As Full Circle Storytelling has evolved and taken shape over these last few months, Jess and I have spent considerable time thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve the series. We’ve kicked around concepts and formats, but the model that keeps drawing us back, the idea that’s inspired us from the beginning, is an oldie but goodie: the potluck.
For years now, Jess and I have been enthusiastic singers of shape note music, also known as Sacred Harp. There’s loads written about it, much of it fascinating, but suffice to say that it’s a two-century old American tradition of a cappella harmony singing. You get together, sit in a square, take turns leading songs out of a tune book, break for some nosh and conversation, regroup for some more singing, and then go home. That’s it. It’s social music, not performance music. The point is to gather people around a shared creative activity in which each person has an equal chance to fully participate.
That break for snacks and socializing is as integral to the experience of Sacred Harp as the singing itself. At larger singings, it’s called “dinner on the grounds,” a phrase that recalls church suppers in the Deep South. It’s always a potluck, which means that folks don’t coordinate their dishes ahead of time. I’ve been to singings where everyone has brought cookies and nothing else, and I’ve been to singings where the potluck features everything from soup to nuts, literally. At the Chattahoochee Sacred Harp Convention in Carrollton, Georgia a few years ago, I counted no fewer than six different fried okra dishes.
Potluck meal at the Maidencreek Sacred Harp Singing, 2007.
While many singers take justifiable pride in their potluck offerings (if you haven’t tried my friend Ruth’s mac-and-cheese, I actually feel sorry for you), it’s not a cook-off. Each person brings what she or he has to offer. Everything is placed on the common table, where there is no hierarchy of dishes nor pride of place, where the store-bought donuts rest easily next to the homemade sweet potato pie. As with the singing itself, all are invited and there is no charge.
As you might imagine, dinner on the grounds is about much more than food. It’s an opportunity to meet new singers and greet old friends, especially those that came from a distance. People use the time to catch up on gossip, try each other’s food, share travel stories, and flirt. They sit quietly in pairs, or in groups of four and five, or in loud clusters from which you’ll hear the occasional gale of laughter. The conversation does not follow any prescribed format; it is as easy or as awkward, as delightful or as noisome, as the people who engage in it. Again, each person brings what she or he has to offer.
Snack break at a Baltimore weekly shape note singing in 2009.
For me, the Sacred Harp potluck represents human beings at their best: making art together, breaking bread with each other, and building and maintaining social relationships. I think that’s a perfect template for a storytelling series.
When I started Full Circle Storytelling in 2011, I envisioned a space where people from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives would feel comfortable sharing and listening to stories without the pressure to “perform” for an audience. While I love storytelling as a performance art, and while it’s tons of fun to select a handful of featured storytellers who can delight and move a group of listeners, I’m much more drawn to the potluck model, in which each person brings what she or he has to offer and there is no hierarchy nor pride of place.
Thus, Full Circle will become Potluck Storytelling. The idea is simple: someone volunteers to host a storytelling evening, and Jess and I will work with them to craft the theme and guest list. Each guest brings a dish and a three-to-five minute story to share. We all grab some food, chat for a while, and then gather to tell our stories. That’s it. It’s storytelling-on-the-grounds: social, not performance.
On September 25, I will be partnering with Kafi D’Ambrosi of Studio Kafi Photography for “Stone Soup,” an evening of potluck dining and story-sharing about the creative process for a small group of Baltimore artists. There’s been such interest in this format that I’m already in talks with folks who are eager to host the next few storytelling potlucks. If you’re interested in hosting your own “Stone Soup”-style storytelling event, by all means get in touch.
I’m excited to see where this will lead. I’m eager to find out what different people bring to the storytelling table, whether it’s a smorgasbord of exotic delights or plate after plate of cookies. And if any of this sounds appealing to you, then what I look forward to most is breaking bread with you and hearing your story.