How to Tell a Story
Jonathan Ames is a writer, boxer, storyteller and, most recently, the creator of the HBO series, "Bored to Death." His books include "The Extra Man" and "Wake Up Sir" and the collection of essays, "The Double Life is Twice as Good." Ames is a frequent performer at the storytelling group, The Moth and has appeared in boxing tournaments as "The Herring Wonder." A graduate of Princeton and Columbia Universities, he lives in Brooklyn.
Question: Do you have a strategy for storytelling?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t know about strategy. I know that whenever I get on stage, normally I don’t memorize the stories I tell, but I do, do an outline, or the headlines. It’s kind of, how I believe, Spaulding also worked. And I would know the headlines, the stories from my life, and then I could improv my way along as I checked them off in my mind. But I don’t know if it’s turning everyday moments, but just being honest about one’s neuroses. People would really identify, or just being honest about one’s insecurities. I think a lot of people are afraid to speak in public. I’m lacking that particular gene or something. I have other fears; I don’t have that particular fear. And I also, at some point in time, whenever I would get on stage, or before I get on stage, I would try to take a breath and just remember, I want to entertain these people. I want to give them something, and I would try to open myself up, literally, physically and otherwise. And let me just show these people a good time. Because then it was about that and not about me doing well, or you know, ego, or something. I mean obviously ego is always involved, you can’t quite get away from it, It’s like trying to get away from a shadow.
But if my impulse was to give and to entertain, I think that always helped the performance.
Question: How did you become involved with storytelling?
Jonathan Ames: I got started as a performer in the fall of 1990. I was at an artist’s colony in News Hampshire called the McDowell Colony and I was struggling, as I mentioned earlier to write my second novel. And I would be in this cabin all day long, not writing, sitting in front of this enormous fire that I would make for myself, sweating and just wearing my underwear, and then I would have dinner at night with the other artists and I found that when I talked at the dinner table, people were laughing. I had also found this when I sometimes attended support groups, that when I talked people laughed, even if I was talking about the most painful things going on with me. So, a lot of people at the artist’s colony would give readings at night, or have open studios with their paintings. And I decided to have what I called an Old Fashioned Night of Storytelling at this beautiful old library that was at the colony.
I had built a big fire and I sat in the care and everyone at the artist’s colony gathered around about 30 people and I gold like three stories from my life. Someone at the colony was impressed by this and told someone else about it and then that person then had me perform and at another artist colony I went to months later. Then that person then had me come to a café and perform in New York in I think 1991. And I hadn’t yet moved to New York.
And then in 1992, someone who had seen me at that café, it was called Skep Café, I believe somewhere near Thompson Street in like Soho, she now was the booker for the Fez Performance Space that had just opened up in the Fall of ’92, where Jeff Buckley would go on to perform quite a lot. The Charles Mingus Band. And this woman had seen me a year before and I hadn’t performed in whole year. And she said, “I’m putting shows together, would you want to come and tell some stories. So I told a story in part of a group show, I believe, in the fall of ’92 at the Fez, and then starting in ’93 began to put on my own shows there several times a year until 2005, until it closed. At one time, I think – I know it sound name dropping, but Jeff Buckley and I were the two people who had performed the most at the Fez in a certain time period. I also was working the door there to bring in extra money.
But I would put on these shows and I would have friends do music and odd acts and then I would always end the show by doing 30 or 40 minutes of monologues. From that, that led to me having a one-man show at PS 122 called Edipussy [ph]. Because of all the shows I did at the Fez, when the Moth, a storytelling group started up, they asked me to be a part of it. So basically, in New York, my performing career kind of began in the fall in ’92, and then really in earnest in January of ’93 when I put together, I believe, my first show of my own at the Fez. I had been doing monologues and getting on stage and sometimes acting pretty steadily from ’93 till now, 2009, sixteen years.
Recorded on: November 4, 2009
In his long career as a storyteller, Jonathan Ames has learned a thing or two about how to entertain. A few quick tips: don’t memorize your lines, and always be honest about your own neuroses.
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