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Massmouth’s Andrea Lovett on truth in storytelling

Paula Junn


Andrea Lovett


Lovett is a professional storyteller and founder of Massmouth, a nonprofit storytelling organization that will conclude its 2011-12 story slam season Wednesday with the Big Mouth Off at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Fifteen Massachusetts-based storytellers will perform from 7 to 9 p.m., and ticket proceeds will benefit the StoriesLive High School Scholarship Story Slam. Information: www.massmouth

Q. What exactly are story slams?


A. Story slams are the presentation of storytelling. We say that a successful story has a good beginning, an arc, and a satisfying solution. After the presentation, the stories are judged based on how well people connect to the audience, if there’s a theme, their stage presence, and how strong the arc is. The arc is really a point of change; it’s not always the plot or the problem. It doesn’t have to be something huge. A lot of the time, it’s the little stories that have the most meaning.

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Q. How important is eye contact in a storytelling performance?

A. It’s what makes it personal. You feel like that person is talking to you, and no one else is there. Oftentimes I’ll see people shaking their head, as in saying, “Yes, I know,” while the storyteller is performing. It’s also really important because it allows the performer to read the audience and see what’s working and if people are responding.

Q. How is storytelling different than reading something off of a page? There doesn’t seem to be any kind of safety net.

A. The story is your safety net because you’ve lived it and you know what that experience was like. The words are not memorized, though. There are some professional storytellers that will rehearse a story before their performance, but there are others, generally those new to storytelling, that go up there with no real framework. Oftentimes, someone who hasn’t rehearsed it will have more energy, because they’re not up there thinking, “Oh, what’s the next line?” It’s more natural.


Q. So these stories are supposed to be true, correct?

A. We expect stories to be a little bit embellished, but our rule is 99 percent true. Sometimes you might use a metaphor or a simile that’s stretching the truth, like “The doughnuts were the size of dinner plates,” but people don’t take that literally. There’s sort of an unspoken agreement with the audience that things might be slightly exaggerated, but the last thing you want is to find out you’re

being lied to.

Q. Has that ever happened during a Massmouth event?

A. Once, yeah. And he had actually won the competition. We had no idea his story was a lie until he told a reporter it wasn’t true. The whole point of storytelling is that you’re buying into what that person is telling you, and you’re living that experience with them. If it turns out to be a lie, you can’t help but feel cheated.


Q. And since we’re on the subject of lying, how do you feel about the Mike Daisey incident?

‘We expect stories to be a little bit embellished, but our rule is 99 percent true. . . . There’s sort of an unspoken agreement with the audience that things might be slightly exaggerated.’

A. Mike Daisey is a fabulous storyteller. The story [of labor conditions for Chinese tech-factory workers, which he told in his show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,”] was important and valid. Unfortunately it got lost in this, which is unfortunate because I think it takes away from what was-slash-is true, and now the story is “Did he lie?” instead of calling attention to this problem that’s happening.

Q. So is it OK to be dishonest for the greater good?

A. I think that his point was to call attention to a particular situation. If one of our storytellers is using fictional characters to get across a bigger message, we give the audience a disclaimer.

Q. Tell me a little bit about
StoriesLive and the scholarship foundation.

A. The money we make at the performances goes to this foundation for high school students who learn about the significance of storytelling, and then they perform their own stories for each other, and the winners receive scholarship money.

Q. High school can be sort of an awkward age. How difficult is it to get kids to share their stories in front of their peers?

A. This is by far the most community-building activity I’ve ever seen in my life. We interview the students after they’ve performed and after they’ve watched others perform, and so many of them say, “She’s more like me than I thought,” and they’re able to find these commonalities in their lives. Stories are empowering, so when it comes to their own story, even if they’re shy or awkward, they want to share them because it’s who they are.


Interview has been edited and condensed. Erica Thompson can be reached at erica.thompson