Mastery of missed connections might make for a storytelling champ Thursday
It’s such a fluke that Danielle Freiman is in Thursday’s Big Mouth Off, the storytelling finals for Massmouth’s fifth season, that it could only be fate.
Unlike many of the experienced raconteurs who will be onstage at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Freiman went more or less from childhood (when she was an aggressive originator and promoter of scarf rodeos and other creative business notions) to just a couple of months ago without stepping in front of a microphone to tell a story – with the exception of a one-night visit years ago by the Massmouth storytelling organization to Freiman’s school, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Her rediscovery of storytelling really began Feb. 22, when “I just happened to have the day off on the day of a story slam and decided to go. Then my name was chosen out of a hat, so I was lucky to tell my story,” said Freiman, a Cambridge resident and assistant at a Cambridge gallery.
Further, the story she told – a short, funny one about finding an egg at age 7 – won audience choice, but not the judge’s vote, which is exactly what happened when she advanced to tell it again at semifinals. “So now I’m going to be in the Big Mouth Off and there are going to be 400 people watching, and hopefully they’ll like it,” she said. “But it’s kind of crazy, because the whole thing happened by chance, really.”
This isn’t even the extent of flukery or fate. Freiman is an artist, and in 2010 engaged in a 55-day experiment to see if she could make herself the subject of Missed Connections in Craigslist. Around three and a half years later, she found herself the guest on an WMBR-FM Sunday evening show called “Missed Connections” to talk about it. It was another six months later that she found herself with unexpected free time the same day as a story slam event bearing the theme “Missed Connections.” (Freiman’s story is about a missed connection, but not a Craigslist-style missed connection.)
Freiman answered five questions last week about what she’s discovered about storytelling while taking the stage with MassMouth in the past few months. Her answers have been edited and compressed.
What stories do you like to hear when you want to get to know someone?
“I’m an introvert and I really don’t like small talk and talking about the weather, so whenever I’m talking with someone and we can get past that, that’s a really amazing thing to do. And it usually involves talking about where we’re from, which is a really big thing because it opens up so many stories, and then what we’re planning to do or what we enjoy doing. When people talk about what they enjoy doing, they’re much more engaged than if they’re talking about their work – unless their work is something they enjoy doing. For instance, if I talk about my hobbies and goals or my next big business plan besides the [scarf] rodeo … which hasn’t happened, but I tried. At age 5.”
Why tell stories in competition?
“It’s so unusual, isn’t it? It’s an unusual format. But what I can say is that the stories are always surprising, and whatever assumptions you might have made about the person telling the story before they told it are usually untrue. People come out with really incredible stories that reveal a side of them you had no idea about before. Even if the time constraint is not enough and they need more time, it’s still great to hear them talk in their own voice about this thing they’re really excited about. So as far as the competition goes, it’s odd but always interesting.”
Does the story slam format have any big challenges?
“There isn’t one way people tell a story. The slams are really successful when people go up and tell a story as if they were talking in front of their family or as if they were at a table together and someone said, ‘Oh, I have this great story’ and they’ll go off for five minutes and tell it. The only challenging thing is really the time constraints. Some people’s stories take place over the course of days or months, and there’s a lot of detail that has to be fit into a short amount of time. Part of the craft is taking the really important details from your story and making that the central part. The audience won’t remember all of it anyway, so being able to condense it down to something very manageable is what constitutes a successful story. ”
What’s your favorite story to tell?
“My favorite story to tell is actually the first story I ever told at MassMouth, at Mass Art, about when I met the lead singer of The Apples in Stereo at The Middle East and he got me into the show. I wasn’t 18 but I had bought tickets to see their show, and The Middle East wouldn’t let me in. Robert Schneider happened to be walking down the street as I was walking down the street, and I yelled out to him to help get us in – and he got us in. And that never, ever, ever happens. That’s like something that happens out of a movie. It doesn’t even feel real now. But that’s my favorite story of all time.”
Who is your storytelling inspiration?
“My aunt, because she used to tell me stories from a very young age about things that happened to her and to our family, like the time she was sitting down in a cafe and Robin Williams sat down next to her and said, ‘Hey, can I have some of your food?’ and they shared their food. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to believe it. I think most of her stories were true, and occasionally she’d make stuff up, but it was always really engaging to me. A lot of the work that I do as an artist has to do with memory and other people’s memories and how they fit into a larger landscape. Everything I make is sort of about the importance of object and memory, and that ties back into storytelling; this is almost just like a new medium for that, an opportunity to tell it aloud.”
The fifth consecutive Big Mouth Off is from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St., Brookline. General admission tickets are $20 online and $25 at the door. Special reserve tickets are $50.
Participants were selected from four semifinal events to retell stories including the themes “We Are Family,” “Accident,” “Spirit,” “Foreign,” “Used,” “Desire,” “Holidaze,” “Risk,” “Missed Connections” and “Teacher.”
Proceeds will benefit Massmouth’s StoriesLive program, which has introduced more than 6,000 high school students from 15 Massachusetts high schools to the storytelling arts and awarded more than $17,000 in scholarships.