The popular Milwaukee storytelling event series concludes its 8th season on May 18 at Turner Hall.
In the beginning, Megan McGee and her friends just wanted to put together a storytelling event series in Milwaukee. Stories were powerful, they said, feel-good entertainment. Their mission—which remains unchanged to this day—was to “strengthen community bonds through the art of storytelling.”
“Culture is often hidden just beneath the surface,” said McGee, one of the founding members and now Executive Director for Ex Fabula. “Personal stories reveal our values and our culture. Everyone has their own version of normal, and all of these hidden traditions come out in stories.”
As it turns out, their idealism now has the science to back it up.
“Now I can tell you one of the reasons stories are powerful is how they work in the brain,” McGee said. “There’s a lot of research about how stories are processed in the brain. The same parts of the brain are activated when hearing a story as if you were actually living it.”
A 2014 study promoted in the Harvard Business Review concerned itself with “hacking” the oxytocin system through storytelling—essentially, forging community bonds through the art of storytelling, as Ex Fabula aims to do.
“In order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative,” wrote Paul J. Zak in the HBR write-up. “If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.”
In other words: storytelling breeds empathy, a trait many would agree finds itself in short supply lately.
“Ex Fabula,” Latin for “from stories,” has flourished over the past eight seasons. Launched in 2009 by McGee and her friends Leah Delaney, Matt Sabljak, Amy Schleicher and Adam Weise, Ex Fabula has expanded from its origin as a monthly story slam series to include partnership events, workshops and theme events. The team aspires to host events in more Milwaukee neighborhoods and has already added a variety of venues to their roster since their first season.
“We’re always trying to think about the barrier to entry,” McGee said. “Sometimes if you hear there’s a story slam in a place you’ve been to before, you’re maybe more likely to show up. We now move around the city.”
And while much has changed over eight years, much also has stayed the same: Each event features five-minute stories from audience volunteers (selected whimsically from a hat) around a crowd-sourced theme, interspersed with “UltraShorts,” one-to-five-line stories composed on slips of paper by audience members and read between performances. An audience favorite is crowned—literally—at the end of the night, and at the end of the season, the winners reconvene for an All Star finale. Season 8 concludes Thursday, May 18 at Turner Hall. The theme: Unfinished Business.
McGee agrees that empathy is a valuable by-product of storytelling, allowing audience and “teller” to share a wavelength or feel less alone in a shared experience. “You can only connect communities person by person,” she said. “If someone’s telling a story and it reflects your own experience, you feel less alone.”
Personal stories from people whose lives are very different from our own can challenge the narratives we’ve constructed, McGee said, citing an immigrant story from one of Ex Fabula’s bilingual story slams.
“She started the story saying ‘I didn’t come here. They brought me,’” McGee said. “Her parents had decided they were going to move to the US. Hearing the teenager point of view and contrasting it with my experience growing up in Oshkosh made me think about immigration in a different way.”
The Last Sentence
Season 8 All Star Sandy Brusin, a retired high school English teacher, used storytelling with her students throughout her career to develop a community within the classroom. Despite her history with the medium, Brusin says she never expected to be crowned at December’s event, her first time attending—and storytelling—for Ex Fabula. The night’s theme, “Perfect Storm,” inspired her to add her name to the hat so she could tell the humorous tale of losing her luggage on a foul-weather-related travel snafu, culminating in the line “I learned a new intimacy with my husband b/c I had to live in his underwear for a week.”
“I was very anxious,” Brusin said. “But I kept thinking, ‘I know where I’m going with this story.’ I knew what the last sentence was going to be.”
Working toward a concluding sentence is just one piece of advice Brusin has for beginner storytellers. Another tip: Keep it concrete and visual, and know the difference between a situation and a story.
McGee agrees that there’s more to a good story than laying out the facts: “Sometimes people focus on what happened and chronology of events, and really the most impactful thing is the emotion,” she said. “If there’s a mistake that people tend to make, it’s forgetting to tell people what’s going on inside their head. That’s where we really connect with each other emotionally.”
Since being selected to perform at the All Star event, Sandy—along with fellow season 8 audience favorites Jennifer Hoepner, Barbara Leigh, Jody Hirsh, Tom Matthews, Heather Swanson, Joel Dresang and Peter May—has been working with a storytelling coach to hone her next story, which will be ten minutes instead of five. Brusin, who originally drew the audience’s favor with a humorous anecdote, has decided to take a different tack for “Unfinished Business,” telling the story of an Iranian child she fostered years ago.
“The story is built upon him: entering our home, leaving our home and how we reconnected.” Brusin said. “I’m having trouble sleeping thinking about how I’m going to do justice to my story. This is a serious story. For me it was better the first time because it was just on the fly.”
Despite her nerves, Brusin is excited for Thursday’s finale. “I’m really looking forward to hearing other people’s stories. It’s going to be thrilling. It’s the experience of a lifetime. I’m really thrilled to be able to participate in it,” she said.
As McGee reflects on Ex Fabula’s past and future, it’s clear that the program has been as fulfilling for her as it has for its many devoted fans and tellers. Subsequent seasons will feature more story slams, more venues and more collaborations. With no plans to expand beyond Milwaukee, her goal for expansion is to go deep, rather than broad—she is not shy about the lofty goal of someday getting every Milwaukee citizen on stage or into a workshop.
“Sometimes people will be inspired by a story they heard on stage to share a similar story with the person they came with,” McGee said. “We consider that all part of the mission of sharing stories.”