Posted // 2013-03-29 -
One of the oldest forms of entertainment is storytelling, a simplistic presentation based around the concept that anyone who has lived has a story to tell. It's that very concept that helped influence The Porch, the monthly narrative-performance showcase that has dominated Muse Music Cafe
with sold-out crowds that rival those of live-music concerts and has sparked a strong following from the Provo college crowd.
Today, I chat with The Porch founder, Derrick Clements, about starting up the monthly showcase and those who come to perform, the podcast that came from it, thoughts on the audience reaction and participation from the community and a few other topics. (All photos courtesy of The Porch.)
Gavin: Hey,Derrick. First thing, tell us a little but about yourself.
Derrick: I'm a senior at Brigham Young University, studying English. I have a film collection of more than 350 movies. Grew up in Stockton, Calif.
Gavin: What drew you toward writing, and what were some early influences on you?
Derrick: Storytelling has been a huge part of my life at every phase. From childhood, movies have been big in my family, and I loved analyzing them and picking them apart from a young age. Then in high school, I got into journalism and traveled around the U.S. doing national competitions for journalistic writing -- and sometimes even winning! -- and I really started to hone my love for putting experiences into words. Then, I found NPR programs like The Moth and This American Life and those have been the main inspirations for The Porch.
Gavin: What made you decide to attend BYU for your degree, and what has your time there been like so far?
Derrick: I was somewhat of a BYU fanboy in high school; when I was accepted, I was so excited that I rewrote the lyrics to "Prince Ali" from Aladdin and recorded myself playing the piano and singing my version. There's actually a pretty remarkable story about that song, including my YouTube video of it getting picked up by an LA-based sports talk show, who made fun of me to no end for a week straight, but that story is for another time. Follow The Porch and you will hear the whole thing soon. I've been at BYU for a long time -- I'm one of those super-duper seniors, having tried out every major I could think of before landing on English). I still love BYU, but love it for different reasons. I've found a liberal Mormon paradise in the professors and students in my department, and I have been able to chronicle the maturation of my faith, which is now very different than it was, through papers for classes.
Gavin: Prior to your own events, did you take part in any evenings around Utah or Salt Lake County, or was it mainly a fascination from afar?
Derrick: I had been in the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival a number of times, and always enjoyed that. I have tried to craft a different aesthetic from them, by focusing on community issues and letting more amateur storytellers have a stage, because it is more raw and close to home that way, but I respect them a lot. They get really talented people.
Gavin: How did the idea for The Porch come about, and where did the name for it come from?
Derrick: So, in 2010, two of my friends, also BYU students, bought Muse. It kind of blew me away that someone my age could do something so "real life"-ish. They mentioned wanting to expand from just music to spoken word nights, and I jumped at the chance to run the storytelling shows. I wasn't sure what it was going to be, but I felt that it was an opportunity that would not come again easily so I volunteered and set to work. I modeled it mostly after The Moth and agonized over what to call it. I wanted a name that conveyed community and Utah but not cheesy. The best I could come up with was Wasatch Storytelling Company. But that name seemed like the opposite of what I wanted, and so the first show we did in May 2011 we didn't call it anything, just Storytelling Night at Muse. Then, before the second show, I was driving down that neighborhood street in Orem where the public library is and I saw a house with a porch and the name to me. I immediately called my girlfriend and we knew we had the name.
Gavin: What made you decide to hold these evenings at Muse Music Cafe, and what was it like working with the bookers at the time?
Derrick: Right place, right time; my friends bought Muse, and if it hadn't happened that way I probably would not have realized something like this is even possible.
Gavin: You started in the summer of 2011. What were the first few performances like, and how were the early audiences reacting to those shows?
Derrick: The very first show was amazing. Even though I didn't have the name The Porch yet, the energy was amazing. I just invited storytellers I knew, especially ones that I knew had a lot of friends and followers. They filled the house, and there was an incredible feeling that we had found something special. From there, I was fortunate to meet some amazing, talented storytellers like Kendall Wilcox, and since then, I've been amazed at how successful each show has been, both in terms of audiences showing up and the talent that the storytellers have brought.
Gavin: What's the process like to take part in a showcase, and what kind of material are people allowed to bring?
Derrick: Storytellers generally just have a mic and a stage and that's it. The room only fits 90-100 people, so it's a very intimate space, and the community feeling is amplified by the fun vibe the Muse performance space has. It has a big neon "PEOPLE" sign, and that just makes it cool.
Gavin: Is there anything in particular you've found to be too offensive that you just won't incorporate, or is there an understanding that certain topics just aren't going to be allowed on stage?
