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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ex Fabula: Building a Storied Tradition

Bringing Milwaukee together through storytelling

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Whether it's humorous, touching, instructive or entertaining, everybody has a story to tell. And communities have always come together around shared storytelling. Over time, strangers may become neighbors because of these common narratives. With that idea in mind, Ex Fabula, a Milwaukee group that's all about stories, set out to strengthen our community, one story at a time.

Leah Delaney, Megan McGee and Amy Schleicher realized when they met that they had a common interest in sharing stories. As fans of radio shows produced elsewhere like "This American Life" and "The Moth Radio Hour," they felt Milwaukee was missing an important venue for bringing people and story together. They founded Ex Fabula, Latin for "from stories," and discovered a very receptive audience in Milwaukee for the sharing of true, personal stories. Two other founding members, Adam Weise and Matt Sabljak, have since moved on to other projects.

"Ex Fabula is about real people, sharing real experiences in this old human way," Schleicher says.

Ex Fabula's first event was in November 2009 at the Art Bar. In the very beginning they realized that not a lot of Milwaukeeans knew much about storytelling slams, so at those early events they had to predetermine most of the tellers. They recruited friends and family to participate, but always left a slot or two open for any audience members ready to put their name in the hat. As the group grew in popularity, more audience slots were added. For the 2010-2011 season there has been enough community interest that all participants are from the audience.

A typical Ex Fabula event will have a total of nine audience volunteer storytellers that are drawn at random. Tellers should come prepared with a true story that pertains to the night's theme, and which can be told in five minutes for solos, 10 minutes for duos. Stories are told in three acts, with a 10-minute intermission between each act.

This gives people time to chat in between stories or write their own brief "ultra-short" story on the theme of the month. Ultra-shorts allow for participation without the risk of getting up and sharing. The Ex Fabula crew reads a sampling of the ultra-shorts that are submitted.

"If you are shy or don't have the nerve to get behind the microphone, you can write down your story and we'll read it for you—sign your name or not," Delaney says.

After all of the stories have been shared, the audience votes for the story they liked best. The audience favorite from each event is invited back to perform at an All-Star event at the end of each season.

This season's All-Star event will be held 8 p.m. June 2 at Turner Hall Ballroom. Each presenter is allowed an extra five minutes (10 for solos, 15 for duos) for new stories on the theme "Secrets and Lies." There will be a total of five solo tellers and one two-person duo.

In addition to the All-Star storytellers, Ex Fabula will use the venue to introduce their latest initiative. "Terminal Milwaukee" is a storytelling series that focuses on Milwaukee's diverse neighborhoods. WMSE's Tom Crawford, an Ex Fabula audience favorite, will be the continuing thread throughout this series. Crawford has lived his whole life in Milwaukee and has connections to many different communities. He will share his stories of a selected neighborhood, others from the neighborhood will tell their stories, and Milwaukee historian John Gurda will offer a brief vignette of the neighborhood's history.

"Terminal Milwaukee" events will take place all across the city, including at Club Garibaldi in Bay View and a barber shop on the North Side, and end in April 2012 as part of the "Alverno Presents" series at the Pitman Theatre.

In addition to the "Terminal Milwaukee" events, Ex Fabula will continue to offer its successful storytelling slams. Both are about inspiring Milwaukee to be a stronger, more personal community through true stories and real people.

McGee sums it up well: "When I walk away from an event, my faith in humanity is restored and I feel renewed. It really reminds me what is important in life."

To order tickets for the All-Star event, or to learn more about Ex Fabula and "Terminal Milwaukee," go to
www.exfabula.com.

Susan Harpt Grimes is a freelance writer living and working in the Milwaukee area. She finds living with a husband, two children, and two cats can yield many interesting stories.

Photo by Kat Berger