“I’ve always been a good storyteller,” Matt Davidoff said to me, hands cupped around his mug of hot tea. “We used to sit around in the dorms, like 10 years ago – we would just sit for hours and tell stories. And I’ve always been really drawn to people who could tell stories well.”

It was a Monday night and we were sitting in his Oakland apartment, chatting about the storytelling event that Davidoff, 30, has organized for nearly two years now. Two evenings prior, Davidoff had hosted the 11th installment of his storytelling series. As a nod to Valentine’s Day, the storytelling theme of the night was “Blunders of Dating in the 21st Century.”

The attendance on Saturday was the biggest it’s been to date – over 20 people, plus a huge black poodle. The evening’s stories covered ground ranging from a disastrous OkCupid date, to a guilt-ridden encounter with a friend; from finding out via Google that a love interest had an extremely sordid past, to an amorous night that was ruined by a psychotic pet cat.

Audience reception was unflaggingly supportive throughout the evening. Everyone laughed and cheered in the right places and listened intently during the serious bits. At least one first-time storyteller girded their loins and took the stage – the stage being a clear patch of floor in Davidoff’s living room, which, featuring large windows overlooking the lights of Lake Merritt, was a suitably impressive setting for storytelling.

There were a number of regulars in attendance, but also some faces that Davidoff didn’t recognize. According to Davidoff, each event has been different in terms of who shows up, but typically it’s half regulars and half newbies. Many people show up once, enthusiastically promise to return, and then never come back. People are busy, things happen, emails bounce, one-night stands are easy.

“Where I get sad about it, is when we’ve had really, really good storytellers that come just once,” Davidoff said. “That happens. And at the same time, it’s kind of cool – it’s like when you sit on the bus and you talk to a stranger and you have an amazing conversation and you never see each other again. It has this romantic feeling. You see inside of this person’s head for a minute, and then you never speak of it again.”

"Showing emotion onstage - that, to me, is where I tip my hat to people," Davidoff says.

“Showing emotion onstage – that, to me, is where I tip my hat to people,” Davidoff says.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The human brain cognates and remembers in narrative structures; in other words, we both remember our lives as stories and also live out stories in real time, using narrative storytelling as a way to make meaning of the events that happen to us.

Stories connect us across time, geography and culture. They can manifest on a collective basis to broaden our understandings of things larger than ourselves – the story of Oakland, for example, or the story of the Occupy movement – and allow us to engage emotionally with facts and historical knowledge, to empathize through perspectives outside of our own, and to appreciate the nuances of the sentences we make to convey meaning or linguistic beauty.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the practice of oral storytelling comes naturally to all of us – or even that oral storytelling holds any particular interest to all of us. In this age of social options and global media saturation, sitting around and telling stories is no longer the primary means by which most of us socialize and connect with one another, and we no longer learn oral storytelling from older generations as a necessary tradition for keeping family histories alive.

In response to the waning of the tradition, oral storytelling has experienced something of a modern renaissance among nonprofits and grassroots organizers over the last 10 years. Whether for the appreciation of the art or for the salvaging of cultural tradition, oral storytelling groups have sprung up across the U.S. One of the most well-known of these, New York’s The Moth, was founded by writer George Dawes Green in 1997 and has since become a beacon for the storytelling revival; The Moth has satellite storytelling events in dozens of cities, where storytellers tell true-life stories onstage with no notes or memorization. Typically, sell-out crowds flock to each Moth storytelling event “like moths to a flame.”

Davidoff first heard The Moth’s podcast (which features live recordings of some of the best stories that come out The Moth’s storytelling events) while he was living in Taipei, where he spent five years teaching English and writing travel pieces. He was instantly inspired to start his own storytelling group, but found that there wasn’t much of an audience for it in Taipei, not even among his fellow ex-pats there.

When he moved back to the states, he lived in Los Angeles and began to regularly attend the L.A.-based Moth events, where he got increasingly inspired by the caliber of live storytelling that he experienced there. Upon relocating to Oakland, he decided to start his own storytelling group. He posted on Meetup.com and emailed every friend and friend-of-a-friend he knew.

