The Teller of Tales
Tall Tales, India's premier live storytelling organization: The story so far.Enakshi Biswas
A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements related as if it were true and factual, where exaggeration looms large. But Tall Tales took on a different hue altogether when Michael Burns decided in the summer of 2013 to launch his storytelling enterprise. “Never let a little inaccuracy get in the way of a great name,” he says. What started as a platform for people to narrate their 10-15 minute stories in front of a live audience soon turned into an institution of budding writers, stand-up comedians, artists, aspiring novelists and just about anybody who had a story to share. The only condition for narrating a story at Tall Tales? It has to be a true, personal story. But how do they know? “I can tell,” says Burns with smile, “mostly because real life is ten times crazier than anything that anyone could ever make up.”
Michael believes everyone has at least one great story. “Tall Tales is part therapy, part fun, part performance, and part social gathering. It’s a community that’s come together for the night to celebrate, cry about, and laugh about real life moments.” He believes great stories are about deep honesty, about being brave enough to go into places inside you don’t go too often. To really think through what you’ve been through and to be willing to explore it, even on a level that might make you uncomfortable.
So when asked how he sorts out the stories ready for possible performance from the ones that need more work, Michael says, “Stories that live fully in our comfort zone or that only tackle non-taboo subjects are really not the ones that catch my eye. I’m looking for stories that don’t just unlock a private door, but that are willing to go three, four, five doors deep into the house, to the core of what makes us human no matter where we might come from. This is where truly unforgettable stories live.”
What Michael had not anticipated in February 2013 was the endless story submissions to email@example.com. The story submissions received till date number over a thousand and the live show has featured eighty-plus different storytellers. Fresh from the invigorating fiftieth Tall Tales show, Michael, the curator and story coach, sounded fulfilled when he said, “It’s a great feeling to know there is so much interest in such a seemingly old fashioned form of entertainment. Maybe the reason that people love it is because it’s not just entertainment.” Indeed, Tall Tales sessions prioritize not having a theme, something unlike other storytelling events in the city. It’s a roller coaster ride, emotionally, and one of the things that makes it unpredictably exhilarating.
Running a Creative Venture
In a city of 18 million people, nearly everything you can think of, creatively, has already been done to some extent. Perhaps what separates the things that last from the things that are a flash in the pan are the details. Michael says, “Tall Tales is harder to put together than you’d think. Any creative endeavor looks simple in the end but takes time to get there. I would have to say that the stories take the most time. I really think a lot and try to gently add things by helping the storytellers to search their memories and souls for deeper material. Our goal is to put on a show where every story is strong. I don’t want people to feel there were weak links in the performance, the way there might be at an open mic.”
When asked about the challenges faced, Michael says, “The only resistance we sometimes get is when storytellers are either married to their words or forget what makes for a fascinating live story. Very rarely, I find someone who does not want to edit their story. All of us, even very accomplished writers, can grow, and everyone should be willing to be humble and understand that no one is perfect. The other issue is that sometimes people write beautifully, but we’re not doing readings at Tall Tales: we’re doing storytelling. So storytelling is structured but ultimately informal. The goal is to not let the words get in the way, but to cut right to the emotional core that bonds everyone in the room. This feeling transcends literary turns of phrase that someone might want to say. The difference between the voice of a speaker and the voice of a writer is vast. And we want our audiences to feel like the storyteller is talking right to them, not to the paper.”
Part Storyteller, Part Entrepreneur
From starting out as a live performance platform at Studio X, Fort and Temperance, Bandra, Tall Tales now has branched into weekend classes and five workshops to help people sculpt their writing and public speaking. There are two day weekend writers’ retreats organized far from the madding crowd, where participants travel to Mumbai’s outskirts, the last one being in Purushwadi, Maharashtra. It involved exercises, games, free time, and in-depth discovery of what makes a memorable story. It is all of the Tall Tales many workshops compressed into one weekend, which Michael calls, “a real celebration, if you will, of stories, where we dissect them and analyze what they are at their core and how we can use our own personal strengths to be better storytellers in our own ways. We are actually born storytellers, and that’s the open secret behind the entire thing, behind all of Tall Tales. We know in our bones how to tell stories. But we don’t know it. I see my job, the job of Tall Tales, as simply reminding people of the skills that are lying dormant in the inner recesses of their hearts and minds just waiting to be activated. Is there anything, literally anything, more beautiful than putting that kind of destiny into motion?”
Facebook: Tall Tales Storytelling
Twitter handle: @TallTalesMumbai
Interview taken and written by: Enakshi Biswas