When the members of Ex Fabula, the Milwaukee storytelling collective, introduce themselves, they start at a natural place for any narrator: the beginning. Megan McGee, the collective’s executive director, explains that her interest in theater led her to explore what she calls “the unspoken rules of being human.” Event producer Alea McHatten first started sharing stories in a diary and later through poetry. Marketing and communications associate Nicole Acosta recalls how every family gathering centered around sharing tales. And Michaela Lacy, Ex Fabula’s Public Allies fellow, puts it this way: “I don’t think there’s much you can do without telling stories. Stories mold and shape who we are.”
The origin story of Ex Fabula itself begins with McGee, who helped found the group with four others in 2009. Named for the Latin term for “from stories,” the collective created Milwaukee’s first “StorySlam” series. “It started as a grassroots effort,” says McGee, 42. “Storytelling is a great art form because literally everyone has stories. But we were also all white folks with college degrees. We were in a bubble.”
That’s why when McGee stepped up to executive director in 2014, she did so with a question in mind: Who is not being heard and why? McGee’s first step was enrolling in the YWCA’s Unlearning Racism program. Several new events, all focused on inclusivity, followed, including the Puente Project, a bilingual story slam, and the Equal Access Project, which allowed people with disabilities to tell stories from the stage. McGee also began to expand the organization. “We haven’t grown quickly, or hugely,” says McGee, “but that’s because the work we do is messy and intentional and it’s heavily shaped by everyone involved.”
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For McHatten, who joined Ex Fabula in 2019, that ethos was important. “Often times, there are folks who are told to shut up and sit down, and Ex Fabula takes that head on,” says McHatten. “To be radically inclusive means to confront the issues for what they are and not sugarcoat it.”
One way Ex Fabula exemplifies that work is through Brave Space, a workshop for Black and brown storytellers, an idea that Acosta pitched when she was hired. “It is a way to remove the white gaze,” says Acosta, who also hosts Ex Fabula Radio with Lacy. “And what I’ve witnessed is Black and brown people being their authentic selves.”
Over the years, Ex Fabula has held upwards of 600 events and featured more than 1,500 stories. McGee estimates that more than 38,000 people have attended the events. And they have no plans to slow down, continuing to push for people to listen and learn. “Our work isn’t done until every person in Milwaukee feels heard,” says McGee.
What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee?
Michaela Lacy: Check yourself and hold yourself accountable.
Nicole Acosta: Allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Alea McHatten: Do not be afraid to be wrong. There’s going to be a time when you get it wrong, and that’s OK. It’s OK to unlearn something, it’s OK to relearn. But learn it.
Megan McGee: We need to make sure that every individual is thriving and able to use their talents. Every individual needs to feel safe and be treated with dignity.