Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Moth meets The Raven

It was a story of the wolf re-introduction to Yellowstone National Park that wholeheartedly confirmed Sarah Syverson’s notion that starting the Raven Narratives was a good idea. Syverson, who along with Tom Yoder, started the storytelling event earlier this year; this weekend they will host two performances on Friday and Saturday, in Cortez and Durango respectively.

            Syverson’s face becomes illuminated when she recalls Steve Underwood’s story from the inaugural Raven Narratives event about the wolves in Yellowstone. Underwood, who is currently the fire chief at Mesa Verde National Park, was part of the crew who facilitated the controversial reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone in the mid-nineties. It was so contentious they shipped the wolves in during the nighttime had a decoy vehicle to ploy angry ranchers who might try to disrupt the process. Later, as the wolves were transported into a truck they realized the alpha wolf had chewed through the bombproof cage, and had escaped.

            It’s these sort of stories Syverson and Yoder knew were out there in the residents of our Four Corners region, they just needed to provide a platform. Both longtime fans of The Moth, a storytelling event and podcast based out of New York City, the inspiration came a little closer to home when Yoder attended a Moth event at last year’s Telluride Mountainfilm. After that Yoder knew he wanted to start something and quickly turned to Syverson and together they created the Raven Narratives.

            The format is simple: a quarterly event, with eight people telling stories around ten minutes each, told without notes, and each time there’s a different them. This time the theme is baggage.

            Syverson, a playwright and director, who lives in Mancos, was more than pleased with the inaugural events, which were hosted at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez and the Durango Arts Center here in town. “They were so powerful, I just can’t get over it,” she said.

            Syverson is also a huge fan of The Moth, but what she loves about the Raven Narratives is the local flavor and the fact that many of the stories are set in wild places, something that sets their event apart from The Moth. “There’s a different flavor in the stories set in wilderness versus urban environments,” she said. “There’s a beauty that comes along with our landscape that really translates well into stories.”

            Something both Yoder and Syverson recognize is the desire for an authentic, human story told in person. “This is a commonality that is in the DNA of the human being,” Yoder said. “It runs really deep, we have been telling stories in front of campfires for as long as humanity has existed.”

            Yoder himself will be one of eight storytellers this weekend, and he’s mentally preparing for the piece, which involves exposing some baggage from events that happened in his childhood. He wants to understand the process of telling the story so that he can help others with their own at events in the future. He also wants to embrace the sort of vulnerability he likes to see out of a good story, something not always found in the modern day-to-day existence. “That is where our commonality is as human beings,” he said. “But I’m also going through this oh-my-God moment that I’m about to put this story out there. It takes courage. The intimacy of this event is a big part of why it’s so appealing.”

            Even though the inaugural weekend was sold out, the Raven Narratives kept the same, intimate venues for the follow up. Keeping the crowd small and close is a big part of why it was so successful the first time around. “I don’t know if it would really work with hundreds and hundreds of people,” Yoder said.

            Each event is turned into a podcast available afterwards on iTunes, Soundcloud and other free media outlets. The radio station, KSJD out of Cortez, where Yoder works as a Program Director also provides essential resources. Ticket sales help offset some of the costs, but overall the Raven Narratives is a labor of love for our community. “The storytelling creates a true sense of connection for the community. That kind of thing is priceless.”

            For this event there’s a lineup of eight local storytellers, some of whom are likely going through the emotions of feeling vulnerable, excited, nervous and eager to tell their stories. Yoder is very ready to tell his story to the world, and is comforted that the crowd will be his neighbors and community members. “I’m pretty nervous, but I know after I get through it, there’s going to be this weight that will be lifted. Stories want to be told, and have lives of their own. Once a story is told its relieved. A lot of us carry around stories we are scared to tell. But there’s a transformative power to storytelling.”

            Syverson herself couldn’t be more excited about the weekend, “This is my favorite medium of live performance. These simple acts get to the core of what we really care about as a community.”

            She also encourages everyone in the community who is interested to consider telling a story, “everyone has a story to tell and sometimes those who don’t think they are storytellers are the best ones”.

This piece was originally published in today's Durango Telegraph. 

My new memoir, American Climber, is now available. 

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