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Storytellers Bare All for The Narrators

Denver comedian Jamae Burris performs.

Josh Blue is one of many local comedians who have shared stories at The Narrators.

Ron Doyle is co-host of The Narrators.

Buntport Theater's Erin Rollman is co-host.

Theresa Mercado tells a story in Dec. 2016.

Joe Phillips tells a story in Dec. 2016.

Live storytelling is all the rage, and The Narrators show has been on the cutting edge of the trend for more than five years. If you're ready to see what all of the fuss is about, grab a free seat at Buntport Theater on Jan. 18.  
When Sarita Field invited a romantic interest over to make tamales, the first date seemed totally benign. But it ended up being the worst Tinder date -- ever!

"He seemed smart, tall, handsome, and normal," Field recalls. While the tamales cooked, though, Field's date excused himself to the restroom, and the night quickly deteriorated. "He had come over with these Christmas socks that had jingle bells," she continues. "When he came out of my bathroom, he was wearing nothing but the socks."

"I remember as it was happening thinking the situation would make a great story someday," she adds. And it did.

Last August, Field -- an admissions officer at a local university with a penchant for performing -- stood up in front of a crowd at Buntport Theater, and spilled her awkward Tinder date tale for The Narrators, a live monthly storytelling show formed in Denver in 2010 by standup comedian Andrew Orvedahl

On the third Wednesday of every month, seven storytellers convene before an audience of strangers to share 10-minute-long vignettes centered on a theme.

"What we try to do is pick words or phrases that can be interpreted from many directions," explains The Narrators co-host Erin Rollman. It's up to the night's storytellers to interpret the theme.

Ron Doyle is co-host of The Narrators."Adhering to the theme is the least important thing," adds Ron Doyle, the show's other co-host, and the man who produces a weekly podcast employing excerpts from the live show.

"We don't edit," Doyle continues. "We give them a theme. But what really connects the show is that all of the stories are true, from real people."

Topics for 2017 range from Red-Handed (Feb. 15) and Jinx (April 19) to Space (Sept. 20). The night Field took center stage the subject was Naked. "Even if somebody can't understand the feeling of having your date go to the bathroom and walk out naked, they can understand being on a bad date," Field says, adding, "Yes, you're human, and other people are experiencing the same human emotions."

"The simplicity has always been what's attracted me," Rollman interjects. "It's very raw, very bare. . . . We don't know in advance what storytellers will talk about, and we've had people say in that forum stuff they've never said out loud before."

The humanity factor

We humans have been sharing our stories since the first paintings were etched into cave walls. Today, 27,000 years later, storytelling is still an essential mode of communication. In fact, personal stories and gossip make up 65 percent of our conversations, according to Jeremy Hsu, writing for Scientific American.

And listening to a good narrative isn't just fun, it can actually synchronize the brains of the storyteller and listener, says Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist based at Princeton University.

Buntport Theater's Erin Rollman is co-host.Storytelling comes naturally for Rollman, a founding member of Buntport Theater who has been yarning with The Narrators since its began at Paris on the Platte in summer 2011.

Doyle doesn't share Rollman's sentiments. He came on board in 2012, initially to produce The Narrators podcast; by then, the ensemble had moved its show to Deer Pile, the community performance space above City O' City.  

"The stories are all hard for me," Doyle admits. "I'm an anxiety-ridden freak," he says. As co-hosts, either Doyle or Rollman hit the stage each month.

One performance stands out for Doyle: "I told the story about my brother-in-law dying -- four days after it had happened," he says. "I didn't know I was going to talk about it until I was on the spot, and I bolted right after the show."  

Local writer Laura Bond -- also a Confluence Denver contributor -- has performed with The Narrators a half-dozen times. "It is terrifying and exhilarating," she says, caland calls the show "a rite of passage" for many Colorado creatives looking to participate in the local literary and comedy scenes.

A comedian started The Narrators, and local jokesters are still central to the series. "Comedians are definitely in the DNA of the show," says Doyle.

"Many people who share stories are involved in comedy scene, so it can be hilarious," Bond says. "But even the comedians' stories have a narrative arc, and there's almost always something poignant and personal -- and that's what makes it real."

"The fact that not all participants are performers is important," adds Rollman. "You get people who are really nervous, and that ups the humanity factor."

Storytelling as group therapy

Orvedahl retired from day-to-day activities with The Narrators in 2015, which was around the time Robert Rutherford and his partner, Mary Robertson -- both former co-hosts for The Narrators in Denver -- brought the show to San Diego. That same year, The Narrators moved its live production to Buntport Theater, all part of Rollman's diabolical master plan to "manipulate the schedule and go to every show," she says.    

"The show has grown dramatically over the last six years," says Doyle. In addition to its live monthly gigs in Denver and San Diego, The Narrators publishes a weekly podcast and has collaborated on special projects with organizations such as the Denver Art Museum, High Plains Comedy Festival, Flobots, Stories on Stage and Warm Cookies of the Revolution.

The hour-and-a-half-long production is so popular that viewers -- up to 160 per show -- will cram together on the theater house floor once the room's 120 seats are taken. Performers also compete for space, and are booked out six months in advance.

Among a growing audience, repeat storytellers like Bond might recognize a few friendly faces, but can't help noticing all of the new listeners, too. "You never know what the crowd will be like," says Bond. "This is one of the few places in Denver where our diversity is on display. It's a testament to so many things, including Denver itself, and how it attracts new people who are interested in engaging with the creative community."

Denver comedian Jamae Burris performs.Rollman and Doyle actively seek a diverse group of storytellers. "We want to encourage empathy among different types of people," says Rollman. (Would-be storytellers can snag a spot on stage by expressing interest on The Narrators' Facebook page, or by approaching one of the hosts after a live show.)

Storytelling is a bit of a buzzword right now, and that's for good reason. "I think it's healing," Rollman says. "Most evenings, I come home from The Narrators and just feel good."

The show is "a weird form of group therapy" that leaves storytellers and audience members "buzzing and alive and connected," says Doyle. "That's a big reason we are committed to keeping the show free."

The Narrators is live at Buntport Theater (717 Lipan St.) at 8 p.m. every third Wednesday of the month; the San Diego show takes place at Tiger!Tiger! Tavern (3025 El Cajon Blvd.) on second Tuesdays. If you can't wait for the next performance, check out The Narrators podcast archive for stories from past shows.

Photos courtesy From the Hip Photo.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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