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Irish storytellers join motley queue for a big Slam

You'd never know it to look at them, but those waiting in line are the stars of the show, writes Sophie Donaldson


Photo: PA

Photo: PA

Photo: PA

On a Tuesday evening in February, a line of people snaked along Leeson Street towards Dublin's Sugar Club. The previous Tuesday there was also a queue outside the venue. In fact, there has been an orderly queue once a month for some time now.

If you were to guess what big name was performing there based on the type of person waiting for admission, you'd be at a loss. This is a motley queue, ranging from students to senior citizens, groups of excitable friends, slightly anxious singletons and chatting duos. Each month, the eagerly anticipated performance is not from a musician or band - it's delivered by the very people in the queue.

The Dublin Story Slam is an offshoot of The Moth story slam, long established in New York. The monthly event invites people to tell a personal five-minute-long story without notes, based on that month's theme. A few places can be secured in advance, while the rest are administered on the night, so performers who volunteer last minute will be mostly improvising.

The judges score each performance and the winner advances to the Grand Slam, held in the Abbey Theatre.

But the Story Slam isn't so much about winning. It's a small victory for anyone who manages to stand on a stage in front of strangers and tell an entertaining story without notes. Public speaking is a deep-rooted fear for many of us, and yet since its inception tickets for the Dublin Story Slam have sold out for all but one event, prompting organisers to hold two Slams for the first time last month. They, too, quickly sold out and tickets for this month's Slam were snapped up in record time last week.

"People come to our event to share real, true personal experiences. Sometimes they are in the form of an amazing, unforgettable rehearsed story, but a lot of the time it is down to the fact that they are sharing something that happened in their life," says Julien Clancy, who co-produces the Slam with host Colm O'Regan.

"You'll have temporary Dubliners who've only been living in the city a month who'll come down on their own, or you could have old seasoned fellas coming in who love the idea. We have people up from all corners of the country specifically to come to the event. I think while the medium is storytelling, it's much more intimate, which is what attracts people. It's about having a real, meaningful connection."

As technology becomes ever more ingrained in our lives, the fear grows that we are losing the ability to communicate without a screen in front us. Older generations bemoan the lost art of conversation as younger people seem increasingly dependent on digital technology to forge relationships.

The popularity of the Story Slam, as well as other storytelling-focused events that have cropped up throughout the city, would indicate otherwise.

"The key to the success of the Dublin Story Slam has been the audience. Wherever you get that audience, be it in the Abbey or the Sugar Club, you always feel welcome on stage and a real support," says Julien.

Although the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face interaction will never be matched by digital communication, podcasts are the next best thing. Their popularity suggests that we still crave the human connection that comes from the simple act of listening to another person's story, whether they are speaking in front of us or through a pair of headphones. As custodians of so many vividly personal stories, the Story Slam organisers always felt that a podcast would be the perfect place for these stories to be shared again, this time with a virtual audience.

"We record all stories, but when we are curating the podcast it's not necessarily the ones that scored the highest. They might all come from different nights and we choose stories that sometimes work really well across the medium of audio. They might have had a low score on the night, or been the first story on the night, and they are the ones we love to share. It's the ones that work best for someone who hasn't been to the show."

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While a live audience is integral to the success of the Story Slam, the podcast allows for a different type of connection. You may not have the emotional charge that comes from an auditorium of strangers bonding. Instead, you have a different sort of wonder that arises from the power of the internet.

This Frankenstein of our own making has been a platform for terrible things, but in its purest form it has allowed us to forge relationships that otherwise would have been impossible. Sometimes, all it takes is a good story to remind us how powerful human connection is.

"Recently, we got an email from a guy in Florida letting us know he runs a storytelling workshop for elderly retirees. Every Friday, they sit down and listen to our stories, then talk about them afterwards," added Julien.

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