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Milwaukee's Fabulous Storytellers

Apr. 19, 2016
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When someone tells a story, the listener’s brain activity synchs up with the teller’s. For a moment the two are literally on the same wavelength. This strange phenomenon is palpable at an Ex Fabula StorySlam.

Founded in 2009, the storytelling series Ex Fabula has grown from earnest experiment to thriving community hub. Its programming consists of slams, workshops, outreach events and even a weekly segment on WUWM. It has partnered with nonprofits like the United Way and been sponsored by local businesses like Transfer Pizzeria Café. The staff now includes Executive Director Megan McGee, Community Connector Ramone Sanders and about 60 active volunteers. Ex Fabula’s growth is driven by the core belief that stories can strengthen communities. “I sometimes jokingly say our mission is to make strangers hug each other,” McGee says. “If you can create a place for people that don’t know each other to feel some sort of connection—that feels pretty magical.”

Ex Fabula has evolved in the midst of a national storytelling renaissance. Popular series The Moth began in 1997, later becoming a podcast and inspiring countless slams across the country. Radio shows like “StoryCorps” and “Snap Judgment” bring ordinary lives to the airwaves. Why, with all the entertainment options out there, is there such demand for warts-and-all testimony from unscripted amateurs? Maybe because the communal catharsis of storytelling is a direct hit to the isolation of 21st-century life. Today’s America is bitterly divided, and personal stories have a knack for uniting people regardless of background or beliefs. By creating a space for that to happen, Ex Fabula is using an ancient pastime to soothe a modern ache.

Isabel Castro was the first to perform at last month’s Ex Fabula’s Bilingual StorySlam, at Hot Water Wherehouse. Although nervous at first, “I felt comfortable telling my story and knowing others were going to tell theirs,” says the Escuela Verde student. “Because once you tell your story, there’s others that relate to that.”

It is the act of relating that makes storytelling unique. At a slam, the line between performer and audience blurs, the need for Instagram-worthy perfection falls away and vulnerability is rewarded with applause. This dynamic connects people whose paths might never have crossed otherwise. Organizers say it’s common for strangers to approach storytellers after slams to empathize with what they shared onstage. “That’s totally organic, we can’t manufacture that,” McGee says. “We can just create the conditions for them to connect and then let it play out.”

Creating those conditions is no small feat in America’s most segregated metro area. Rather than stick to one venue, Ex Fabula uses spaces all over Milwaukee so as to expose more neighborhoods to the series, and series regulars to more neighborhoods. Organizers engage communities through workshops and the Ex Fabula fellowship, in which a select group meets regularly to discuss challenging topics like racial inequality. Due to these initiatives, there is no prototypical Ex Fabula attendee. Surveys show that events draw participants from every zip code in the region. “The diversity of people that I see come in to the venue is reflected in the diversity of stories that are shared,” says volunteer Joel Dresang.

These efforts may seem idealistic, especially during a poisonous election season when headlines paint the nation as irretrievably split. But Ex Fabula’s participants would argue that such is the power of storytelling. “I think it has the ability to cut through some of the crap,” Dresang says. “It’s not filtered through a particular organization or spokesperson or a political party.” Community Connector Sanders thinks of personal stories as a kind of antidote to mass communication, which often aims to polarize and wound. “It’s different from someone spewing rhetoric at you. It’s more ‘Get to know me. Get to know what I’m going through,’” he says. “It’s really hard to discredit someone’s life experience.”

People want to get on each other’s wavelengths. It’s a simple idea, but in a fractured society it’s also a radical one. With Ex Fabula’s seventh season wrapping up in May, McGee plans to carry the idea even further. “Eventually, Ex Fabula will look like the city of Milwaukee,” she says. “Everyone in Milwaukee will tell a story.” 

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