Derrick: I have never censored any of the storytellers. I think there's a certain amount of self-censorship that happens, not out of fear but out of respect. The whole vibe I think the show conveys is "let's share each other's perspectives," and it's very open. So, while I would never want to say, "that topic is taboo," the way that the topics are handled generally is pretty respectful. I think people across all political sides have been offended or put off at least once at the Porch, and maybe at least once per show. But when it's working at its best, the stories will challenge people's paradigms and beliefs, but not polarize politically. Sometimes, audiences will clap when a storyteller says something they agree with politically, and I think we're in dangerous water when that happens; it makes it seem like you're at a convention or rally, and it shuts people down who might be uncomfortable but listening. When the shows are working at their best, storytellers bring up really sensitive or taboo subjects but in a way that that everybody can relate to. Homosexuality within Mormonism has been a huge recurring topic, as has feminism within Mormonism. I think these just represent two issues that a lot of people in our community are thinking about right now, and that's why they keep cropping up. By listening to each other's stories, we can all be edified and more understanding. But to be clear, I'm not trying to be edgy for edgy sake, or be politically persuasive, and I always welcome views that differ from, for example, my own. But, I'm also not going to shut down a great story on the grounds that it is offensive. I'm firmly in the camp that believes no story is offensive, and maybe I'll be proven wrong but I haven't been yet.
Gavin: What are some of the more interesting stories people have presented, and what have you seen get the biggest reactions from the crowd?
Derrick: Kendall Wilcox told a story about coming to terms with his homosexuality as a Mormon man, and the night he told the story was the night he found out he had been fired from BYU, so he announced that first. After the show, there was the biggest reaction I had ever gotten from people in the crowd, saying things like, "The Porch got real tonight." It really struck something. Stories can give voice to people's pain and experiences, which is one reason they are so wonderful to listen to and share. And both last year and this year when we have featured Joanna Brooks people have traveled from all over Utah to come hear her, and she has been fantastic. She got onstage and said she has more fun at The Porch than when she was on Jon Stewart's show, and that's when I just about died.
Gavin: Considering the culture and location, there are a number stories that come from a spiritual nature. Does there ever come a point where you have to separate the sermons from stories, or do people respect the format and keep everything in balance?
Derrick: Talking about one's spirituality can be scary and vulnerable. I have found that humorous stories are sort of the easiest, because you know right away if the audience is with you or not and you can adjust. But those more dramatic stories, where the audience is just silent for the whole time you're talking, can be really scary. At church, we have this very specific constructed space where suddenly it's really easy to share personal spiritual experiences at something like testimony meeting or something like that. But onstage, it can be difficult. I would love for people to open up at The Porch in the same way they open up at church, and just own whatever their experience is. Another difference between the porch and church is that at church, there's this quiet understanding -- that everybody buys into even though it's totally false -- that everybody is on the same page when it comes to belief. When you go to The Porch, diversity of belief is -- wham! -- right in front of you, so it can be awkward to share spiritual experiences. Of course, the biggest difference is simply the purpose: At church, the goal is to affirm faith in a religious paradigm, and at The Porch, the goal is to open up with honesty and turn our formative experiences into stories that we can all share for 10-15 minutes. They can both be powerful and transforming experiences to be part of, but I think the separation happens naturally. I suppose the same thing here applies to the political thing I was saying before: Stories at the porch should not be sermons, either spiritual or political; they should be stories.
Gavin: You've had a number of people come back for repeat performances. Who have become some of the favorites and who do you always look forward to seeing?
Derrick: Kendall Wilcox is just a phenomenal storyteller and he really gets the format better than anyone. I always love Robbie Pierce, too; his stories are often outrageous but always make you think.
Gavin: You launched a podcast version of the showcase last year. What inspired that, and how has the show been doing so far?
Derrick: Before I started The Porch, I started The Pixar Podcast, and learned through that experience how easy it is to start a podcast. It was a no-brainer for me, since I already knew how to podcast, to turn the Porch into one, since it is already audio-based. It doesn't get thousands of downloads like The Pixar Podcast does, but it's a fun way for people who live outside of Utah to stay connected to the show.
Gavin: Have you given any thought to expanding into poetry nights or other forms of writing to present?
Derrick: Occasionally, we've experimented with visual props, but I wouldn't go so far as poetry or something that differs too drastically from spoken storytelling. For the more pre-written stories, I am launching this year a series of pre-written, recorded stories, which will be set to music from local musicians -- and I'm always looking for musicians who want to get in on that! I'm really excited about the one I'm working on now with Meg Walter; it's a sort of heartbreaking but very sweet story about death and marriage and growing up.
Gavin: Are there any plans for possibly doing competitions or slam nights down the road?
Derrick: Hmm ... I was originally going to steer away from that because the goal was never to necessarily be the best stories, but to be honest. However, after so many months of doing the show, I do think it could be fun to do a night like that. Maybe.
Gavin: Tell us about some of the events you have coming up over the next couple of months.
Derrick: We'll have a close-out show at the end of the BYU semester on April 18. This show is going to be fantastic, with some wonderful returning storytellers.
Gavin: What do you hope to achieve with these showcases and The Porch in general?
Derrick: I want to create a space in Provo for everybody, no matter their beliefs, to share their stories and experiences to an audience of caring individuals.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and The Porch over the rest of the year?
Derrick: As I mentioned, in addition to continued live shows, I'm very excited to launch these non-live recorded stories with music in the near future.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Derrick: Just the live shows and the podcast! Thank you so much for this opportunity!
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