Unraveling the truth: Storytelling in central Arkansas finds home in The Yarn
April 15-21, 2019
By Amber Davis
“Maybe stories about neighbors are stories about us,” posited Paige Reynolds, a storyteller for The Yarn’s most recent show on April 5, 2019. Reynolds performed the tale with her daughter. The duo regaled the audience with a story about a troubling interaction with a neighborhood cat lady during the show entitled “Neighbors: True Stories of Fences and Friendship,” which was seventh in The Yarn’s 2018-2019 season.
The Yarn is a storytelling group in central Arkansas with a mission to use stories to amplify voices, build understanding and create space for human connection. Each show is centered around a theme and features up to nine storytellers. Those individuals each perform an eight-minute story that can feature humor, sadness, poetry or even songs. Approximately 120 storytellers have taken The Yarn’s stage in the last 18 months.
Reynolds’s idea that “stories about neighbors are stories about us” embodies the underlying theme for many Yarn events and underscores the importance of community to the group’s leadership. “We want to get away from lines of division and bring it back to the similar values we all share as humans,” said Hilary Trudell, founder and director of the group.
Trudell founded The Yarn in September of 2017 with the help of several friends. Their goal was to provide an antidote to what she saw as a growing sense of divisiveness. “We value community and connection. One venue to foster that is through storytelling,” said Trudell.
“Out Loud Storytelling: Taking Pride. Taking the Stage,” has been a yearly storytelling event put on by the Human Rights Campaign since before The Yarn was founded. In October of 2017, The Yarn joined in collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign to co-host “Out Loud,” making it the group’s inaugural event. The Yarn hosted another installment of “Out Loud” to kick off its second season in October of 2018.
The Yarn’s mission quickly piqued the interest of central Arkansans — there were so many submissions for the second show that there was not enough time to let every submitter perform. Roughly one month after “Out Loud,” The Yarn hosted its second event, “Headstrong: Stories of Mental and Emotional Health” at The New Deal Salon. The organization went on to host a new show every month for the remainder of the first season, with topics ranging from adoption to immigration to incarceration.
In just 18 months, The Yarn has grown from a group of five friends to a twelve-member core team with others volunteering when possible. “We’re really excited at the outpouring of support from the community and other organizations,” said Trudell.
To kick off the second season in September of 2018, The Yarn announced the themes for nine shows, which would run through May of 2019. Many of the shows are collaborations with other organizations, such as Our House or the Innovation Hub. Typically, in the weeks leading up to each show, The Yarn solicits submissions from potential storytellers and chooses those that best fit the theme and the mission of the organization. For a small number of events, a collaborating organization will choose the storytellers.
Once the line-up is complete, Trudell meets with each storyteller individually to help the performer refine the way he or she tells the story to the audience for maximum effect. While some storytellers have public-speaking experience, many do not. The Yarn makes an effort to select performers who are not professional orators. Trudell said it is important to the organization to “value every member of the community and share a variety of perspectives about the theme.”
Sarah-Catherine Gutierrez was a storyteller at “The Art of Failure” on Jan. 31, 2019, which was a collaboration with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. This was the largest Yarn event to date with approximately 120 audience members. Her tale was about her lifelong struggle with math, and yet how she ended up as a financial analyst and planner.
Gutierrez said the experience was “cathartic because I looked at my childhood with a lot of honesty and tenderness at the same time.” During her meetings with Trudell, Gutierrez said she learned how to tell a story, “You tell details that are important to bring the audience along with you to that cathartic moment so they can experience what you experienced. It’s a really amazing thing to be able to tell a story. It’s such an important part of the human condition to tell stories.” Several audience members and others in the community reached out to Gutierrez after the event to tell her that her story resonated.
This feeling of connection is what encourages many audience members to come to The Yarn’s events. Tish McClure attended the 2018 “Out Loud” event and said, “I knew the subject matter would be powerful and I liked the idea of supporting people sharing such a personal and transformative event in their lives.
After going to my first show I became an instant fan.” She went on to watch “The Yarn Presents True Love Stories” on Feb. 19, 2019 at South On Main and plans to attend the final show of the season in May. McClure described why she keeps going back to The Yarn, “There’s a simple yet powerful connection I felt from sitting with people from my community and holding space for others as they share such intimate stories from their lives. We spend so much time in front of our screens rather than in front of each other. It made me realize how much I need events like this.”
Trudell noted that while the audience connects with the storytellers, the storytellers also feel a connection with one another during the event. Trudell holds two dress rehearsals for each show. The storytellers are only required to attend one, so they do not hear all of the stories for the event in advance. Gutierrez loved hearing the other performances and said, “In the two-hour time period, I was laughing so hard there were tears rolling down, and I was crying tears of sadness. You feel like you know the storyteller so well even though that person is up there for just eight minutes.”
The eight-minute time limit for each story is critical to Trudell. She said that audience members can have short attention spans, so it is important that the stories are short enough that listeners can easily absorb all the details. Additionally, all storytellers have exactly the same amount of time because Trudell said, “We want to give everyone an equal voice.”
Some of the events can take a surprising turn. Jessi Rice, public relations manager for The Yarn, pointed out, “Many of our shows seem serious, but they end up hitting a lot of different emotions. One example was a show about farming where people in the audience were crying from laughter.” Rice also described her reaction a show in the first season entitled “The Call: True Stories of Adoption.” She said, “That show was personally moving because it shed light on the complex emotions involved, even though we all think we know what adoption is.”
Trudell encourages The Yarn’s volunteers to share their own stories. Rice told hers at “The Art of Failure.” For Rice, the experience of crafting and refining her story helped her develop skills she will carry moving forward, because speaking and connecting is important in both her professional and personal life. “It felt like a combination of therapy and professional development,” she said.
According to Rice, the organization hopes to share storytelling as a technical skill that community members can use in areas outside The Yarn’s stage. The group’s leaders are currently trying to determine the best way to accomplish that.
“Neighbors” was the seventh of nine in The Yarn’s current season. “True Stories of Women Leading Community” will be on April 30, 2019 at 7 p.m. at Club 27 and will be a collaboration with the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. The final show, “Barred II: True Stories About Incarceration” will be on May 16 at 7 p.m. and will be a collaboration with DecARcerate. The Yarn also has a podcast where it broadcasts past events.
The Yarn is a storytelling group in central Arkansas with a mission to use stories to amplify voices, build understanding and create space for human connection. Since its inception its productions have grown in popularity, as shown in the well-attended Scary Stories Told Live at South On Main during Halloween 2018. (Photos courtesy of South on Main)