Cassie Sheets reviews Story Sessions

[Image credit: Sarah Cole Kammerer, photo of Mindy Segal]

If you crossed The Moth with 2nd Story you’d end up with something akin to Story Sessions. Some performers read from the page while other performers told rehearsed stories onstage. The mix of these two mediums at a live lit and music event, plus the interesting selection of readers from different and sometimes non-writing backgrounds, was refreshingly different. The production quality also set Story Sessions apart.

“Holy shit,” said my plus one as we walked into the performance area in the back of City Winery. “This is fancy.” And it was fancy. I was really glad I wore my one nice dress. When we’re not comped in, we don’t usually go to places with huge wine casks displayed behind glass on an elevated platform, and cloth napkins, and real candles on all the tables. In fact, after the past four years of living on boxed mac and cheese experiments, nice places make me feel kind of uncomfortable. But after the Story Sessions event we attended, the “Devour” themed show, I’m starting to think I could get used to the fancy life. To be completely honest, I was already half won over before the music even started.

The venue was awesome, the theme combined two of my favorite things—stories and food, and a co-producer of the event, Jill Howe, had already made her way over to our table to offer me any information I may need before or after the show, even though we were clearly the annoying party guests who show up half an hour early and look through the medicine cabinet while the hosts finish plating dinner.

The show started with an enthusiastically performed bluegrass set by two members, Andy Miller and Ben Benedict, of Dog 1. (The rest of the band was catching up on some sleep before a tour and will be at the Tri-State Bluegrass Festival this weekend.) They carried the set well even without their band mates, and I don’t think  I’ve ever seen someone rock a mandolin like Miller.

Two members of A Side of Bacon also appeared. The twin musicians opened their set by warning the audience, “Don’t even try to tell us apart. It’s really hard.” They sang some gorgeous harmonies of “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Sixteen Tons.” But most notably, they composed the saddest cover of “You are my Sunshine” I’ve ever heard (in a really good way), and covered a Maroon 5 song and actually made it sound good.

The stories kicked off after a an introduction by the hosts, Denise Santomauro and Greg Poljacik, who struck on some strange personas somewhere between Mona-Lisa and Jean-Ralphio of Parks and Recreation, and the way I imagine Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen would play a stand-up comedy couple on Portlandia.Throughout the night they read gross recipes submitted by audience members, one of which—the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos pizza sandwich—was actually truly genius.

Diana Slickman was first to take the stage. She’s an experienced performer with a background in live lit and theater, and that was clear. But the content of her story fell flat for me. It was a very literal interpretation of the theme “Devour”, and covered her relationship (as in, romantic relationship) with food. A torrid affair with chocolate, a thing with coffee (who was apparently gay and somehow managed to embody every gay male stereotype under the sun), a college fling with instant ramen (Asian-American, of course, since we’re going with the stereotype thing, and a woman, but it was “just a phase”). It all just kind of reminded me of that Dove commercial where the lady makes out with her chocolate ice cream bar.

Up next was a tandem reading by Art Jackson and Chelsea Kalberloh Jackson with a story about a bloody crime committed on the doorstep of their bakery, Pleasant House in Bridgeport. Chelsea works as a writer and editor in addition to being the pastry chef at Pleasant House, and she read some really gorgeous prose that grounded their story. But one of the pleasant (see what I did there) surprises of the evening was Art’s performance. He seemed nervous when he took the stage; I could swear I heard him whisper, “This is scary,” to Chelsea before he began. But once he got his first big laugh at the unintentionally funny story of some local kids using a historic windmill his grandfather had been preserving to start a bonfire, he really hit his stride. It was everything a tandem reading should be. Their support for each other and chemistry on stage was endearing and infectious.

James Sweeny followed with a satirical piece about his first foamy carrot (not liquid, not gel, not even a foamy soup) at a deconstructivist restaurant he dubbed, for the purpose of the story, “Douche.” This experience led to a faux-philosophical inquiry into the very meaning of deconstructivist cuisine, and ultimately, to a Hooters, under the big Hooters owl eyes, “like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg,” with his family at the Woodfield mall on the weekend before Christmas. Barring one disparaging comment about Hooters waitresses (c’mon James, we all gotta make a buck), the story was absurdly funny.

Dani Bryant’s story about working as completely unqualified “fake personal chef” and simultaneously dealing with serious issues of shame surrounding eating and the body was told with perfect levity. The story had a happy ending, and during her triumphant finish, embracing her round hips, her rosy cheeks, and whispering seductively into the ear of an imaginary date, wooden spoon in hand, “I used to be a personal chef, you know,” I could almost feel the whole audience holding themselves back from jumping up on stage and celebrating with her.

Martha Bayne read a solidly written story set to appear in Graze about the non-verbal bar code she picked up as a bartender, and the moral conflict of remaining uninvolved when a beloved patron is drinking himself to death. Live lit events are always rough crowds for completely serious stories, and it doesn’t help when your subject matter is alcoholism and you’re reading to a tipsy crowd, but Bayne pulled it off.

The final performer was Mindy Segal, pastry chef and owner of the highly successful restaurant Mindy’s Hot Chocolate. She performed without any text to reference, and it worked in her favor. She told a story about her mid-life breakdown and subsequent epiphany via horse therapy with complete openness, humor, and honesty, briefly tearing up at the end of the performance.

It was one of the few times at a live lit event I’ve felt sad the show was over. But there’s always next month. For a few hours of live music and storytelling at a little over the price of a movie ticket, Story Sessions is a pretty good deal.

The production quality is high (microphones that actually work! events that start on time!) and the performances are solid. I’d recommend checking out their site, listening to their podcast, and finding an event with a theme that interests you to attend. It’s another month until the next show, but it’s worth the wait.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars