From page to stage: Live lit brings written stories to life



Caiti Pina, senior creative writing major, captures the audience with her story of family dynamics and relationships.

By Arts & Culture Reporter

Huddled in a small space known as The Teal Room in the back of Pub 626 in Rogers Park, audience members listened intently as Caiti Pina, a senior creative writing major, shared her experiences of breaking out of her familial mold—one characterized by perfect hair and “pretentious” boarding schools, at an event entitled “Again and Again and Again: Stories of Ritual and Surrender,” put on by the 2nd Story.

2nd Story is a live storytelling collective fusing “page, stage and sound to deliver a unique, live, literary and theatrical experience” held throughout Chicago at various locations, developed in part by creative writing alumna Megan Stielstra.

Live storytelling exists as a venue for writers of all ages, years of experience and walks of life to deliver what are often stories exposing their vulnerability to a live reactive audience.

“Imagine telling stories at camp,” Pina said. “It’s right before bedtime and you’re playing ‘Never Have I Ever,’ but in a more formal setting where you are able to reflect and create this picture for people to see about something  you have experienced yourself.”

CP Chang, director of marketing and a curator at 2nd Story, said a focus of the collective’s events is a “diversity that represents Chicago.”

“We’re trying to tell stories across the human experience,” Chang said. “We look for people that embrace everything it means to be human. We try to have veteran storytellers, but we also want brand new people—people who don’t have to be writers or actors, but just people

with stories.”

Through live storytelling, writers can share personal stories regarding issues like declining health and coming to terms with their sexuality while breaking down creative barriers in a venue that liberates them from the typical isolation of writing by presenting to a live audience.

For Pina, sharing experience beyond the solitary nature of writing on a page adds an extra layer of vulnerability to the narrative—especially when someone involved in the story is in the audience. 

“My sister showed up, and I was nervous to share in front of her. She had never heard my writing before,” Pina said.

Pina added that embracing vulnerability through storytelling can be frightening but necessary for growth and maturity in

her writing.

“I put a lot more of myself in my work,” Pina said. “A big part of fiction writing is putting yourself in your work, but detaching yourself [by exaggeration].”

Pina also said she feels a stronger connection to her work after sharing it through live storytelling, having heard the story aloud and told in her own voice.

Christopher Audain, who shared his story of growing up and struggling to come to a place of self-acceptance in the Bible belt—while weaving snippets of gospel songs into his narrative—inspired listeners to consider what makes their stories unique.

Audain said he told his story primarily because live literature gave him a platform to share a personal experience that was so important and unique to himself.

“I believe in the power of storytelling to show how we are all connected. [While writing] my work, I have in my mind it is going to be shared,” Audain said.

The atmosphere of the 2nd Story is conducive to a feeling of belonging and gratification, Pina said.

“With 2nd Story, you expect to have an experience,” Pina said. “You expect to feel something. I felt really welcomed…. The audience [is] so into it.”

Audain’s stories sometimes change in subject matter when told live, he said, adding that stories must develop faster when time is a factor.

“If I’m writing something I’m intending for someone just to read, I can explain more and elaborate,” Audain said. “If I’m speaking it, I want it to have a certain rhythm and be conversational.”

Deb Lewis, an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Department and a veteran 2nd Story member, said the main benefit of live storytelling is the immediate response from the audience, which allows writers to see what moments affect the audience, and exactly how the audience reacts.

“You can feel where the piece is really taking hold,” Lewis said. “In some cases, the response is laughing, hooting or clapping. Other times it’s sort of like a rapt attention where people aren’t whispering, talking or maybe they don’t even touch their drink.”

Those immediate, knee-jerk responses contrast the live storytelling experience with the traditional practice of writing in solitude for an audience one never meets, Pina said. Instead of wondering what effect one’s work will have on a reader, live storytellers can glance into the audience and see what their anecdotes evoke.

“You see people react so genuinely and authentically in an intimate space,” Pina said. “When you’re writing, it’s not a face-to-face interaction. They have time to reflect on it and then come back and say something. [With live reading], it’s immediate.”

Live storytelling has given Audain the chance to use the platform to talk about experiences unique to him in a voice only he can use, he said.

“I try to make sure I focus on an issue that is important to me,” Audain said. “I want to come from a place that creates empathy … through my life and experiences. In the live setting, it’s very personal. It enhances the goal of storytelling connecting us and stripping us down to our basic human condition.”

Lewis has been live storytelling for years, but she said she got her start at less professional events like student open mics and readings during her time as a Columbia student.

“There were a lot of Writers At Lunch [an event for creative writing students at Columbia that occurs presently around once a month]. They’d have the two-page open mics, and I was a grad student, so there would be more curated events where I would be picked by somebody—a faculty member, perhaps—and would be chosen to read a longer piece,” Lewis said. 

According to Pina, her first step toward confidence in her work and live storytelling was finding a group that could act as a

support system.

“People have said to me, ‘Just do it,’ but it takes a lot of emotional and mental energy to even upload something and email it,” Pina said. “I would say find a support group, and have them hype you up. Have them support your work because they care. That’s what helped me submit.”

Audain said his motivation came from a desire to focus on global and personal issues that need to be more widely discussed.

“Everyone needs to get out of their comfort zone and talk about things we haven’t always talked about in a way we haven’t talked about them so we can understand each other better,” Audain said.

According to Chang, a key component of cultivating diversity is introducing new, never-before-told stories into the mix.

“Everybody has their own voice, and you should never imitate someone else,” Chang said. “Tell the story that makes you unique in the world, because everyone has some perspective that is pretty unique.”

Echoing Chang’s focus on the individuality of human voices, Bobby Biedrzycki, an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Department and a veteran 2nd Story member, suggested students use various storytelling venues around Chicago to find their niche.

Biedrzycki added there is a wide variety of genre-related programs in the city, including The Paper Machete, which is a live news magazine and Write Club, an expository program in which writers battle it out on a certain topic, allowing the audience to choose a winner.

Similar to Write Club, an event called Windy City Story Slam, which ran from 2008–2013, saw massive success and was one of the city’s original storytelling venues, according to founder and alumnus Bill Hillman.

Unlike 2nd Story’s welcoming and friendly atmosphere, Windy City Story Slam offered a competitive experience. Audience participation in the form of jeers and cheers determined each

slam’s winner.

“You have to drive it home in five minutes,” Hillman said. “It’s a good exercise for a writer and for [their] story.”

He added that the set up and atmosphere was entirely different from 2nd Story, but the immediate—and often extreme—audience reactions gave the same sort of feedback. 

“The audience was empowered to say ‘Oh, I don’t like this. I can say it sucks.’ If my story sucks, I want to know it. It was kind of merciful if you were bombing,” Hillman  said.

From veteran storytellers like Lewis and Hillman, to writers like Audain and Pina, who before their time on the stage never shared in front of a live audience, the draw is the same—an environment where writers can hear the effects sharing their lives and experiences through storytelling has on others.

Even after sharing her stories numerous times, Lewis said the experience continues to be  intoxicating.

“Once you start doing readings, it’s something that can be pretty seductive,” Lewis said. “Even getting published is not as intense a draw as the audience approval or response.”

Whether it be to cheers, boos or the rapt attention, there is a certainty that the writer knows exactly what is working in their pieces, and that gratification is something every writer craves.