Everyone has a story. And in St. Petersburg, every story is worth sharing.
That unequivocal math is the engine that drives chroniclers Jaye Sheldon and Dr. Lillian Dunlap, who’ve been tale-telling in town for a dozen years through their innovative nonprofit Your Real Stories, Inc.
Their oral history project is similar, in a way, to the New York-based StoryCorps, which began recording – and archiving – conversations with ordinary people in 2003, in an audio booth at Grand Central Station.
Dunlap, a longtime professional journalist, refers to Your Real Stories as “StoryCorps on steroids.”
That’s because Your Real Stories adds an extra component: The interviews are turned into a theatrical script, a one-person narrative, that is then performed live.
In other words, real-life drama becomes a stage drama. Excellence, reads the group’s manifesto, demands a variety of perspectives.
“People always ask us where we get our stories from,” says Sheldon, whose background is in music and theater. “And the truth of the matter is, we really do want to tell everyone’s story.
“Because that’s our mission. We want to represent everyone in the whole community; we want everyone to be able to see themselves in the work that we do. And they’ll hear about their neighbors as well.”
Your Real Stories has maintained a gallery and performance space inside the Arts Xchange since 2017. On the walls are photographs – moments of life – from the group’s archives.
On the fourth Tuesday of every month, one of these images takes the spotlight for an evening of theater. The event is called Off the Wall.
This Tuesday, Nov. 26, the subject is St. Pete resident Neil Broome, a longtime social worker who was one of the original members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), formed in 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City.
Sheldon and Dunlap wrote the script, based on their interviews with Broome; the performer is actor Larry Alexander.
“We always knew that our mission was to introduce our community to itself, to find really compelling ways to get people engaged in conversation across difference,” Sheldon explains. “That’s what we’ve always wanted to do, from day one.
“So Lillian took her skills as a journalist, and said ‘Let’s get a longform interview.’ But how do we further our mission?
“And I said well, in my world, if I really want people to have empathy and compassion, I’m going to make a piece of theater. I’m going to put them in a darkened room, where they can let their guard down, where they can let all the expectations of their day go, and they can be guided through the magic of theater. Through lights and sounds, and a crafted script, and the craft and skill of professional actors.”
Perhaps the best known of the group’s ambitious endeavors was Decades of Day Work, a series of readings and performances at thestudio@620 in 2014.
This was the cumulative result of many hours of interviews with local residents, across racial, social and economic lines, about their history with domestic work.
The trigger was the 2011 film version of the controversial novel The Help. Dunlap and Shelton positioned themselves outside the Baywalk movie theater downtown – what’s now known as Sundial – on opening night.
“We knew that anyone in our community, anyone we encountered on the street, would have some sort of experience with domestic day work,” says Sheldon. “We took two camera crews, so no matter what side of the theater you came out of – we had two interracial crews, so that people could go wherever they felt the most comfortable. So they’d get to share a little bit about how they were feeling, and about how it related to their own personal experience.
“We got about 70 two or three-minute interviews that night; Lillian and I went through those together. And they were so varied. It was just what we were looking for, the complexity of the story. People whose mothers had been maids, people who had been maids, their children and grandchildren, people who had hired maids and their children and grandchildren. People who had been raised by maids.
“It was the good, the bad and the ugly, all of it.”
Next, they contacted many of the interviewees and asked if they would be willing to sit for longer, more detailed interviews. These were condensed and edited into a series of scripts. “It was really all to, to the best of our ability, create a piece of art that actually carried forth the voice of the person we had interviewed,” Sheldon explains.
Interviewing is an art form unto itself. Dunlap and Sheldon have created a tag-team system that works well for them. “We’ve found so many people who take a lot of convincing,” Sheldon explains. “They say ‘Well, I’m not really interesting.’ People that would never in a million years get up and speak in front of a hundred people.
“We just think that doing it this way gives everybody sot of a safe environment; it’s just the two of us in somebody’s home, where they’re comfortable and there’s no pressure. And we don’t even really ask a lot of questions. Most of the compelling things that come out are when you give people space and time, and just listen.
“We don’t have an agenda. We’ll just keep rolling. And we’ll make something out of it.”
It was at the Your Real Stories Gallery & Studio in the Arts Xchange, during a Second Saturday ArtWalk, that Neil Broome approached Dunlap and Sheldon, and offered to tell his own story.
“Being in the Arts Xchange,” Sheldon enthuses, “gave us the opportunity to share our work with a whole new audience.”
In 2020, Your Real Stories expects to announce a major expansion onto a bigger stage.
For now, St. Pete has the unique (and fascinating) Off the Wall.
Says Sheldon: “Lillian always says ‘There’s only one story, and it’s the human story. And each of us have a piece of it.’ That really is what we stand on. We each have a piece of the human story.
“And when we get more and more pieces of that, not only do we know more about our community, we actually know more about ourselves. Because we believe that we’re a part of something bigger.”
Your Real Stories website here.
Tickets for Off the Wall here.