Ex Fabula is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which organizes live storytelling events across the broad metropolitan area, encouraging regular people of diverse backgrounds to step onstage and tell a true, personal tale. The results are predictably unpredictable: sometimes hilarious, sometimes profound and at others utterly heartbreaking. It’s a simple premise, but a powerful way to share ideas and experiences across the cultural, economic and racial lines that conspire to divide us. We caught up with co-founder Megan McGee, who was busy preparing for their fifth season, to find out more about Ex Fabula’s inspirations, their plans for the future and the fundamental appeal of true stories told well.
NAMag: How did Ex Fabula get started? What did you hope it would achieve?
Back in 2009, I found myself having multiple conversations about storytelling with a loosely connected group of people, and we all agreed that someone should start a storytelling event in Milwaukee, and at some point, I think we realized that we might be that someone. At first, we just hoped to put on an event and see how it went. After our 2nd event, however, I think our minds were already exploding with possibilities, and we began to envision series of storytelling events that would go all over the city, connecting individuals and giving all Milwaukee neighborhoods a voice.
NAMag: How do you find the storytellers? Do you give them much instruction?
At our regular events, anyone can throw their name in the hat, as long as the story is true, personal, and related to the night's theme, and that they can tell it onstage without notes. We also suggest that they have an idea of the first and last lines of their story, it's easiest to tell if you know how to start and how you'll wrap it up, but different people have different ways of preparing - or not - and that is totally fine too. If people aren't honest or if they start lecturing or trying to sell something though, it doesn't go over well. The audience can sense when a person is being genuine, and they appreciate vulnerability.
NAMag: Have you borrowed much from some of the other storytelling-based organizations out there? What sets Ex Fabula apart?
One of my favorite books is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, and he talks about taking inspiration and tweaking it into something better, and I think that's kind of what we did. We all had different experiences with storytelling through things like Storycorps, This American Life or the Moth, and we took little elements from all of them, but then we adapted it to what we thought would work best for Milwaukee. We’ve created multiple storytelling formats, like the Terkel, an interview format, and the Rashomon, a format that highlights multiple points of view and we started talking about storytelling not just as an art form, but as a way to bring people together, a tool to discover our neighborhoods, to celebrate our shared history and struggles and triumphs. Now, whenever I travel, I seek out other storytelling groups; I'm always looking for ways to improve what we do here.
NAMag: Storytelling is an ancient art form, but there seems to be as much interest in it now as ever. What do you think keeps it vital in the digital age?
Storytelling has this amazing paradoxical power: it celebrates a person's individual story, and their uniqueness, but at the same time, it emphasizes how much we all have in common. I think it's easy to feel disconnected from others, and I think that's true not just now but throughout history, and storytelling has a way of counteracting that. Storytelling slows us down, reminds us of our shared humanity, and recognizes our common struggles. Especially with true, personal stories, when you intensely listen to someone for 5 minutes, it feels intimate. You don't necessarily get that same feeling from texting.
NAMag: With the 5th season kicking off, what’s on the horizon for Ex Fabula? Are you interested in expanding to other cities?
Ex Fabula is well known in some circles here in the city, but we still have a lot of work to do trying to hear from more Milwaukee voices. We’re a very diverse city, and I hope that in 2014, we can partner with other local organizations to offer workshops and events in communities where we don't have a presence yet. I also hope that we can build our infrastructure, so that Ex Fabula can be around long term; right now, we're completely run by volunteers, and that limits our ability to work with all the groups that inquire. There’s too much interest, but I guess it's a good problem to have.