The first one was in April 2011, with the theme “I Should Have Stayed Home.” He had no idea what to expect or how many people would show up, but there ended up being about 20 people in attendance – and the group has been going strong since.

As is the nature with unchoreographed storytelling events, each event has an element of the unexpected.

“The first or second event, this big dude came up,” Davidoff remembered. “He was, like, the boyfriend of a friend of a friend or something. He was in all Niners gear. He was literally like 300 pounds, huge. He shook my hand and it swallowed my hand. He was just such a big jock. And I’m really an asshole, you know? I’ve been, like, the little guy my whole life, and even I was like, ‘Eeugh, there’s a big jock in my house. Aw, this sucks.’ You have these gut reactions to people and sometimes don’t even realize it. If I would have dissected it, I would have said, ‘That’s really mean, Matt, don’t do that.’ But in that moment, I was just like, ‘Eeugh.’

“He stayed super quiet the whole night. And then he just got up. The topic that night was something along the lines of ‘Sacrifice.’ And he told this story that was about his mom getting diagnosed with bone cancer when he was 17. His father had already left years before, and he was the oldest and had five younger brothers and sisters. His mom was supposed to die within six months, but she somehow hung on for two more years. He was like, ‘When she finally passed, I was finally old enough to take care of all of my brothers and sisters.’ The whole room was crying.

“The thing is, I realized hearing that story that if I saw this guy on BART or on the street, I would either not notice him or I would think he was a total dick – just because that’s what we do every single day. And because of that story, every person in the room left thinking he was a very different person than we had initially thought. And I think, over time, you carry that over to everybody.

“That’s one of my big goals with this. Over time, ideally you start to realize that you can’t judge anybody, that you don’t know their stories. And the real meat of what makes people up, most of us never see.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upcoming storytelling event

 

Davidoff’s storytelling group doesn’t yet have a name – he’s still trying to come up with a good one – but the storytelling events happen approximately once every other month, with a different theme each time. To get updates, email Davidoff directly at roofiomd@gmail.com.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Elsewhere in Oakland

 
TODAY is the official kickoff of SF Beer Week, 10 beer-soaked days with events happening on both sides of the Bay. Check the schedule for full details of the many events happening in conjunction with the week. Some East Bay highlights include:

  • A beer-themed pub night at CommonWealth, Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 to 9 p.m., FREE admission (2882 Telegraph Ave., Oakland)
  • A Lagunitas-lovin’ day at Beer Revolution, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 3 p.m. to midnight, FREE admission (464 Third St., Oakland)
  • Drake’s beers paired with sausages at the new Downtown Oakland Rosamunde Sausage Grill, Saturday, Feb. 16, 5 to 10 p.m., FREE admission (911 Washington St., Oakland)
  • The famed Sour Sunday tribute to sour beers featuring over 80 sour and barrel-aged beers on tap, Sunday, Feb. 10, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., FREE admission (Triple Rock Brewery, 1920 and 2181 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley)
  • A whole host of events happening at Pyramid Alehouse (901 Gilman St., Berkeley)

TONIGHT is the February edition of the monthly East Bay Bike Party, themed “Ye Olde Bike Partie!” Slap on your knight’s armor, mount your two-wheeled steed and meet up at Frank Ogawa Plaza at 7:30 p.m. for a night of jousting and revelry. As always, safety and respect are the orders of the night.

Heart Quake, Soul Shake,” a showcase of circus arts and dance, features a lineup of performers who are guaranteed to elicit the heart-quaking and soul-shaking promised in the name. Don’t miss this intimate opportunity to witness some of the finest circus artists and performers in the world, who train and live right here in Oakland at Vulcan Studios. Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $12-$15 sliding scale (925 45th Ave., Oakland).

And speaking of storytelling, Hook Line & Sinker, a musicians’ storytelling series, hosts a “How Deep Is Your Love” show at Disco Volante on Monday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m., FREE admission (347 14th St., Oakland).

 

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.