Storytelling and human beings go together; always have and always will.
A good story can make sense out of chaos and create a meaningful perspective for life on this planet. But as important as they are in the category of basic needs, not all voices have a platform.
Enter the stage of personal narratives: the actress, Molly Price. By creating and directing the 13th Floor Storytellers, she has given voice to what she refers to as our natural resources: the elderly, and the children of the foster care system. Neither demographic is usually heard, yet they are invaluable reflections of our culture.
I had the pleasure of attending one of these evenings in January — on the topics of Gratitude and Regret — at The Players NYC. Upon arrival, the empty stage was a half circle of chairs with a piano at one end. One by one, the readers made their way to their seats, some of the elderly, unable to climb the steps alone. I was struck by the differences, not only in ages, but in body sizes. A tiny elderly woman in a red leather jacket who required assistance, sat right next to a wide and extremely tall young man, a contrast of both vulnerability and tenderness.
In no particular order of age or seating, each story was read, and tears flowed as easily as laughs by readers and audience alike. The elderly read about marriages, they made tributes to dead spouses, and there were songs sung in strong, yet creaky voices. Dick Mayer, the father of John, the musician, sat at the piano and told the story of his teaching career. It came through happenstance and the seat of his pants, saving him from a life in air conditioning, his father’s plan for his son, but a field of no interest to him. A retired actress with memory challenges recalled the things still in her head. And the tiny woman in red leather told the story of how she finally made it to university to become a teacher after her children had all graduated from college.
The young people’s stories were full of neglect, parents who chose drugs over the love of their children, life in foster care, deaths and saviors, the desire for education, and to do better than what they’d seen at home; tales of inner strength, and gratitude. The evening’s readings were flanked by two young singers, Najah Jones and Hollywood Anderson. Soulful talents, they have a history of singing on the subway to survive. They’re both currently well deserved contestants on American Idol.
When Molly’s cast stood for the final applause, the woman in red was supported by her neighbor’s generous arm and heart. Seeing them holding onto each other, like a little cardinal perched on the edge of a gentle leviathan, was as harrowing and beautiful as the tales they told.
A good story by an individual inspires the listener to ask questions about the state of the world. It must be elevated from an obscure chain of events or a terrible situation, by purpose and personal voice. Vivian Gornick describes this in her small and remarkable book, The Situation and the Story. Only then, she says, can there be merit and illumination. In Molly’s process of getting these stories down on paper, edited, and on the stage, the survivors of the foster care system and the wise elders accomplished both, and made for an evening of healing through reading and compassionate listening. Personal stories belong to all of us. One individual’s suffering, as well as their victories, are ours.
With a very fine body of work as an actress, Molly’s husband once remarked he’d never seen her happier than in these projects with the 13th Floor Storytellers. Molly’s next goal is to create a feature length documentary of her storytellers, hoping to bring it to fruition through the help of donations, allowing her example of dedication to her readers and audiences inspire us all to make a difference.