Story Jam

Story Jam


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Stephanie Rogers created “Story Jam” and made it a celebration of all of us

By Teme Ring

Story Jam is a celebration at a time when we need celebrations. Truth be told, when don’t we need a celebration? But now seems like an especially good time.

When I spoke with Stephanie Rogers earlier this month, I’d read about “Story Jam.” I knew that Stephanie had created something unique, even in a city with storytelling showcases every night of the week.

I knew that she had created an event that is always eclectic and diverse, often hilarious, sometimes sad but always life-affirming, and that you should go expecting the unexpected. Story Jam is also the only storytelling event where there's a  complete band on stage and each story gets its own entirely original song. Every Story Jam is one of a kind and will never be repeated. But the shows also have something in common. Every show becomes a pop-up community where the goal is to leave connected with new insights into other lives. You may even depart singing and dancing. It has happened many times before.

When I spoke with Stephanie in early August, Story Jam sounded like something we badly need in this world. Two weeks later, that's truer than ever. 

The next Story Jam is at City Winery on Sunday, September 10 and, as always, will feature a line-up of Chicago’s top storytelling talent.

Stephanie kindly took time out from fielding stories and writing music to tell me how she went from rocker to storyteller, what makes Story Jam unique, why she says “yes” to some stories but not to others, and to offer a tantalizing glimpse into what you’ll hear if you’re fortunate enough to be at the next Jam.


Teme: How did your music and storytelling career begin?

Stephanie: I went to Northwestern for theater and then moved to Los Angeles to be a big movie star. I felt like a fish out of water. I ended up coming back and changing direction. I had always been in bands at Northwestern and I became more and more interested in songwriting and singing.

I had been a little bit of a rocker, in late night dingy bars, with wild outfits and big, teased-up hair. It's funny to think about it now. For my "day job," I was singing at weddings. I eventually started my own event band orchestra. I did that for about ten years. 

Then I started attending storytelling shows in Chicago. I thought that the one thing these shows were missing was a musical connection. I saw one show with music interspersed throughout the evening but it was unrelated to the stories. So I thought it would be creative and original to have a band on stage the whole time. Let the storytellers tell their stories, but then write songs to reflect each story. That idea combined everything I love to do-music, bandleader, songwriting, storytelling, producing, singing.

Teme: I love that you had a vision of something no one had done and then you created it.

Stephanie: Thanks! I just love doing it. It's pure passion that drives me. I try to get the best storytellers in Chicago.

One of the tenets of Story Jam is that it has to include a diverse range of people—not just culturally, sexually, or racially—but also a diverse range of experiences, physicalities, sexualities, backgrounds, and perspectives. I hope you come to a show and see the universality in all of us.

Teme: That’s such a great thing about comedy and storytelling. You really feel the connections between people. It’s very powerful.

Stephanie: Isn’t it? A local top teller recently performed at Story Jam who is Moth GrandSlam winner and just a fantastic performer. He told a story about addiction. Maybe not a lot of people in the audience have that experience, but they can all relate to that sense of pain or hardship. That's universal. He tells the story with humor, too.

Teme: I'm always blown away by storytellers who know how to do that.

Stephanie: It's an art. I try to get him as often as possible. He's consistently brilliant.

At Story Jam, the stories are real and very personal. I use the music as a transition tool. The band is on stage. When the storyteller is finished, the band echoes the story in a way that uses comedy to lighten the mood. It can be anything from country to hip-hop.

We had another unbelievable storyteller recently. He tells amazing stories, very raw. His story mentioned his love for rap music so I thought, I really have to write a rap song for him, yet I was really ill-equipped to write rap. No way could I reflect his story without doing a rap song though! So I spent a couple of weeks researching hip hop. I had been kinda anti-rap for a while, so it was an eye-opening experience for me. That's another cool thing about the show. It broadens horizons, and not just for the audience but for the performers too.

