‘Speak Up, Rise Up’: A Storytelling Festival

Storyteller, activist and producer of “Speak Up, Rise Up”: Asher Novek. (Photo courtesy of Asher Novek)

“I’m all alone here for three years; my family is back in Ukraine,” said Tetiana Sydoruk. A 23-year-old student from Ukraine, she will be trying her hand at storytelling for the first time during the “Speak Up, Rise Up,” storytelling festival at the Lower East Side’s Connelly Theater Aug. 14-20. A writer of poems and songs, Sydoruk recently wrote her first song in English and reflected on this as a breakthrough moment. “Expressing myself in English, I finally started to feel like I belonged here. I felt valuable.”

Sydoruk is representing Razom (together) for Ukraine, a New York-based organization that supports Ukraine and forms an expatriate community. She is participating in the festival, she says, because she wants people “to know the story of my identity and my community.”

The idea for “Speak Up, Rise Up” came to Asher Novek, producer of the festival, in the wake of the presidential election, when he observed a huge surge in both activism and storytelling inspired by people’s reactions to the new political landscape. Novek has a long history as a community organizer and separately as a storyteller who has hosted his own shows. The festival, he hopes, will give a platform to marginalized voices while impelling action from the audience.

Just what is storytelling? That’s a fair question, because as a medium, it exists in relative obscurity. (Sydoruk had never heard of it until Novek approached Razom to send representatives to tell their stories in their own showcase.) Novek describes storytelling as an accessible art form for which minimal training is needed, because it’s just people speaking honestly and openly about their life experience. He adds: “It doesn’t have to be funny or anything specific, it just has to be true, draw people in and connect.”

With storytelling often relegated to the back of a bar, Novek is aiming to elevate the medium by bringing it to the Connelly Theater, which seats up to 150 and features a full proscenium stage as well as lighting and A/V capabilities. Novek is betting – literally, since he put most of his savings into production costs – that the authenticity of the medium will retain the intimate, personal experience that makes storytelling so effective, while the larger space and technical capabilities will allow the performers to explore new ways to bring the audience into their experience.

The festival lineup includes an eclectic mix of voices and formats. There are a number of “Community Showcases,” where grass-roots organizations are sending first-time performers to share their stories, including Muslim Community Network, NYC Veterans Alliance, Planned Parenthood, and Razom for Ukraine. Novek is running storytelling workshops for participants from these organizations, to train them in the art and technique of storytelling and elicit the most powerful stories. The main events feature seasoned storytellers like Gastor Almonte; guest curators, like Kevin Allison; and live podcast recordings, like Aisha Harris of Slate’s “Represent” podcast.

Harris describes her live podcast show, scheduled for Aug. 16, as discussion format, but inspired by personal stories in reaction to media and culture that negatively affect marginalized groups. As a child, Harris admired Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” particularly her long red hair, but as an African American, she realized that was an image she’d never emulate. “Representation matters for empowerment,” she said, referring to the lack of role models for women of color in the media. Joining her in sharing their experiences will be transgender activist Tiq Milan and Antonia Cereijido, producer at “Latino USA” and host of the podcast “The Payoff.”

Gastor Almonte (Courtesy of the artist)

Almonte will be presenting his solo show on Aug. 14, “Raised by the East,” drawing on his experience growing up in East New York. “When people hear East New York, they expect a scary story. I did have some family who were drug dealers, but I talk instead about my dad and cousins wearing Beetlejuice masks to scare me and toughen me up, and me pretending to be Batman to fight back.” Almonte began his performing career as a stand-up comedian, sharing the humorous side of life in East New York. He added storytelling to his repertoire as a way to go deeper into his experience, without the pressure for constant laughter. “I’d like people to hear about why I’m proud to be from East New York, why I stay here and work to improve it from within.”

Allison, host of the podcast “Risk,” will offer “In It Together: Stories of Strength in Diversity” (Aug. 18), featuring multiple performers from his storytelling school, Story Studio. Allison, an LGBT rights advocate, believes in the power of storytelling to build empathy and effect change. “Marriage equality happened in large part because the stories of LGBT people started to be heard,” said Allison.

All the storytellers, including Novek, say the election highlighted the importance of making others aware of their marginalized communities and has made them double down on their missions and core values. Almonte says that unlike comedy, platforms for storytelling haven’t caught on in East New York yet, so he hopes some from his community will attend and connect to the medium and its vulnerability, but he’s also looking forward to reaching new audiences. Sydoruk expects her audience to be largely Ukrainian, which she’s OK with since, “hearing the stories of other Razom for Ukraine participants helped me understand the community better.”

Each show will include information on how to get involved with various organizations working to make a difference. Novek hopes that, “the stories the audience will hear on stage will be entertaining, but also compelling and inspiring, so that people are looking to get involved and start their own story.”

Avichai Scher is a member of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2018.

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