Stories In The Space – building a creative community

Stories_in_the_Space-2Last night some of the members of my writers group attended a night of storytelling, featuring several writers from tv and film in an event modelled after THE MOTH. The night was hosted by Joan Schekel whose filmmaking labs have been largely responsible for some of the most memorable independent films of the past decade.

Co-hosted by Emmy and Golden Globe winning writer Cindy Chupack (Sex and the City,Modern Family), the evening was billed as “Stories In The Space”.  The “space” is a large art studio in Hollywood that Schekel’s Filmmaking Labs recently moved into. It played more like a housewarming party, intimate and inviting with everyone and anyone welcome. The moment you walked down the unique tunnel entrance and rounded the corner into the large room, you could feel the creative energy of a space filled with writers, artists, actors, directors, producers and creative folks of all types. It was as if we had walked into one of those parties you see in a Woody Allen film where everyone is smart and interesting.

The evening kicked off with Joan Schekel introducing herself and welcoming everyone to a place she has “long dreamed of” where a community of artists can explore and express themselves, where people can gather and connect to one another. I had not even heard of Schekel until a few months ago when I attended a WGA event called “Action! Make Your Scipt A Film” and writer/director Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight) mentioned her and how life changing Joan’s Filmmaking Labs were. As I recall one of the other panellists echoed her statement so I wrote down the name and decided that might need to go on my list of things to investigate.  Everything I’d been able to find out about Schekel was kind of vague and mysterious. I even asked people who had been through her labs and they weren’t able to quite articulate why the labs were so amazing but they were. I believed. When Schekel took the microphone and addressed her standing room only crowd of hundreds of people she was vulnerable and authentic. This was her dream she kept saying. I felt honored to be part of it. There was a warmth and love that filled the room because this was clearly a community of people she had built. As vague and mysterious as it may sound, it was amazing.

The night’s storytelling began with writer and former stand-up comedian Lew Schneider (2 Emmys for Everybody Love Raymond and  a Peabody for Men of a Certain Age). His was the perfect story to get things going – a funny and heartfelt telling of a father raising a son with the hopes that he can help him become the kind of kid and man he wished he had been. In the end, his son turned out to be much like himself, a lover of comedy rather than sports and, when he revealed that his now adult son was in the audience and a good sport, you could see both father and son beaming with pride for each other.

Carlos Kotkin (ten-time Moth StorySLAM winner and author of the comedic memoir of romantic misadventures “Please God Let It Be Herpes”)  followed with a hilarious tale of a blind date his mother set him up on – a literally blind date as the woman he went out with could not see. It was a masterfully told story in that it had loads of laughter offset with poignant truths that exposed the misconceptions we have about people with disabilities. This woman was smart and funny and beautiful. I really liked her and as the story drew to a close I was hoping the end would come with him introducing her to the crowd like Schneider had done with his son but apparently she wasn’t attracted to Carlos and went on to find a husband not long after. My heart leapt for her. Two stories into the evening and I was hooked.

Caroline Aaron, an accomplished actress in film, tv and stage (Working Girl, Bullets Over Broadway, Desperate Housewives) came up and began a story about her teacher, mentor and friend Frederick “Wilke” Wilkerson. She began by retelling the story of how they first met when he introduced himself after one of her performances and criticized her for not taking a curtain call, “how dare you express yourself for two hours and deny me the right to express myself”. He was larger than life, smart, brave and confident. Turns out he was one of those folks fame never found but was hugely influential to people like Roberta Flack and Maya Angelou. “Wilke” as he was referred to by most everyone, ended up meeting a tragic end to his life and the way in which Aaron described their relationship, “my creative father”, and their estrangement and ultimate reconciliation on the very night he would die, was heartbreaking. If I had not been in a room with 300 other people I would have sobbed.

Tim Bagley, a sought after character actor (Monk, Will and Grace, This Is 40),  appeared next and opened his heart and soul to us all while telling his personal story of coming to terms with being a gay man in the early 80s. Bagley attended group therapy at a Christian organization that would “pray the gay away” and turn homosexuals into hetrosexuals. It was comical but sad. One line stood out for me when Bagley compared this approach to “curing gays” to decades before when teachers had tried to cure kids of being left handed. He recalled hearing about that as a kid and it never occurring to him that “that was insane”. After the leaders of the therapy group, two “reformed gay men” who had gone on to marry and have children, fell in love with each other and left the group so did Tim. He went on to seek help from a sexual surrogate, a woman who worked mostly with impotent heterosexual men. When speaking about his eight months of seeing this woman, it was beautiful. The genuine gratitude he felt for having known her was moving and his final realization that he was in fact a gay man was hilarious, celebratory and deeply emotional.