Teme: I think with storytelling and comedy there's something magical that happens in the audience. It connects the audience to the person on stage and the audience members to each other.

Stephanie: I love it so much for that very reason. I'm passionate about storytelling and I try to get to as many shows as possible. There are people who shy away from storytelling and I don't know why. Maybe it's just too intimate for some people. 

Teme: Anyone who hesitates should go at least once. Once you’re there, it's easy to see immediately what it's about.

I know it must take an enormous effort, but it also blows me away how storytellers go up on stage and engage the audience in a way that seems effortless.

Stephanie: Actually, I think that's one of the keys. As an actor, I was trained to be big, big, big on stage.  But for storytellers, "big" can take away from the actual story if it’s too much of a “performance.”

Teme: When you accept a story for Story Jam, what makes you want to say yes?

Stephanie: A fantastic story could be merely about somebody who got gas at the gas station, if they fill it in with interesting insights and details. If someone has a massive transformational awakening, it can make for a great story. Comedically engaging stories are always well received.

Really sexy hot stories are fun too. There's a storyteller who will be at the show in September who has a naughty story about discovering her sexuality. I think everybody has a little bit of a voyeuristic streak. We always want to hear what she's going to say because her stories tend to be pretty hot!

I also look for stories where you hear something new. Our stories tend to be for the 17-and-over crowds (Stephanie relays one of the stories).

Teme: Whoa, what a story.

Stephanie: I know. When I see a story like that, I know it’s going to blow people's minds. But it was a real story and a transformational one. 

Something deeply heartfelt makes a great story. It doesn't have to be some huge statement or event. I try to curate the stories so there's a range at each show.

Teme: When you say no to a story, what are some common places where it might fall short?

Stephanie: Well, sometimes people think they have a great story, but there's no substance to it.  Somebody just sent me a story about meeting his partner. It's a beautiful moment in that he meets her and realizes he's instantly in love. That is a cool idea, but he needed to fill it in with insights and backstory. It lacked a real beginning, middle and end. He’s an interesting guy and he probably has great stage presence, but if I just tell you I met someone and now I'm madly in love with him or her, that's not as interesting as telling you what heartache I've had before or my emotional state or journey leading up to that meeting.

Teme: How does one develop the ability to recognize those details and tell a compelling story?

Stephanie: If you want to tell stories but don’t know how, I recommend studying. There are online courses, and several teachers and classes in Chicago. (Steph note: in 2018, I started teaching workshops for storytelling).

How do the great storytellers become great? I think some of them are just built that way. Like (names omitted) work on their craft a ton, but they have something. They have some special magic that just emerges in the process.

As a producer of a storytelling show, I know what moves me. I don’t necessarily have an all-comedic show, but if I find someone who infuses a little comedy into a great story, that's an excellent combination.

Teme: I don’t want to ask you to give away too much, but what stories will we hear on September 10th?

Stephanie: One of our tellers often talks about his experiences being a gay man, but this time, he’ll tell a great story about a big lie he told, then had to live out. Another has a hilarious shoplifting story; someone will reveal some amazing facts about his family; and Archy is doing an awesome new piece. I can’t give away too much!

I always feel that it's a privilege to sit in a room and be part of a show with these storytellers.

Teme: Sometimes I forget, just bouncing around in my own stresses or whatever has to get done, I forget how connected we all are. This event is a beautiful reminder that “oh right, I am part of this universe and we're all part of each other.” It's so easy to forget.

Stephanie: It is. We are so lucky to connect with each other like this. It isn't online. It's human and vibrant and immediate. I’m not reading about an undocumented kid who migrated from Guatemala to Mexico to the United States. I'm actually sitting in front of him.

Teme: What would you say is the most unexpected thing that ever happened at Story Jam?

Stephanie: I have a portion of the show where audience members can tell a one-minute story. It's like an open mic moment. In April, we had a guy come up and hijack the mic. He made a political statement and went on a rant and criticized me and the show for not being politically correct enough. He started out being cute and funny, but then he hit us. It was like a storytelling ambush. It was shocking because we are about community, peace, and love, and our show is so diverse. We are advocates for social justice. He accused us of being the exact opposite.

