Storytelling, a practice as ancient as human language itself, has long commanded the attention of audiences big and small, in caves and cabins, around campfires and in hazy bars. The popularity of live storytelling events and podcasts is a natural progression of our affinity for the spoken word, and the success of the storytelling series The Moth has helped inspire the establishment of local shows, including the Northwest Arkansas storytelling series “That’s What She Said.” Though the phrase may be best known as a method for turning an innocuous comment into a raunchy joke, it also captures the emphasis on women’s voices and stories that are at the root of the Fayetteville-based series. We spoke with “That’s What She Said” cofounder Leigh Wood about the series, what makes a good story, and the benefit of shamelessness. The group is performing its first Little Rock show — with a theme of stories that take place “In The Woods” — on at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the White Water Tavern. Cover is $12.
How did “That’s What She Said” get started?
Amber Forbus, who’s one of the storytellers on Saturday and a long-time friend of mine, moved back to Northwest Arkansas from living in North Carolina, where she became a big fan of this show called The Monti, which was a live storytelling show. So when she moved back here, she was like, “OK, great! I’m gonna find this storytelling event here and start going to that.” Then she realized there wasn’t one.
So we got together. She [said], “All the people I know tell funny stories or even funnier stories than what I was listening to in North Carolina, so let’s just do this. I think we should just make one.” We kind of gathered up friends who are funny and talkative, and we put together a sort of test show in our friend’s salon.
After that first performance, what has the response been like since?
I feel like we’ve had a really great response. We had a run of sold-out shows in our first and second season, and we were doing a lot of shows. For a little while, we did a Thursday performance and a Saturday performance. We did a special Valentine’s Day show at George’s [Majestic Lounge] in front of the biggest audience that we’ve ever had before, which was around 350 people. It was nerve-wracking, but it was really great. We kind of joke [that] we were athletes, and we sort of worked our muscle, and we actually got really good by doing that, by performing all the time and doing some high stakes stuff.
We’ve had a pretty loyal audience. We’ve been able to reach new people. I think we spend a lot of time thinking about why people want to come listen to these stories, and it’s a good reminder to us that when you’re telling stories that are real, and you’re being truthful in your reaction and your emotions about it, it’s pretty universal. Especially when you’re willing to really be vulnerable about yourself. None of these stories [have] any bragging — if anything, we’re like, “I know, I was an idiot, and these are the ways I’m going to tell you I was an idiot.”
I feel like this tends to be a vehicle for self-deprecation.
Very much so. And we’ve found that people really relate to that. All of us, I think, have had people come up [to us] after the show and said “Something like that happened to me.”
I think that resonance that you’re describing is really what people are looking for when they go to a performance like this. They’re looking for something they can latch onto.
I think so, too. There have been storytelling groups that have existed, and there’s obviously an oral history tradition in the South, but we really wanted to make a point to talk about things that normally wouldn’t be included in those kinds of shows. We’re mostly women [storytellers], so we talk pretty candidly about being a woman, going through puberty, awkward hookups — junior high school is endless amounts of fodder. The earlier themes that we started with were very rooted in that — shame, and “because I got drunk,” things where you’re really laying it all out there. I think that people have come because there’s really no other place where people are telling those sorts of stories unless it’s like a stand-up routine.
Why do you feel that a storytelling format like this, centered on women’s stories and women’s voices, is important?
Well, I think about it in the way of, “What would I like to go see?” I think that [in] the experience of growing up as a woman, there are so many moments that are awkward and terrifying but that you can talk about as an adult, you can actually see some humor in them. And I just don’t think they get told that often. … There’s the awkward teenage boy who doesn’t get the girl, but how often are we hearing the story about the girl who gets her period and bleeds on a rock at a school field trip? That happens all the time. Almost every woman I know has a story like that. So we definitely want to talk about that. Amber [Forbus] has told several stories about giving birth, and the things that happen to you when you give birth. Her gynecologist made her a mixtape. Like just ridiculous things.
What? For the birth?
Well, no. She was in the hospital afterward because she was having complications, and he was trying to tell her about how great Eddie Vedder was. And she was like, “I don’t like Eddie Vedder.” And so he made her a mixtape to try to get her into Eddie Vedder. It’s just things like that that are ridiculous.
I was never expecting to hear all those words strung together.
With shows like “Pen15” and “Big Mouth,” I feel like there’s been a resurgence of content that talks about the tween and teen girl experience in a way that is raw and honest, and embarrassing and raunchy. We have this whole cultural lexicon of portrayals of teenage boyhood, but teenage girlhood is finally getting some of the “Superbad” treatment. It’s important for women and girls to get to hear and watch these stories told so we can experience the collective laughter.
