Features and Occasionals

Storytelling & Activism

By Staff

The room was abuzz with excitement. On an otherwise ordinary Thursday night, more than 300 fine folks had assembled for the second gathering of “The Bee: True Stories from the Hive,” an evening of lovingly competitive storytelling. The lights of downtown glittered through the third floor windows of The Leonardo. When Ashley Sanders took the stage, after a lively intermission, no one quite knew what to expect, only that she would tell us a true story, on the theme of the night,”Attachment,” in five minutes or less.

She then regaled us with her tale, and what turned out to be the winning story of the night, about the woes of getting her period, at her ex-fiancé’s best friend’s wedding. Her story completely captivated the crowd, eliciting raucous laughter and tears of commiseration from the audience. We decided to track her down for a quick chat:

You had a mighty stage presence at The Bee, have you always been a storyteller?

When I was little and people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say, “talk into a microphone in front of people.” I didn’t know what kind of job this would be or how a person would score that job if it existed; I just knew I liked talking…and microphones. Since then I’ve done a lot of political organizing. For two of those jobs, I’ve been the organizations’ spokesperson, and I always loved turning the conversation into a narrative, because I believe in the power of stories to bring people to life and into conversation.

I also come from a family who loves laughing. Basically, if you couldn’t laugh about something, it never happened. My dad had the booming-est laugh of all, and the best record—he’s the only person I know who has physically passed out from laughing too hard.

You totally killed it on stage. How did it feel to bring the house down?

It felt marvelous. There were so many people and the energy in the space was so good. I appreciated how the hosts created an environment where people felt empowered to take the stage, and when a room of 300-plus people is laughing with you and not at you about a mortifying experience, well, that ain’t bad, either.

This particular night I felt really stressed. I’d had a rough week and was feeling pretty low. I almost didn’t put my name in the hat, and when I did, I almost immediately took it out again. I had no idea how people would react to my story. I mean, I thought it was funny and I think periods are a totally appropriate topic to discuss with 300 of my new best friends, but did others? I realized I had no idea about how other people felt about this issue. But finally I decided to just get up and tell it, with very little prep and only two brief check-ins with friends to determine if I was insane. Then I just got up there and hoped for the best, knowing that even if people hated it, I would like telling it, which I guess I should say is all that matters, right?

Was there something about the setting of The Bee that freed you up to tell your story in a new way?

I get a strong sense from The Bee that you really want people’s stories — not just the funny ones, but the sad ones and the weird ones, too, and that you can be gulping down fear and you will still have a supportive audience. I also think that storytelling is a fascinating phenomenon. The first time I heard about The Moth (TheMoth.org, a 17-year-old NY-based storytelling project and radio show). I thought, “Why didn’t I do that?!” That’s how I felt. And the reason I had never done it is because I thought no one would like it. I thought that other people would think storytelling was weird, or boring. And then I saw someone owning their joy and all these people flocking to watch, saying “me, too!” I loved it.

And that’s how I feel about The Bee. Here you have hundreds of people who got home from work or school or whatever tiring thing they do in the daylight hours, and saying, “of all the things I could do, I’m going to go hear some people tell stories.” It’s amazing. It’s as if the bare fact of all those people sitting there reveals some dangerous secret: that we want to know each other, and be known. So I think it’s that secret that makes it possible to say things in front of strangers that it can be hard to say even to our closest friends. That’s the magic.

What role do you see storytelling playing in your life and work?

I hope to live in such a way that no aspect of my life can exist without some good storytelling. When I was at BYU, I started a weekly discussion night, which still continues 10 years later. I’ve traveled all across the country as a spokewoman for political organizations, and I founded the local chapter of Move to Amend, fighting for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people (duh!), and reimagining a world where people, and not corporations, rule. Storytelling has been an integral part of all this work.

Politically, I have always loathed jargon and statistics because I think they separate people instead of opening up their common wounds, or dreams, or joys. When I first started doing political work, people would always try to be “friendly” and stop me from saying what I was about to say. They would say I needed to tone it down, that my ideas would make people uncomfortable, that I needed to move to the middle. But, being an honesty junky, I could never do that and my way out of it was story. I learned that people are much more capable and strong and smart than most of us give each other credit for, and that if we stop talking to each other like robots we can actually meet somewhere and say who we are and what we’re really about. So I try to do that whenever I can.

Other than that, everything I want to do has to do with words, and stories. I’ve taken a break from politics so I can focus on creative writing, and if I happen upon a genie, I’ll wish to be a radio journalist and then wish for more wishes. And I’ll keep trying to tell stories about what I see, and maybe make my dad faint sometime.

Giuliana Serena loves stories, periods (really!), and stories about periods. She is the Beekeeper and co-founder of “The Bee: True Stories from the Hive.”

The Bee: Tales From the Hive

The Bee occurs on alternating months, at alternating venues (the Leonardo and Urban Lounge). The Bee is supported in part by CATALYST Magazine and Utah Humanities. Here’s the scoop re. the next night of “lovingly competitive storytelling”:

Thursday, April 16: Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 E. (21-and-over event). Theme: Soil.

www.TheBeeSLC.org: to learn more, get tickets, and put your name in the hat.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2015.