Teme: Was it difficult getting the microphone back?

Stephanie: Yeah, I had a little trouble. I was a bit stunned. One of our storytellers, Chris Trani, happens to be a comedian and he saved the day. He came up to the mic and made a funny joke, then he started ranting and raving in Spanish to create a diversion. The gentleman actually got back in his seat and stayed for the rest of the show. I thought for sure he was so incensed by us that he would just walk out of the theater. He actually went back to his seat and sat with his wife and I saw him laughing and enjoying the rest of the show.

Teme: Life is interesting. People are interesting!

Stephanie: They really are. I'm certainly not this guy’s enemy. Some people just want to be planted in anger and divisiveness. But save that for another forum! We are inclusive and compassionate.

Teme: What is the best thing that’s ever happened at Story Jam?

Stephanie: Every story is always the best thing that's ever happened!

One time someone told a story about how his mom and dad were from Thailand and very strict and academically focused. They wanted him to be a scientist or a doctor. He was in the closet, and he was very artsy and a great writer. Not at all a scientist or mathematician like his parents wanted him to be.

He tells a story about how he would stare into the stars and daydream about his future. His dad would say, “Oh look, he's looking at the stars because he is studying them. He is going to be a scientist like his father.” 

Then we sang a song called “Scientist.” I had an 11-piece band and they did a huge build-up. Very energetic and lively, and we sang "You'll never be a scientist" over and over, and the whole crowd was standing up and dancing and clapping and then we ended the song, and the crowd just keeps roaring. I was like, “Oh! Well! We should we do it again!” and the audience yelled, “Yeah! Do it again!”  So we did.  We ended the night with that. I usually end with bigger than life story. We start the night with a big story, and end the night with a big story. That was a magical moment.

When I was doing weddings, at the end of the night I would think, “I really wish I had gotten the brother-in-law up for a speech,” or “I wish we had played one more Sinatra song...” I always had something like that. But, I never feel that way after Story Jam. I never feel like I missed anything or should have done something different. Even if I forget a word or make a mistake or two, I never feel like there were any mistakes because it's special and authentic every time. Since each show only happens once, it's very spontaneous. We all prepare for hours for each show, but we get there knowing anything can happen.


More details about the storytellers here.

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When Wilmette resident Stephanie Rogers recruits performers at the Chicago live lit events she frequents for her Story Jam show, she warns them that they need to have a sense of humor.

The series, which she launched in 2014 and now runs once a month at the Wilmette Theatre, fuses storytelling with music, with a band performing songs Rogers writes based on each of the night's five tales.

"We echo the stories," Rogers said. "If somebody tells a really sad story, I might write a really irreverent, quirky funny song as an answer to that story to lighten the mood and shift the timbre of the evening."

The stories are submitted ahead of time to give Rogers time to work on her music. In one case, a story by a Wilmette man about how he quit weed and alcohol and spent a year eating vegan and doing yoga only to have a heart attack involved her crooning about drugs while backup singers used "heart attack" as a refrain. For a piece about a girl's happiness when the pet monkey her parents wanted her to think of as a sibling, died, Rogers penned a dramatic musical piece as a tribute to the play that shares the monkey's name.

Sometimes a story makes Rogers shift away from her mocking tone, as she did for a story about a woman's guilt that she lied to her deaf parents about what was being said at school conferences.

"It ends with audience thinking, 'Wow, I shouldn't be such a jerk to people,'" she said. "At least I felt that way. So I sang a song that was a real ballad and really serious because that was too touchy a subject to mock."

Story Jam combines two of Rogers' passions. She began writing songs as a hobby while studying theater at Northwestern University and after college performed music for weddings and fundraisers. She started attending storytelling events in Chicago while taking a class at Chicago Dramatists on writing a solo show.

