Locals ‘Mouth Off’ at Story Smackdown

Courtesty of Paula Junn

Regi Carpenter took first place at the BigMouthOff, the final round in a series of live storytelling competitions. Carpenter recounted the mental breakdown she suffered as a teenager.

When Scott Schultz was five years old, his great-grandfather claimed he had bought Scott a horse and was raising it in the basement. For a year, Schultz said, every visit was the same: little Scotty would beg to see his horse, and his great-grandfather would promise to show it to him next time—the horse was too small and needed rest. Finally, at a New Year’s party, Schultz’s great-grandfather could keep up the ruse no longer. The horse, he explained, was gone—sold to march at the front of the Orange Bowl Parade! Schultz was devastated. “At that point, I was on the dark side of a sugar high, and it was time to go home,” he said.

As Schultz finished his story, over 440 people sat rapt with attention in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater. Schultz was a contestant at the BigMouthOff, the final round in a season of competitive story slams organized by massmouth, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting storytelling throughout Massachusetts. Each of the 15 contestants had several minutes to relate an experience from life, and the stories they told ranged from comical to confessional. According to these contestants, live storytelling thrives on the direct connection it forges between the storyteller and the audience.

massmouth’s mission is to revive storytelling in the modern world. “Stories promote a healthy, strong, and connected community,” massmouth co-founder Andrea Lovett said during the event. The BigMouthOff contestants had won previous massmouth slams, which were held across the Greater Boston area this season, or had been chosen to advance by audience members. As at the previous slams this season, BigMouthOff contestants were evaluated on the structural efficacy of their stories, the expressiveness of their performances, and the relevance of their stories to one of a series of themes. Each theme—“cupid” or “gifts,” for example—had been the central theme of a previous slam this season.

According to Schultz, the storytelling community encourages more direct audience engagement than comes with simply reading a story. “I thought it would be just fun to write a story and read it,” he said of the beginning of his storytelling career. Schultz brought his story to the Story Space, a storytelling room held at the Out of the Blue Gallery near Central Square. “I started reading the story, and they’re like, ‘Dude, this is a storytelling room. Put down the paper!’ So I’m like, ‘All right,’ and I just started telling the story.” After he told his story, Schultz was approached by Ben Cunningham, last year’s BigMouthOff champion, and encouraged to compete in a massmouth slam at Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain, which Schultz ended up winning.

Jannelle Codianni, who came in second place in the finals on Wednesday night, told the story of her unlikely marriage, which blossomed out of a mainly physical relationship with a man to whom she expected not to get attached—since she at the time was only interested in women. Codianni first decided to tell this story as a surprise Valentine’s Day gift for her husband, she said. Without telling him where they were going, she took him to the cupid-themed slam, got up, and told the story of how they fell in love.

For Codianni, there’s a transformative moment that occurs when an audience identifies with a story and its teller. “My goal was always to take a small thing that had happened to me and try to, like, blow it up so that other people would be able to see themselves in that story on some level,” she said. “And I think that [it] changes the world...when we see ourselves in other people. I think that [it] really does [make an] actual difference.”

Several of the presenters also emphasized the therapeutic nature of telling deeply personal stories. Regi Carpenter, who won first prize at the BigMouthOff, gave a wrenching account of the nervous breakdown she suffered as a teenager. Touching on different events of her childhood and adolescence, Carpenter presented a harrowing story of domestic violence and psychological shock. “It’s probably the big untold story of my life…. I had been working on it and working on it, and I just thought, ‘I’m just going to do it. It’s time to do it,’” Carpenter said. “Untold stories have way too much power. Once you tell them…then [they don’t] have power over you. You get to craft them and shape them and work them as art.... Art has always saved me.”

For massmouth participants, said BigMouthOff finalist Abhishek Shah, listening to each other’s stories means more than competition. It also has the dual benefit of helping the storytellers hone their craft and linking them on an emotional level. “Just by observing other people as well and listening to their stories, it makes me stay connected, and it makes me stay motivated,” Shah said.