Making Queens Storytellers with David Lawson

Photograph of Queens Storytellers Host, David Lawson

By David Lawson

I love people standing alone on a stage and talking.

I used to think the only thing a person could do talking alone onstage was tell jokes. But a decade and a half ago I was exposed to work by folks like Anna Deavere Smith and Tim Miller. I realized it was possible to perform an hour or two of stories on a single theme. In that decade and a half since, I’ve performed my own one-man shows all around the city and across the nation.

One-person shows are my favorite thing to see and create in any medium. I think a person alone onstage talking to an audience makes people think the two best things you can think at a show: (1) Something like that happened to me once. (2) I never thought of it that way before.

I knew that storytelling shows existed, but about seven years ago I noticed that almost every comedy club had a storytelling show. These shows had a stronger comedic bent to them than other storytelling shows, which was a little more my speed. These shows also frequently contained performances of 5- to 10-minute stories that felt like the same type of work I love to see and to perform in the one-person show world. Along with performing one-person shows, I’ve spent most of the past seven years constantly performing and producing live storytelling shows that aim to have the same feel of the one-person shows I love so much.

In September 2019 I hosted Queens Storytellers in the cabaret space at Queens Theatre. The show featured a lineup of performers with various comedy and theatre backgrounds performing stories. The event went over great and we discussed making it a show that happens every few months. The next one was scheduled for March 21st, 2020. That show ended up being the first show cancelled at Queens Theatre due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or at least the live show was cancelled.

Queens Theatre offered to turn the “every few months” Queens Storytellers show into a four-week run of Queens Storytellers Online, which aired as a part of the #QueensTheatreAtHome project for the first four Friday nights in May.

In June I took over hosting the Digital Story Circle from the theatre’s Director of Community Engagement, Dominic D’Andrea. The show is a blend of a roundtable discussion and a storytelling open mic. Folks would come in, share a few minutes of thoughts on that week’s topic (such as: “What do you think happens next?”), and then we would let the talk go in whatever direction it went in according to the audience.

When the live venues I love so much closed down in mid-March I was very skeptical of what producing and performing shows on online would be like.

Yet when I was live-hosting Queens Storytellers Online and the Digital Story Circles I felt a sense of being present that I hadn’t felt in a few months. It was almost the same feeling I get when I’m onstage in front of an audience, tasked to amuse, entertain, and keep a show moving.

And it wasn’t just giving me and our performers those same “live show feelings.” In the four weeks of Queens Storytellers Online we had hundreds of people tune in on Facebook Live to hear stories about things like a horse eating marijuana plants, explaining therapy to your immigrant parents, an awkward subway encounter, being the victim of a hate crime, becoming a drag queen, and so much more. (If you missed it and that sounds good to you, all the shows are still up on Queens Theatre’s Facebook page for you to watch).

Over the four weeks of producing Digital Story Circle we had folks providing their stories and insights from throughout the tri-state area, as well as from Minnesota, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Folks would share stories and insights about “small world” things (baking, gardening, binging TV shows) as well as “big world” things (COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the economic collapse).

Digital Story Circle also allowed for the audience to have an immediate reaction to events as they happened. We had participants who were recovering from COVID-19 and gave their firsthand experiences. Several sessions had folks sharing ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement even if they were unable to attend an in-person protest. Bail funds and organizations were shouted out, specific issues to bring up in emails and calls to specific politicians were discussed, and conversations were had about how to effectively and respectfully raise awareness using social media.

The online experience cannot replicate the audience and the performers sharing the same physical space together. But the #QueensTheatreAtHome project has provided so many folks with a lot of the same feelings you get from going out to a live show. A quick look in the comment section of every event we produced let me know that folks at home were laughing, applauding, and thinking things like “Something like that happened to me once” and “I never thought if it that way.”

Catch up on the first four installments of Queens Storytellers Online on the Queens Theatre YouTube channel.