Sit down with friends, open a bottle of wine, and inevitably, the stories start, right? Hilarious or tragic, they’re always intimate. This was the impetus for 2nd Story, Chicago’s personal narrative storytelling series that exists to bring people together through story.Drawing equally from the literary, theatrical, and musical traditions, 2nd Story features three monthly events, a critically acclaimed Festival, multiple special guest performances around the country, and an in-house story development process that supports more than 100 diverse storytellers. Here, 2nd Story’s Artistic Director Amanda Delheimer and Literary Director Megan Stielstra discuss collaboration, the prioritization of audience, and how friends telling stories over a bottle of wine turned into a business.
How did 2nd Story begin?
Amanda Delheimer: 2nd Story’s founder, Adam Belcuore, was working at Webster's Wine Bar and asked if he could put together a series of performances with his (then fledgling) theater company on the second floor of the bar. Originally, they decided to do more of a cabaret series featuring short pieces and solo shows. As a kickoff event for that series, he organized a party that featured a number of storytellers and musicians. The event worked so well in the space (and the more traditional "theater" worked so poorly up there) that it became readily apparent that we should be designing the programming around the venue rather than trying to recreate theatre in a bar. Thus, 2nd Story was born. Adam hired me to direct the first year, and I fell in love with the form and process and have been working on the project ever since.
Megan Stielstra: Adam saw a reading I gave at the Subterranean and invited me to perform at this “little thing I produce over at a wine bar.” Wine, you know, is an excellent incentive. Later, he asked me to come in and help with the writing, and that's when he introduced me to Amanda. She works as a theatre director, and our challenge became creating—and then facilitating—an ensemble-based, collaborative art-making process blending writing, performance, and music. We'd sit around having those Dream Big conversations—you know the ones, over a bottle of wine (or two) where you’re all, “We’ll totally buy a warehouse, and on the first floor we’ll have a theatre, and on the second floor there’ll be a circus, and we’ll all live on the top floor and grow our own corn and make art, and it’ll be AWESOME!” We talked like that, except we actually had the motivation and opportunity to pull off the crazy dreams of what 2nd Story could be: “ ... And we’ll, like, do shows every month! And get DJs and live musicians and tons of different actors! and writers! And people who have no experience with either and we'll train them! And we’ll travel to more wine bars! And vineyards! A national tour! A print anthology! And we’ll do conferences and get grants and teach outreach programs … ” and what’s wild is, we’re accomplishing those goals.
Amanda: And it’s not just Megan and I doing this alone. 2nd Story is comprised of an incredibly dedicated group of people who really believe in the power of story and the beauty of what we do. We're surrounded by this amazing community of artists and producers and collaborators, each with their own vision and talent, and it's imperative that we execute a large part of this as a community. There are a lot of arms to this beast—production, community building, story development, training, education, outreach—and we’re incredibly blessed to be working with such kickass people.
Megan: At our best, everyone brings their expertise to the table, and the result is a final product that connects with a greater audience, and a process that all these different individuals find challenging and rewarding. As with any collaboration, we’ve got to get to know each other, learn each other’s language. For example, Amanda was recently talking about the difference between telling a story in the storyteller’s present voice (whatever age they are now) or, if the story they’re telling happened years ago, would they change their vocal inflection to that younger self? In writing, that issue of narrative distance is a very necessary question when you’re dealing with point of view—and it’s essentially the same thing that Amanda was talking about from a performative perspective. We just have different names for it. So, when I’m working with actors, I’ve got to think of how to explain things in their language, and likewise for Amanda in dealing with writers. I’m making this sound so black and white—there are many people we work with who move fluidly between both worlds, and certainly it’s an aim of ours that all our storytellers will feel this way.
Amanda: We were founded as a theater company, and therefore operate very much under that business model and with the associated mores. Steeped in the traditions of the Chicago theater scene, we are definitely true to those roots—we’re guided by an ensemble mentality, driven by a DIY storefront sensibility—but I think we’ve succeeded as a business because of our dedication to honoring the disparate skills of the folks with whom we’re collaborating, instead of trying to strong-arm them to our way of thinking/doing things. When Megan and I first started working together, we ended up doing a lot of translation for each other—she didn’t really speak theater (she does now, though! Megan: What’s a “post mortem”? What does it mean to “be in tech”?)—and I for sure didn’t speak writing, so we spent a good deal of time just figuring out how to talk to each other about what we do. I think a great deal of our success is based in that sensibility—the idea that communication is at the heart of the process. We treat everything that way, from how we relate to our audience to how we set up our board meetings. It’s not just a theater company we’re running; 2nd Story has become the hub of an entire community, that elusive sense of home that we’re all seeking.
