I‘m told that when I was about two years old, I was left with my step-grandfather while my parents were out for the evening, and that when they returned a few hours later, I was still awake while he was sound asleep, seated on the floor, his back to the wall, surrounded by books I had demanded he read to me. According to his accounts I was insatiable, and being the sweet man he was, he had acquiesced, reading story after story until he was exhausted and could read no more.
It wasn’t much different when I was older and had my own children who climbed into my lap with an armload of books every evening. In fact, the unwritten rule in our home was no bedtime without a story, until they were old enough to read on their own and no longer required an adult to navigate through the adventures of Paddington as he licked marmalade off his furry paws, or to accompany Mary Poppins as she marched through the busy streets of London. Yet not requiring our help did not mean that our children did not still ask to be read to despite their ability to do so themselves. And so we made our careful way through the magical forests of Narnia, crawled together through the delicious tunnel of James’ giant peach, and marveled at a tiny hobbit’s bravery in the face of a fire breathing dragon. The art of listening to a story unfold involves an ability to shut one’s self off from reality’s distractions and a willingness to dive headlong into unfamiliar worlds to which we are temporarily invited. Worlds in which we are allowed to catch a glimpse of strangers’ lives, eavesdrop on conversations, briefly forget our own dilemmas and empathize with others.
Yet you don’t have to be a child to enjoy a good yarn. And as proof of this notion, all you have to do is peek through the windows of the Pence Gallery on the evening of the second Saturday of every month. Better yet, walk through the gallery’s doors and have a seat. According to Jeri Howitt, a diminutive powerhouse and founder and director of Stories on Stage, “Davis was ready for something like this.” Heading an all volunteer group of dedicated individuals, Howitt began this journey in 2014 with a mere twenty-five member audience in a gallery she believes shares the same philosophy of supporting emerging artists. Authors both new and established are selected by the small committee, made up of enthusiastic people such as, Carolyn Waggoner, Naomi Williams, Elise Winn, Anahita Hamidi and Michelle Woods. Excerpts of the authors’ works are performed by actors auditioned by casting director, Tim Gaffaney who selects performers from the Sacramento Shakespeare Ensemble, the Kolt Theatre, as well as unknown actors who are given a chance to demonstrate their talents as they read stories to an audience that has grown in size from anywhere between seventy-five and one hundred guests.
And it isn’t only the audience members who enjoy this almost primordial act of being read to. According to Howitt, “…authors are frequently overwhelmed to hear really talented actors read their work. It is magical what good writing, good reading and a beautiful room” can do. I can certainly attest to the unusual experience of having my own writing read by a talented actress such as Ruby Sketchley, who made me forget that I was the author and allowed me to sit back and enjoy her interpretation and voice. Audiences have had the pleasure of hearing works by Karen Joy Fowler, John Lescroart, Pam Houston, Sue Statts, Anthony Marra, and Kathryn Williams, among others. And part of that enjoyment is, according to Howitt, ” a return to a different form, the original form of telling stories, a shared experience, and that’s part of the pleasure.” Howitt recalls an exchange with an audience member who declared, “I didn’t even know I needed this” after enjoying an evening at Stories on Stage. As I looked around the packed room just this past Saturday, enjoyment was written on so many faces. Despite the date (February 14), young and old alike chose to spend part of their Valentine’s evening listening to Phillip Larrea read Kathryn Williams’ touching and funny story, “Three, Four, Knock at the Door,” transporting us all to an afternoon in a trailer park in Florida. And from there we made our way to Russia, for a brief glimpse into the bleak lives of mail order Russian brides, in Laleh Khadivi’s “Wanderlust”, recounted in a moving reading by the very talented Patricia Glass.
Of course a good story is made even better if there are cookies, and cookies there were. Elise Winn’s lovely lemon macaroons and decadent chunky chocolate. For a nominal fee, audience members can feed their sweet tooth and their imagination. And if you like what you hear, most authors’ books can be purchased at Stories on Stage as well, so the journey into other realms may continue.