Ironically, though New York City is home to more than 8 million people, it's been called "the lonely city," and it's easy to see why. You could easily pass hundreds of people on your morning commute alone, but you likely won't speak to a single one of them. You have your own story, they have theirs, and never the twain shall meet.
Investigative theatre company What Will the Neighbors Say? is on a mission to change that, one story at a time. Their program storytime brings complete strangers together for an evening of off-the-cuff storytelling, punctuated by comedy and live music. The May 15th show, hosted by comedian Abby Feldman at Nancy Manocherian's the cell theatre, featured Eleri Ward as the musical guest: the icing on the cake of an already wonderful evening.
The main entertainment came from the guests themselves: in between Feldman's performances and Ward's songs, individual audience members were encouraged (and occasionally coerced) to get up and tell a personal story. At the start of the evening, everyone who wanted to put their name in a box, then names were drawn and the microphone handed over accordingly.
You may be thinking this sounds like a bit of a gamble. You're right, and I kept waiting for someone to get up and tell a boring or cringey story. It never happened. In fact, the very first story was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Feldman called out one audience member and all but bullied him on to the stage; he seemed resistant. Then he revealed he was an author and food critic, and told a story about the moment when he decided to become a chef, braving a brutal NYC blizzard to get to his cooking school exam. It was the best story of the night---and it was a night full of great stories!
One guest told a story about the fortune cookie that brought her parents together, another about how the universe confirmed he'd chosen the right partner. There were stories about getting into acting school, coming to terms with death, and just generally "being alive." Speaking of which, Ward told the story behind her Sondheim albums and the moment when she found out Sondheim had heard and loved her renditions of his music. Her natural musicianship and sensitive interpretations of Sondheim pieces like "Sunday," "Every Day A Little Death," and selections from Into the Woods would have been worth the whole price of admission, if the event hadn't been free. I would have happily watched a whole evening of Ward covering Sondheim.
But that's not to say the rest of the event wasn't just as wonderful. Complete strangers opened up to each other: sharing their emotional vulnerability, their mistakes, fears, passions, and hopes for the future. It was an eye-opening, one-of-a-kind experience. By the end, I had a sense of community with my fellow New Yorkers. For once, we hadn't simply passed each other on the street. Our stories intertwined.
'storytime' with What Will the Neighbor's Say? takes place at Nancy Manocherian's the cell theatre (338 W 23rd St). For information about future events, visit www.wwtns.org.