“What do you do?” was the question of the night.
At AS220’s 95 Empire Black Box theater, participants from the community dropped slips of paper with their names into a jar before being selected at random to tell their true stories — related to the theme — for this month’s edition of the storytelling event Live Bait. Conceived in July 2008, the idea of Live Bait now facilitates a variety of interpretations and can vary from serious to humorous storytellings.
Phil Goldman, founder of Live Bait, opened with an initially simple answer to the question: He is a teacher on the East Side of Providence.
Students enjoy testing the limits of what illicit activities they can mention in his class before he must report to the administration, he said. A student once stood at the front of his class — on a day when a prospective student was observing — and shared a story about a recent party.
The boy described a sexual escapade with his girlfriend at a party that resulted in a mess of bodily fluids, which the party’s host ultimately blamed on the family dog. The dog was subsequently put down.
“I bet they don’t tell stories like that at Hebrew day school,” Goldman recalled joking to the prospective student.
And so Goldman opened a recent Live Bait event, held Friday, March 1. He emceed alongside Jerry Gregoire, his friend and a guitarist who plays as a warm-up act — a “palate cleanser,” he said — and who writes a song to coincide with each event’s theme.
Gregoire said he was experiencing writer’s block for songwriting when Goldman approached him about Live Bait. He feared he would not recover from this block, so he saw the monthly event as an opportunity to improve his songwriting, he said.
There is a storytelling quality to the songs, which incorporate narrative and metaphor, Gregoire added.
“Some songs I pull out of my ass,” he said, adding that it is important to love what you write because it will remain in your repertoire for years to come.
This month, the event’s theme — “What do you do?” — was derived from a comment made by Live Bait regular Kevin Broccoli, who once wondered what these storytellers do in their daily lives to tell such outrageous stories, Goldman said.
“It’s one of those questions that’s usually innocuous,” Gregoire said.
Real life stories
“I don’t know about you guys, but Walmart has been the summit of good and bad decisions for me,” one storyteller opened at the March 1 show. A different participant recounted her close encounter with rabies when the family cat left a headless bat in her bed, while another man described a near-death experience with an inmate while working as a prison guard.
Alex, a storyteller and coordinator of a fathers’ support group in Providence, mentioned a particular instance when a father with psychological issues and a history of alcohol abuse revealed after many sessions that he was actually the victim rather than the perpetrator of domestic violence. Alex asked rhetorically what to do now that this group is facing budget cuts, tying the story back into the night’s theme.
Live Bait aims to connect people and give them a platform to tell their true life stories, Goldman said.
“You recognize yourself and your actions in others,” he said. Scripts, notes and embellishments on stories are not permitted, resulting in an “unmediated” experience.
“People get very comfortable there,” he said. “It becomes a ritual.”
Live and local
For Wednesday night’s special edition of the event, held at the Roots Cultural Center, Live Bait partnered with Beautiful Day, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees resettle by working at the Providence Granola Project, according to its website. The Granola Project is a new business venture that produces and sells homemade granola in Rhode Island and employs refugees, teaching them valuable job skills and helping them improve their English, said Keith Cooper, founder of Beautiful Day. The theme of Wednesday’s Live Bait was “Stories of Immigration, Refuge and Hope,” and the event opened with Goldman’s own tale of his Russian grandparents’ transition to life in the United States.
“Live Bait is a great way for people to connect with each other, especially for immigrants,” Cooper said. He noted that both Live Bait and the Granola Project “are R.I.-based companies bringing the community together,” and he sold the company’s granola at the event.
The Beautiful Day partnership represents the second time that Live Bait has joined forces with a larger community movement. During the height of the Occupy Providence movement, Live Bait held a special “Occupy the Stage” event at the Roots Cultural Center, Goldman said, adding that these events have a positive impact on community integration and on the causes being showcased.
Reflections and revelations
Storytellers from Beautiful Day reflected on the impact of being born to immigrant parents has had on their lives. One storyteller said the experience forces some immigrant children to have “two split personalities.”
Older community members as well as Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students filed into the Center to share broad perspectives on the definition of identity in America.
One RISD student spoke about his childhood experience of being left behind in a park on a camp field trip.
“We were playing hide and seek,” he said. “And I found a really good hiding spot. Like really good,” he added, building suspense. “So good they couldn’t find me and left.”
After drawing laughs from the crowd, the student changed the tone of the story, saying he imagines his emotion of complete helplessness might equate to an immigrant’s initial feelings upon arriving in America.
“I felt like nothing I had learned in my life so far had prepared me for that moment,” the student said to the audience. “I didn’t know where to turn.”
Kah Yangni ’13 recounted tales of her parents’ immigration from West Africa, describing how miraculous and stable she thinks her family is for having come from such small means.
Janet Isserlis, a staff member for Beautiful Day and program director at the Swearer Center for Public Service, closed out Wednesday’s show. She spoke of her time as a health educator, which she said consequently brought her closer to many refugees.
Isserlis ended her story with what she described as “rules for happiness,” which she attributed to philosopher Immanuel Kant: “All you need is something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.”
“What do you do?” was the question of the night.