Absolutely. And to be able to laugh at them takes some of the fear out of them, there’s a power dynamic in it. I’m not ashamed that that happened to me because now I know it happens to other people. And also, it’s hilarious that that happened. … I feel lucky that [the “That’s What She Said” performers] have come together. There’s certainly been a gravity that has brought this group of people together, in that we all have a certain level of shamelessness. We just don’t care. And there’s something freeing about telling the story.
Among the stories that you and the other performers tell, do you try to strike a balance between humor and more emotional, vulnerable moments?
Yes. We’ve [talked about] some pretty heavy stuff, actually. We had a theme called “daddy issues” … [and] two of the storytellers’ fathers had passed away, one actually had passed away two weeks before the show. But it was this incredible story of this person, who was actually a monster. This show has been strange, because it almost feels like once you start talking about these things, you sort of start to wake them up, and weird things happen. We’d been workshopping this story for weeks, and [the performer] hadn’t had contact with [her father] in years, and then he dies. That was a heavy one. Some people are in it for that, they want to hear the heavy stuff, and then some people are like, “I just got a babysitter so I could laugh and drink wine.” It has been a balance. I would say that as we move forward, we’re definitely moving more toward not necessarily lighter [stories], but definitely funnier. We’re going to be funny; that’s really what we’re looking for. We want you to laugh hard when you come to the show.
Can you tell me a bit about how your submission works? If someone hasn’t performed with you guys before, would they submit a story for review first?
We haven’t found an exact process that works for every person. Often, someone will express interest and we’ll talk to that person and kind of get an idea of what the story is. Or, if they really want to write it, then they can write it and submit it. That’s worked before. Sometimes we know people who have a hilarious story, and we just work with them and work with them and work with them, and browbeat them into telling it because it’s too good to not be heard. So people have come to us before, and we’ve gone to other people before as well.
What is your workshopping process like with the stories?
We go through a whole process. Ideally, we would work six to seven weeks out from a show. Sometimes [when] stories come [in], the first meeting is just, “Tell us what happened,” or someone will come with something that’s written, and we’ll really glom onto the parts that seem the funniest or the part that seems to be what makes the story funny. Then we really work on that and spend the next three or four weeks writing, editing, workshopping, getting it really tight.
We’re dealing with time limits, too, because we all can be completely long-winded, so [we] have to be really sure that we’re not writing 20-minute-long stories, because when you get up and tell them, that’ll be 30 minutes. We’re trying to cut it down for length, and make it really punchy, make sure we’ve got the funniest lines in there. Then once we feel happy about a draft, then it turns into memorization and rehearsal. Get up on stage, start to tell it. It works best when you memorize. …. So it’s an interesting process, and it’s been hard to find folks who are willing to go through that much work for what seems like a fun night out. But we work really hard at it, we do.
What are your goals for “That’s What She Said”? What would you like to see happen with the show?
We definitely do want to travel, and we’re actually kind of achieving a major goal by coming to do this show in Little Rock. We’ve done a lot of shows in Fayetteville, and we’ve tested a lot of stuff, so now we want to see if other audiences are going to be receptive to it. … We have a show in Rogers later in the month, and we’re anxious to see if the Benton County crowd is going to be on board with us. We’ll see how that goes.
We have a dream of collecting these stories into a book one day. I think that it would be one of the funniest books to read, ever, honestly. That’s a goal down the line, I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to make it work, but I would really love to see a collection of these in a book.
Can you tell me more about the theme of Saturday’s show?
For Saturday’s show, we’re doing a collection of stories we’ve told before, but they all have a theme of being in the woods: encountering strangers in the woods, or almost dying in the woods, or inadvertently giving everyone opium in the woods, or agreeing to be in a movie and then finding out that it’s an amateur gay porno in the woods. There are lots of different things, but they all happen to take place in the woods, and that’s what Saturday’s show is going to be about.
Are all of the shows themed, or just sometimes? How do you come up with the themes?
Generally, they’re all themed. Occasionally we’ll do a “best of,” like every once in a while we’ll be asked to perform for a nonprofit benefit and we’ll kind of put together a “best of” set, but we really like a theme. It’s kind of nice when you have parameters; it makes you work a little bit harder. We’ve done [themes of] growing up in the Bible Belt, sibling rivalry, horrible bosses, stuff like that. We’ve had a running list for a long time of things we [liked]. Sometimes there’s a great theme that just kind of got built-in drama, or it’s just generally going to get you a funny story, like “because I got drunk.” Generally, everybody’s got a funny drunk story. Then sometimes we’ve built themes around someone just having a hilarious story. We’re like, well, that’s so good that we’re going to build a whole theme and find other stories that fit into that.