Annie Korzen, an accomplished actress, author and storyteller (Seinfeld, Moth Mainstage and Old Jews Telling Jokes) told the story of her husband reconnecting with the family who saved him from the Nazis. Framed around the cliche’ of the nagging Jewish wife, she might have been the most engaging performer up to that point. The way she told the story of receiving a message on her answering machine years prior from someone who clearly got the wrong number and how guilty she still feels for never having called them back was laugh out loud funny. But she took it to another level when she tied that her guilt to her motivation for nagging her husband into reaching out to the family who saved his life. She took us to intermission with full hearts and laughter.

Laura Krafft, a writer/performer (The Colbert Report, The Onion News Network, The Wanda Sykes Show) came up after intermission trying to lower expectations, “How do you follow that?”. Her set up began with her telling us that she was in New York City working as a writer on a tv show and there was a two week hiatus that coincided with her birthday, a birthday whose number she was adamant we not know except to say that “it was the first birthday where I decided to lie about my age”. She decided that a perfect gift to give herself would be to take a solo trip to Italy – not taking into account the already lonely life she already led as a writer, spending most of her time in a room by herself then going home to be by herself. I cannot do justice to the story of her trip but it was fucking hilarious. I use the expletive intentionally because Krafft used it throughout and it was awesome and funny. She was easily the best performer of the night and her story left the room in stitches. Fucking brilliant!

Bill Brochtrup, an actor (NYPD Blue, Shameless) was next. He told a story of subletting an apartment in New York City with a mice problem that so amusing. His earnest delivery of humanely trapping these creatures and letting them free in a community park because the trap insisted that once caught the mouse be let out “where mice are wanted” only to later find that after being the “Oscar Schindler of mice” there were rodent traps in the very park he let them loose was somehow hilarious, poignant, sad and life affirming.

Brian Finkelstein, an Emmy nominated writer (The Ellen DeGeneres Show) and host of the L.A. Moth StorySLAMS, came on stage and told a story that had me wishing I were alone so I could cry uncontrollably. Don’t get me wrong, it was peppered with humor throughout but ultimately it was about his own suicide attempt and the circumstances of how he survived by vomiting on the very gun he stuck into his mouth to kill himself. Years later he volunteered at a suicide help line and ended up being the last person to speak to an NYU student who took her own life. His story was a beautiful love letter to life itself and to the woman he spoke to for “less than twenty minutes”. He told us her name and my heart broke because I felt it was such a tribute to her that he spoke so candidly about his own attempt to end his life and the conversation he had with this young woman who never got the chance, as he did, to see that life has these “beautiful moments”. 

Cindy Chupack, the night’s co-host and curator of the storytellers, was up. She told the story of meeting her second husband and how their wedding was preceded by her having to reconnect with her first husband in order to go through the formality of a Jewish ceremony called a “Get”, essentially an archaic, misogynistic Jewish divorce proceeding where the husband lets go of his wife. “Every woman has a gay ex story”, she said as she described her relationship with her ex-husband and how he had moved on to find love and build a family with another man. It was lovely to see the evening’s co-host come to the realization that she had two remarkably moving love stories to share – the one with her husband and the one with her ex – and how in the end the happiness she found with her current husband would not have been possible without the experience that came before.

Monica Piper, a stand-up comic and Emmy winning writer (Roseanne, Mad About You), closed the show with a familiar story of a mother of a teenage son who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her response to the doctor when finally told he had stage 1 breast cancer which meant it was caught very early was very small, “small enough that I don’t have to run those awful 10k’s?” was the one of the funniest lines of the night.

And so it ended. The storytellers stood on stage together as the audience gave them a well deserved standing ovation. Joan Schekel shook hands and met new people like those of us in my tribe that came. She smiled and asked for business cards and offered to help. She exuded positivity and gratitude. We left with full hearts and creative lights turned on in our brains.

Personally, I have worked very hard to build a community, a tribe of creatives who support and love one another, and being in this room of folks who appreciate the same things I do was nothing short of inspiring and affirming that it is community that will take you where you want to go and it is community that will be there when you falter. Great stories were told last night and great people were there to hear them.

If you are in Los Angeles, I suggest you join Joan Schekel’s Filmmaking Labs facebook page and get on her email list. And no matter where you are in the world, make a point to say yes to these type events because you just never know when you’ll hear a story that will change your life.

Dane Reade is an admitted knucklehead, writer, actor, storyteller and managing editor of The Tiny Protagonist. You can connect with him on twitter @TheUrbanHobo 

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