Megan: I think the collaborative work we do is what makes the process attractive to writers. It’s such a solitary art form, generally. You’re alone with your bourbon or coffee, sitting at the computer or typewriter or journal or whatever, getting the words on the page. With 2nd Story, there’s the solo part, but integrated into the process is all this collaboration—first, you workshop the piece with a wide variety of collaborators (actors, directors, and musicians), and second there’s this totally different level of collaboration, a new and diverse audience at the actual performance. We have the awesome opportunity to be able to tailor shows to specific audiences, depending on the venue (a wine bar, a rock club, a classroom, a theatre, a vineyard, etc.), and to then see how a story lands in different ways to different people. How does the work connect? How is it getting across?
Amanda: We believe that stories have the power to educate, inspire, and connect, and we exist to host the ritual and celebration of shared stories. At the heart of our mission is this idea that folks walking into a 2nd Story event should feel like they’re walking into our living room—we’re hosting, they’re comfortable, it’s casual—but a tremendous amount of craft goes into the sculpting of an event. In fact, we’ve really spent the last seven or so years figuring out all the nuances of how we do what we do—from the formation of the stories to the architecture of the evening. Everything is done with a purpose. The intent is to get people talking, to bring the room together. We joke about it, but we really honestly believe that stories create connections between people when nothing else can, and we strive to create that kind of theater magic every time we host an event.
Megan: How we craft the stories is part of that hosting process, as well. The first thing we convey to our storytellers (be they writers, actors, computer technicians, teachers, whoever we’re working with) is that this stuff is being written in order to be told very directly to an audience. The intimacy, the direct address, the connection to your best friend but also a complete and total stranger—that’s what we’re going for. It’s found first and foremost on the page, but then we spend a lot of time reading those stories aloud and asking ourselves if that’s how we’d really tell them: voice, word choice, structure. The next step is performance direction: Amanda has a team of guest directors from all over the city—Goodman, Neofuturists, Strawdog, ATC, Theatre Seven, About Face, etc.—to work with our storytellers. It’s a pretty organic, collaborative process: the writers help the actors get it on the page and the actors help the writers get it off the page. What we’re finding is the integration of the writing and the performance is influencing the process of developing these stories just as much the final product.
Amanda: Because our stories are nearly all true, or slightly fictionalized truth—we like to use the word "real"—it's a very human and vulnerable experience, both for the storyteller and (more importantly) for the audience. One of the things that we stress over and over and over in the process is "Why should I care? Why should our audience care? Why is this story important to anyone besides the teller?" We feel that many times, especially when it comes to personal narrative (though this can be a trap in art-making in general), the artist chooses to tell a story that's important to them, but they sometimes forget to address why it might be important to the folks who are listening. For us, the audience is the Most Important Thing. The audience is why we do what we do.
For more information about 2nd Story, including podcasts, videos, biographies and guidelines, visit the website.
Written in Spring 2010.
Amanda Delheimer is a director, choreographer, writer, and educator, as well as Artistic Director of 2nd Story. Since completing her MA in Theater and Spanish at the University of Chicago in 1999, she has worked with such companies as the Steppenwolf, the Court, the Next, Pegasus Players, Red Moon, Collaboraction, Roadworks, Strawdog, Teatro Vista, Rorschach Theatre in Washington DC, and Adventure Stage Chicago, among others. In addition to the work that she does with 2nd Story, Amanda teaches around the city with the Young Playwright's Festival and the ARTS program at Pegasus Players, and also works as a teaching artist for The Goodman and Adventure Stage Chicago.
Megan Stielstra is a writer, performer, and Literary Director for 2nd Story. She’s told stories for The Goodman, The Steppenwolf, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chicago Cultural Center, The Chicago Poetry Center, Story Week Festival of Writers, Wordstock Literary Festival, The Neo-Futurarium, Strawdog, and Chicago Public Radio, among others, and is a Literary Death Match Champ. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Other Voices, Fresh Yarn, Pindeldyboz, Swink, Perigee, Annalemma, Venus, and Punk Planet, and have been performed by Chicago’s Theatre Seven and Bohemian Archeology in NYC. Currently, she teaches in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago and is a lecturer at The University of Chicago.