Oral Fixation Builds a Community of Storytellers

Oral Fixation builds a community by getting people to tell their personal stories. The series kicked off its fifth season last night at its new location, the Dallas City Performance Hall. The new performance space is a perfect fit, big enough for the large crowds these events draw, but still intimate enough for moving oral histories. The first performance featured seven storytellers over ninety minutes and it came off without a hitch.

The series typically doesn’t have casual fans. Once someone performs in Oral Fixation, they are definitely part of a close-knit community, staying in touch and attending all the performances. Hugs and photographs went on for quite some time after the show. Using several different performers for each event is also a great way to keep bringing new audiences of friends and families.

One of the first things you notice about Oral Fixation is how carefully curated these performances are. With an accomplished background in spoken word and poetry, Will Richey was the undisputed veteran of the show. He added a poetic sensibility to his performance and it was very appropriate for him to close the show. Mary Kreider started the evening off on the right foot with a mostly humorous public performance about her fear of public speaking.

The subject matter was often quite serious, but every storyteller used enough humor to balance it out so it never approach melodrama. Some of the most serious stories were also the funniest. Wayne Applebaum started off his story with incredible humor and enough confidence to pause and stare at the crowd to let jokes sink in. “How hard could it be to be a wicked stepfather?” he wondered, early in his story. As it turns out, very. He had a moving account of helping a child beat cancer.

The storytellers all had distinct voices and expressed themselves wonderfully. This wasn’t the world of NPR, where everyone talks exactly the same, in an emotionally detached voice that seems to denote confusion. The theme for this performance was “Push the Envelope,” which was used very loosely. But the trials and tribulations of being a parent was a theme in most of the stories.

Preparing to participate in one of these events may be as intense as the actual performances. Richey says he spent at least 40 hours preparing for his 10-minute performance. He is accustomed to performing in a variety of settings, but had never tried anything like this before. Oral Fixation is not an open mic at a coffee shop. Performers wrote huge drafts of their stories that were carefully edited. From there, they practiced and did a day of rehearsal in the space of a few weeks.

Justin Nygren co-founded ArtLoveMagic, an organization that supports artists with workshops and live events. He serves as somewhat of a spokesman, but had never encountered anything like this either. His story detailed times of great professional, financial, and family struggles. For most of the participants, rehearsal was the most challenging part of the process. Most of these stories describe incredible personal struggles, so emotions ran high when the storytellers rehearsed together. But Nygren was not nervous during his performance because the lights were in his face and he couldn’t see the crowd.

Director and Oral Fixation founder Nicole Stewart has an incredible understanding of how to flesh the emotional core out of a story. She also understands exactly how it should be presented. By the end of the night, it was very hard to believe that none of these storytellers had ever spoke in public like this before. After completing the first show for season 5, Oral Fixation will immediate focus on readying the storytellers for its next event on October 21, which will have a “In the Doghouse” theme.

The magic of Oral Fixation is the cathartic release on display from the storytellers. Getting up in front of an audience and talking about great personal struggle takes a lot of courage. None of these storytellers came across as nervous. Rather, their faces were red because they were charged with emotion. It was surprising that no one onstage broke down and cried. Some of us in the audience did.

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