"You can go to five storytelling nights on any day of the week," Rogers said. "I started realizing there was so much talent out there."

She realized that she could bring some of that talent to her musical performances and created Story Jam, inviting storytellers that impressed her to participate. Now she's also getting several submissions each month from people who have heard about the show and want to be part of it.

"I like to ask the people who I think are telling phenomenal, moving, emotionally heightened stories," she said. "I gather tellers who are culturally diverse, racially diverse, diverse in age and style. I thought that would be cool for Wilmette. We're bringing real diversity to a suburban town that isn't particularly known for diversity."

Rogers would advise anyone considering storytelling to take a class to get tips on writing, editing and performing their work.

"I've had a couple really fantastic writers at Story Jam and they get up and read the story and it doesn't have the highs and lows and characterizations," she said. "There's a little bit of acting to great storytelling. There's definitely an art to it and I'm trying to tap into that. I know it when I see it, and I'm trying to bring that art to The Wilmette Theatre."

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

MODERN LUXURY, January 2016

This musician brings the racy and refined to one night of tunes and tales.

Stephanie Rogers, host and originator of the performance series Story Jam, has given life to an original art form that taps into her many talents. Rogers, a singer-songwriter, band leader and actor, is a longtime admirer of live literature and created Story Jam to combine storytelling with music. Each Story Jam features six diverse storytellers who reveal true tales of frankly incredible life experiences. After each story, Rogers and her ten-piece pop-rock band perform an original song inspired by the narrative. “It’s like an edgier, more rocking [A] Prairie Home Companion,” says Rogers, who writes all the songs. “To bring together a lineup of culturally diverse talent and then write a song for each of the stories they bring is a terrific challenge and provides a very entertaining platform.”Each show runs for a single night and is completely unique. The stories range from racy to poignant, and the evening is intended to be a rollicking ride. “I curate the night so it has highs and lows–it’s a journey,” says Rogers. “But we always end up having fun.” Rogers’ aim is to put on an entertaining show, but in addition, she says, “I hope the audience is moved, has a lot of laughs and feels a sense of elation walking out of the theater.” Story Jam, Jan. 23, 8pm, Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Central Ave., Wilmette, 847.251.7424 –MK 

Preview: Story Jam at the Wilmette Theatre

I’m talking on the phone to Chicago based singer songwriter and bandleader Stephanie Rogers. She tells me about her January 23rd Story Jam performance at the Wilmette Theater.

Rogers acts as emcee, songwriter, and bandleader for the monthly event which features a rotating menu of Chicago’s best storytellers. She explains that the show follows in the vein of the incredibly popular radio program and podcast The Moth. She says that there are really only two requirements for a story performed at Story Jam, “it has to be true and it has to be life changing.” This seems like a tall order to me but Rogers explained that they choose “a culturally and racially diverse group of storytellers” which insures that no two stories are alike. Rogers promises “if a story disturbs you or upsets you, something fun is probably coming along next.” Most of the live lit shows I’ve gone to are closer to open mic than theatrical performances, but Story Jam breaks from that mold. Rogers receives the stories in advance of the show and she writes a song for each story that either mocks or highlights aspects of the story. The fluidity of music and the stories is one of her favorite aspects of Story Jam: “it’s really original and creative. It’s a setting where we have a ton of freedom and it’s an artist pursuit” she explains.

The difference between Story Jam and other live lit events is the rehearsed, put-together feel of the show. These are fresh, real stories selected and curated for maximum entertainment value. Rogers reminds me that there’s a “big ass band” as well as the “raw edginess” people expect from live storytelling for adult audiences.

If you’re interested in attending Rogers’ monthly Story Jam, you can find out more here. Tickets can be purchased for $25 online or at the Wilmette Theatre Box office. The January 23rd Story Jam includes performances from Elizabeth Gomez, Lynne Jordan, Kevin D’Abrosio, Nestor Gomez, Carol Moss and Julie Saltzman.