Sit Awhile: The Porch Brings Storytelling To The Spiegeltent
By Robert Burke Warren
A single spotlight, a bare stage, a microphone, and a true story. With that simple formula, Red Hook resident Joey Shavelle has created The Porch, a standing-room-only storytelling series coming to Bard’s Spiegeltent in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, on Friday, June 24 at 8 p.m.
Like the hugely successful radio series The Moth, participants in The Porch share a tale with an audience, without the aid of notes or props. Stories are limited to ten minutes, and must be true. Unlike a slam, there is no “winner,” and Shavelle, a web designer by trade, curates the material. Rhinebeck psychologist John Nathan hosts.
“I was at a dinner party in Rhinebeck,” Shavelle says. “Some friends and I were talking about how much we loved The Moth, and how it’s amazing that everyone has at least one amazing story, and how someone should do a local version of it. And all these people looked at me.”
The Porch started small, in June 2015, as a fundraiser for the historic Morton Memorial Library and Community House in Rhinecliff, where Shavelle and his family regularly attend. As he does at every Porch event, Shavelle strung the room with white lights, set up chairs, and offered wine, M & M’s, and chocolate-covered pretzels. Suggested donation was $10. Notice went out via word-of-mouth and social media, and sign-ups included writers, musicians, academics, teachers, social workers, and assorted local characters. A whisky bottle was on hand, in case of nerves.
“It was packed,” Shavelle says, still surprised. “About 75 people in this little common room. Participants gave me a synopsis, but that’s all the info I had.” Shavelle’s wife suggested he get the ball rolling, so he told how his WW II vet father smashed his BB gun. A respected art curator explained how, at age 15, she stole her mom’s car. A son related the hilarious tale of coming to his 71-year-old father’s aid in an online dispute that ended very dramatically (and satisfyingly). The audience laughed, cheered, and, a couple times, wept.
The community clamored for more. Shavelle realized he’d tapped into something special, a deep need to share human experience in real time, without the trappings (or expense) of professional theater, or the distance imposed by a screen. Clearly, folks desired a communal intimacy unavailable through the hyper-connectivity of social media, smartphones, and the internet.
The series moved to a restored barn in Red Hook, and became a fundraiser for the Red Hook Education Foundation. Shavelle built a small stage, and bought a spotlight. While he’s intent on keeping The Porch austere, Shavelle, a film school grad, also values a few subtle showbiz touches.
“I get into the stagecraft a bit,” he says. “I pay attention to the lighting. I bathe the rear wall in blue. These details make it look pro, focusing the audience, making it more satisfying for them. It feels like an event.”
Initially, Shavelle, the father of two, was a little concerned that parents would think The Porch was “storytime for kids.” It is not. “It’s uncensored, 18 and over,” he says. “I don’t want participants to be telling their story and see a kid in the audience and get thrown.”
Once again, the community turned out en masse. The Porch officially became “a happening.” After another night at the Morton, Bard’s Fisher Center came calling.
“There’s a powerful, primal quality to simple storytelling that we don’t often acknowledge,” Shavelle says of The Porch’s success. He notes the growing popularity of “The Moth,” “Serial,” “Selected Shorts,” “This American Life,” and podcasts, all of which offer audiences — live and/or listening via radio or computer — the opportunity to use “theater of the mind.” And while he likes the idea of a Porch Podcast, Shavelle’s priority is the live, local experience, the vibe in the room as people sit on the edge of their seats and connect, together, as humans have for millennia: in the darkness, focusing on a yarn woven by a peer haloed in light.
The Porch: Where Great Stories Are Told
Friday, June 24 at 8 p.m.