Community project makes storytellers out of all of us.
Megan Finnerty loves two things: the spotlight and a good story. And she’s able to pursue both passions as director and host of Arizona Storytellers Project, a live event program she founded in 2011.
At the time, Finnerty was an editor and reporter covering the nightlife beat at The Arizona Republic, which was experimenting with a new editorial direction to promote the stories of everyday people in conjunction with the state’s centennial celebration. The coverage consisted of some front-page features or videos of select subjects taped in libraries and similar locations.
Finnerty liked the idea but thought the scope was too limiting. So she suggested a new staging focus—hold storytelling events in bars and other social gathering places where people like herself actually hang out. The format, Finnerty believed, would attract a more diverse audience that represented the community at-large.
“I had all the resources at my fingertips to promote the events in the paper and knew what was happening socially in the city,” she says.
Once management gave the green light for the spin-off, Finnerty launched the Arizona Storytellers Project, which was styled after “The Moth,” a first-person, live storytelling platform.
“I was told to cover my costs, not miss a deadline or embarrass the paper,” she says.
At first, Finnerty scrambled to fill the speaking slots and seats in the house, even telling her own stories and recruiting friends as audience members. Now in its fifth season, Arizona Storytellers has exploded into an award-winning journalistic model with an abundance of speakers and sell-out crowds that have topped out at 350.
Finnerty acts as emcee of the theme-based storytelling nights, which are held once a month in Valley bars, restaurants and other public spaces like concert venues and museums. Unlike traditional open mic events where anyone is invited to the stage, Arizona Storytellers is a curated show in which community members apply and are approved to share their stories.
“No story is really off limits,” says Finnerty. “We have about a 97 percent acceptance rate.”
Through a partnership with the South Mountain Community College’ s Storytelling Institute, Finnerty and a handful of trained coaches help storytellers through a vigorous workshop process to help shape their story and put a fine point on the performance, which lasts roughly 8 to 10 minutes.
“It’s pernicious to believe everyone is a natural storyteller. By workshopping, we refine the narrative and help with stage presence,” says Finnerty. “Plus, sometimes the subject matter is really heavy and we want to make certain the storytellers, most of whom are not professional storytellers, are ready to tell their stories and feel safe in a public arena.” Stories produce a gamut of emotions, from laughter to tears and inspiration—but the ticket price always guarantees an authentic evening of entertainment where storytellers get real and personal.
Yet, while the mission of Arizona Storytellers is dedicated to storytelling and journalism that serve and reflect the community while fostering empathy among those people, it’ s not a therapy session, according to Finnerty.
“We help storytellers describe their catharsis but the goal of the project is not to help them achieve it,” says Finnerty, who is particularly proud of how the project consistently captures a cross-section of human experiences with a diverse lineup of storytellers including artists, notable leaders and regular folks. Since 2011, more than 600 people have shared stories in 100 nights of storytelling.
Finnerty will use the trademark success and best practices developed by the Arizona Storytellers Project to inspire a larger storytelling audience in an additional role as director of the Storytellers Brand Studio, a new business vertical for USA TODAY Network, which is owned by The Arizona Republic’s parent company, Gannett. The studio initiative will expand the live, community storytelling format with a digital content experience facilitated by newsrooms across the country.
Regardless of the story, location or delivery method, the goal remains the same: to offer engaging and artful storytelling to anyone—no matter their background or experience—who has a story to tell
Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photo by Jill Richards