The Austin Chronicle

Do You Trust Them to Testify?

By Wayne Alan Brenner, September 27, 2017, 11:30am, All Over Creation

On a summer night in July of 2013, Kate Caldwell invited Erin Feil, Genevieve Saenz, Kacey Samiee, and Abby Ronaldes to a dinner party at her home – a dinner party with ulterior motives …


So begins the story of Testify, a monthly show that features five people – your friends and neighbors, the folks you might pass on the street or work just down the hall from – telling true stories live onstage.

The popular series has been running steadily since founder Caldwell’s party-with-motives back in 2013 – since the first show in September of that year.

“That first one was done at the old Salvage Vanguard space,” says Paul Normandin, one of the producers of the series and an award-winning storyteller in his own right, “but now we’re at the Spider House Ballroom. And we always take December off, yeah, but 11 months out of the year, there we are: We do a show on the last Thursday of each month.”

Which means that this Thursday – tomorrow night, possibly, by the time you read this – is the latest one. And this is September again, right? Which explains the cake that’ll be an atypical part of the evening: It’s Testify’s fourth anniversary.

It’s Testify’s fourth anniversary, and the show’s theme this time is “Trust Me.”

And some of Testify’s storytellers are old hands at this kind of spieling. And some of them are first-timers who maybe haven’t spoken in front of a crowd in their whole damn life.

Yeah, that’s gotta take some trust.

“The average person’s fear of getting onstage and telling their story,” says Normandin, “that sometimes inhibits them from doing it. So we – the other producers and I – we take them through a sort of Basic Storytelling 101. They submit something on paper – it doesn’t have to be the whole story, just the basic idea – and then we’re gonna put a producer with it, and they’ll work with that producer, who’ll listen and give them as much feedback as they want. And then they’ll meet with all the producers, present the story, and we’ll give them feedback as a group. And, nine times outta 10, what we’re telling people is, be more brave. And by ‘more brave,’ we mean, be more vulnerable, tell us how you’re really feeling in those moments of the story.”

“Of course,” he allows, “sometimes the stories are light and funny, there’s not much that you have to do with them, you know?”

But, too, people might unload a whole bunch of personal stuff with what they’re saying. So does a story ever seem like it’s maybe TMI, that it’s more like an audience is just awkwardly sitting in on somebody’s therapy session?

“Well, I think proximity to your story affects if you’re ready to tell it,” says Normandin. “And proximity may be in time, or in how much you’ve been able to process it. So it may be 20 years, but you’ve never processed what you’re trying to tell, so you’re gonna find things out as you go through the process. And, you’re right, some of those stories might not be ready for sharing. But most of the time, when people submit something to us, they’re ready to tell the story. They’ve worked through it, have gotten enough distance, and want to share it.”

And enough people have wanted to share their stories to keep this series going for four years. And to ensure future events: Normandin reveals that the entire next year’s worth of Testify themes have already been planned out, and that they’ll start the new year, on the last Thursday of January, with a theme of – just to be contrary – “The End.”

But that’s still months away, and right now it’s time for the show of September 2017 – with its theme of “Trust Me,” featuring storytellers Jack Darling, Rosemary Hook, Kat Messina, Mike O'Connor, and Carlton Wilcoxson.

Those five will be onstage, yes, unfolding true tales from their lives, telling it (as the hippies used to say) like it is. But other stories might be heard that night, too.

“As humans, sharing our story is kind of cathartic,” says Normandin. “It lets us know that there are other people out there who are listening, who hear us. And, invariably, after you tell a story that’s vulnerable and personal, somebody in the audience comes and tells you their story. And there’s a connection in that moment.”

Connection, dear reader: of which you’re kindly invited to partake.

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