There’s a sense of community and connection at the heart of every Grown-Up Storytime event, a relationship between participants that makes the live storytelling events a magical experience, explains producer Blair Ault. Both the audience and the reader share a temporary immersion into someone else’s story, she adds, “the audience knows that that’s not actually that person’s story." While the coronavirus pandemic has put a pause on Houston’s live art scene for the most part, Grown-Up Storytime, which has been a staple in the Bayou City since 2007, has found a way to maintain a sense of community in the arts from a virtual platform.
Grown-Up Storytime, or GUST for short, bears similarities to programs like The Moth—different individuals take the stage to share a story. GUST, however, sets itself apart from many storytelling initiatives through its distinctively theatrical flavor. “We were a bunch of theater kids, and we wanted to do something that wasn’t just a ‘tell your own story’ type of event,” recalls producer Emily Hynds, who has been with the series since the beginning when it was part of the late theater collective BooTown.”We wanted to incorporate this theatrical element where you wrote a story, got some feedback on it, and then someone else performs it on stage.”
These storytelling gatherings, held the third Tuesday of every month, are carefully curated; writers are able to hone their skills and polish their stories in GUST workshops, and the tone of selected stories are carefully matched to different performers, who also develop their skills in GUST workshops, ensuring that these storytelling evenings are of the highest quality possible—in terms of both the performances as well as the relationships they help create.
Now that coronavirus has isolated Houstonians through quarantine, a sense of community is more needed than ever, but it must be obtained in a new way. When rethinking the event’s live structure, Ault, Hynds, and fellow producer Bree Bridger arrived at a format where a live host leads viewers through an evening of prerecorded storytelling videos. Even though performances are no longer live, a sense of live theater is preserved through a watch-party format where viewers can come together in the comments section as the virtual GUST evening unfolds.
The success of the virtual series, which kicked off with its first event on April 21, has surpassed the producers’ modest expectations. “I was very dubious about it when we were planning the April show,” Hynds admits. “I was like ‘no one’s going to come, people aren’t going to talk to us.' But they did, and it was fun.” For the past three events, about 60 viewers have come to the live watch party, but many have also enjoyed watching videos of these events after the live premiere. Each video currently has over 200 views. The virtual format has also widened the typical GUST viewer community. “We are getting new audiences,” fellow producer Bree Bridger says. “Some people who used to live in Houston and who used to go to Grown-Up Storytime all the time are able to tune in from places like California.”
In some ways, this new format affords GUST a greater level of intimacy. “We actually got some feedback from people saying that they really like the at-home story time because they feel like they get a personal look at the readers ‘cause we are all in our houses,” says Ault. GUST has also been making moves towards antiracism, uplifting the voices of underrepresented populations. Last month, the GUST team brought in guest producer Keisha Breaker to curate an evening of stories written and performed exclusively by members of the Black community. Moving forward, the team plans to include a guest producer from a minority community every other month to ensure that the diverse voices of the Houston population are properly represented onstage.
Even though 2020 has been difficult for many, the year has also promoted reflection, and GUST has provided an outlet for this contemplation through its storytelling. “It has really been kind of a lifeline to have Grown-Up Storytime,” says Hynds. “Being with people in order to experience something together feels really good right now, even if you’re doing it on the computer.”
GUST’s next virtual show is slated for July 21. Tune into the show on GUST’s Facebook page.