Every month, Tall Tales, an initiative by American documentary filmmaker and video-editor Michael Burns and South African Improv Comedian Kaneez Surka, gives amateur writers and storytellers a chance to share their work in a public space.
“Oral story-telling is quite popular in the US, especially on the radio, but when I came to India in 2011, I couldn’t find it anywhere here. So to start something new, Tall Tales was founded last year as an opportunity for people to showcase first-person non-fiction stories. It has been easier to get entries than I imagined first. It almost seems like people are bursting with stories to share but didn’t have an outlet for it,” says Burns.
Since its inception in April 2013, Tall Tales has held performances for over 40 storytellers. It is managed by a team of three – director Burns and assistant directors Surka and Rohit Nair. Bankers, engineers, students, and even famous writers such as Jerry Pinto form the motley group of performers on Tall Tales’ roll call.
“Seeing average people come out and tell a story is really inspiring for the audience. So many motivated people start sending me their own work after the show. We get a lot of entries about peoples’ fun trips to places like Goa but that’s not what we are looking for, we want to hear stories of true life experiences, emotional and personal journeys that have had a profound impact on the writers or changed their outlook,” Burns says.
The shows are held twice a month – once as a debut show held at Studio X, Fort and the second as an encore show, held at the Pint Room, Bandra.
“This is an entirely not-for-profit medium to share great stories and experiences. Our only earnings come from the Rs 100 entry fee we charge the audience. Recently, we branched into workshops and consulting, for helping aspiring writers and organisations with the art of storytelling but the financial model for this is not yet finalised,” says Burns.
Unlike an open mic night, however, the shows hold a polished quality as chosen storytellers go through a fine-tuning process of many rehearsals and edits before finally going onstage.
In fact, the story-tellers’ collective receives at least 15 to 20 stories every 30 days. These are distilled down to the five strongest entries.
“The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. We are fine with writing levels ranging from Grade 12 to professional. Often, we have audience members assuming they too can come up and share their stories as an impromptu act, but we don’t allow that because a lot of effort goes into the polished version finally presented. We have at least six back-and-forths with the writers to finetune it before they debut. So we ask them to send in their stories after which we narrow it down,” Burns said.
While selecting the stories, Tall Tales also judges the writers’ stage presence. “They should be able to convey their stories to an audience in a way that will push emotional triggers and leave a lasting impression. Many times, we get strong stories but the storyteller just doesn’t have the experience or stage presence to tell it.”
Tall Tales will be having their first performance at NCPA, Nariman Point, on May 17. Later, in June, the collective will be expanding to Delhi. Burns has already begun interviewing Delhi-based writers for the debut show.