On The Eve of Story Sessions’ 2nd Anniversary, Co-Founders Jill Howe and Rachael Smith Reflect on their Live Lit Journey with Abby Sheaffer

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Story Sessions, a unique Chicago reading series founded by Jill Howe and Rachael Smith. Story Sessions is known for its commitment to storytelling of all varieties and its cozy, friendly atmosphere. In honor of the second anniversary show, I took the opportunity to interview Jill and Rachael about their experiences with Story Sessions, how much the series has evolved, and their aspirations for the show in the future.

Tell our readers a little bit more about how Story Sessions began.

Jill: Every year I have a storytelling birthday party and in 2013 it got so big that Rachael’s condo couldn’t hold it anymore. Rachael stumbled onto a new bar, The Dog’s Bollox (yup, that was its illustrious name), across the street from her house. But instead of having a party there, we created a show. In fact, the very first show sold out and we were forced to turn people away due to fire code. The Chicago Tribune wrote an article, stating as a new show, we had “good problems”. Soon after, we expanded from the back room to the whole bar. And then moved to a more perfect performance space, City Winery.

How much has Story Sessions changed since its inception in 2013 at The Dogs Bollox?

Rachael: The heart of Story Sessions remains the same. We focus on themes and let our own artistic meanderings around the live lit landscape of Chicago influence our show. It’s always been a collaboration of friends and friendly people. The stories we love best are still the ones that people feel urgently compelled to share.

In your mind, what makes Story Sessions different from other reading series?

Jill: We encourage storytellers to use whatever methods they feel best express their true voice. Some people read off paper, some do not, musicians sing their stories every pre-show, and our resident-artist Betsy Frymire creates illustrations of each story. Our audience participates by adding their own stories on paper we leave on every table, then the hosts read their mini-stories out loud on stage throughout the show. We are very flexible with what works well in the moment. We also trust that our audience doesn’t want the same thing every time. We do night shows, brunch shows, campfires, library events, retreats. There is something for everyone.

If you could have anyone read at Story Sessions, who would you choose and why?

Rachael: We want anyone who has a story to tell with passion and sincerity. Ultimately, we trust in story serendipity. The right person always shows up in the right line-up. From actors to accountants, singers to chefs, we are overjoyed to share the widest variety of stories we can find. Since having crooner, Lynn Jordan, and restaurateur, Mindy Segal on our stage, we’re inspired to add more Chicago names to our lineup.

If Story Sessions was a novel, which novel would it be and why? 

Jill: Twilight. I think the connection is clear (Rachael is a vampire, which has made the day time shows a bit tricky).

What has been your most favorite installment of Story Sessions and why that particular episode?

Rachael: We really got back to basics with our campfire show last October. We swept the cabin, hauled wood, made a sign, set the table and then hosted the show. It’s amazing to have City Winery do all of this for us each month but it was fun getting our hands dirty, putting this show together. So many of our guests brought food and blankets and stayed late to hang out by the fire. It was truly a night of story family- that community feeling we love so much.

2014 saw a lot of exciting developments for Story Sessions, including a campfire retreat to the Little House of Glencoe and a brunch storytelling hour at City Winery, what do you think Story Sessions will do next?

Jill: We’re teaming up with Mortified Chicago producer Shay DeGrandis for a summer camp about an hour outside of the city. It’s a whole weekend of story fun, mixed with improv all in a beautiful farmhouse setting. It’s all just baby steps to creating the ultimate story commune. Our favorite co-producer activity is running on the lake and just shouting out whatever ideas come to mind. Rachael made a joke about having a puppet in the show and this month I made it a reality. I even take her jokes seriously. Why do something like this if it’s not about that lightening strike of inspiration? No matter what we do, trust that we’re always just as delighted as our audience. Our favorite moments are sneaking out from the green room and just taking it in, laughing at a hilarious story or holding tight as someone goes deep for a huge revelation. Tellers and listeners alike have told us that their story experience has made a difference in their lives. Any idea that makes more people feel like that, yeah, that’s what we do.

 Come to Story Sessions’ 2nd Anniversary Show tomorrow night at City Winery Chicago at 6:30pm.

–Abby Sheaffer