices through grant-funded workshops and storytelling events that are free for everyone. There are online and in-person events not only in the Hudson Valley but around the country.

"When any one of us is doing better, we're all doing better," Lecesne says, speaking to the ripple effect a single story can have and the subsequent individual and collective benefits. Storytelling is one of the most effective, tried-and-true ways to blast apart preconceived ideas and uncover the undeniable truth: We're all more complex than we thought. 

There's Room for Everyone

In Columbia County, Paul Ricciardi hosts storytelling events at the Ancram Opera House, which he codirects with his partner, Jeffrey Mousseau. Real People, Real Stories, Ancram's storytelling series, features local storytellers.

"I want to provide a platform for people who haven't done this before," Ricciardi says, adding that he offers each storyteller up to five hours of guidance as they craft the story they'll tell on stage. Ricciardi also holds twice-yearly storytelling workshops for those who want the experience of storytelling but aren't sure they're ready to hit the stage. The next Real People, Real Stories is Saturday, June 24th, at the Hilltop Barn in Hillsdale. 

click to enlarge The Healing Power of Stories
Photo by Michael Isabell

Ricciardi also leads storytelling workshops at Taconic Hills Central School for all 4th, 5th and 6th graders, helping them develop and compose personal narratives. The benefits range from building creativity to improving memory to helping kids with learning differences. "Kids who struggle with writing are finding success through the spoken word," he says. 

What Storytelling Does for Us

Although storytelling is cathartic and therapeutic, O'Grady says the storyteller must remember it's not about them. "There are a few ways to ensure you're not going to do well, and one of those things is to think it's all about you," he says. "Our job is to make the audience understand what we went through—what a person just like them—went through."

What storytelling does for individuals and communities—cultivates empathy, builds trust—scales for public health. "We're not changing the world with a single story," says James Hamblin, MD, MPH, a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health, "but it's easier to believe what we can see." The ability to empathize and occupy another person's perspective is a skill that needs to be practiced. "If we're more expository and less declarative, we can make people feel something, and, hopefully, they'll learn to trust more," Dr. Hamblin says. "It's one of our only hopes."

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