The Gift of Mere Presence: My Time at The Story House
I got to The Story House early. My aim was to arrive while Austin and his crew were still setting up so I could get a couple quick shots of the house before everyone started pouring in. Apparently, tonight was different than most. Austin shared with me that in previous months, the hour or so before the event’s start was hectic and busy, with everything coming together at the last minute. But not this night. Tonight, for whatever reason, they were fortunate enough to get an early start, so when I walked in, the team was going about their business calmly. Austin was fixing the lights while Erik adjusted the camera tripod to sit on the piano. At the other end of the room, Emily was placing coffee mugs on a table next to a plate of fresh pastries. All were going about their tasks in relative quiet. As I walked around and took photos, I could almost feel the house taking a few last, deep breaths before the night began.
I texted Austin a week prior, asking if I could possibly sit down with him and his team to ask them a few questions for an article. If you know Austin Ban at all, you won’t be surprised by his response: “Actually, can I make you dinner?” A couple nights after that, I found myself on his living room couch, eating spaghetti with a homemade sauce he made from a recipe he adapted from his grandmother’s (more onions, more wine). With us were Natalie Mays and Emily Perino, two integral members of The Story House team.
LP: So, why the name "Story House?"
AB: I wanted to do something as simple, yet as telling as possible. I wanted it to be a house of stories. I wanted it to sound cozy and convey as much of the message as possible, as simply as possible.
NM: Well, plus it started in your old house, so it’s like The Story House embodies the idea so it can move. It’s this bigger thing.
LP: How did the idea start developing?
AB: I was visiting my sister in Brooklyn last Spring Break, and I spent the week there. I went to this event in some library called a ‘story slam,’ and it was weirdly magical. It was the most invested, interactive crowd I think I’ve ever seen at a show. Everyone was very quiet and attentive for these strangers who came up and were telling stories, all being told with varying excellence, no one knowing where the stories were going, but everyone loved it! Everybody was reacting. There were people in the front rows actually gasping! I was just reminded of how much people love stories, and I realized that people would actually go to an event like this. So I came back to Nashville from Brooklyn with quite a lot of gumption to get it started.
LP: How many people came to the first meeting?
AB: I think somewhere between 25-30
LP: And now?
NM: I think over 160 people RSVP’d on Facebook for our last event
AB: Yeah, and just over a hundred showed up, so we were able to pack most of them in and then some people hung out on the porch.
LP: How has The Story House grown outside of the numbers?
EP: I feel like the story house itself doesn’t grow, it just morphs. Because it exists around people. It exists around their experiences and their emotions and their lives.
NM: And each one has been different, which is the nature of the whole thing. Each one is going to be its own and different from the one before it. People will come and see people sharing at it, and it will inspire them to share something with the people around them that they wouldn’t have shared otherwise.
AB: I’ve always said that The Story House is just a framework. We don’t choose what happens. We just try to set up this space to be whatever the people need that night so that they can then come and make The Story House what they need.
LP: When someone walks into The Story House, what do you want them to experience?
EP: We want it to be a place where you can exist as yourself. We want you to feel warm because of the lighting and cozy because of the tea.
NM: We want the people that come to feel safe, and welcome, and open to tell their stories in any way they know how, knowing that they’re going to be heard.
Soon, people started to roll in, and they’d find their friends and meet knew ones as they made their way through the room. There was a thick atmosphere of rest that reverberated in the conversations around the house. Deadlines were looming over the heads of virtually every guest, and careers were pining for their attention, but they were at The Story House now, and these things would just have to wait in the car while the patrons stepped inside for a rare chance to breathe easy with people they know and people they were about to meet. The entire atmosphere of the room felt like one big sigh of relief. You could almost see the burdens rolling off the guests’ shoulders as they crossed over the threshold.
After twenty minutes or so of mingling, we all settled in to hear the stories of the evening. They came in all different forms. There was poetry, music, dancing, paintings, and of course, a couple good old fashioned stories. Among the diverse means of expression, though, was a common chord of striking vulnerability. Each story teller offered up a piece of themselves that carried weight, and sometimes it didn’t come easy. There were times when it would only come through a shaky voice, or trembling fingers, or even a few tears. But that was okay, because sometimes vulnerability is a little clumsy. And this was The Story House, not a house show. We didn’t come to see a performance-- we came to see reality.
The audience responded to this vulnerability with a sort of deep reverence. This too came in many forms. It came in cheers, in sighs, in laughs, and even the rare gasp. The room ebbed and flowed in such a way that everyone seemed to be getting filled up, both story teller and story receiver. We were all participating in this mutual exchange, the commodity being our mere presence.
I suppose that’s what The Story House was for me. It was an opportunity for us to gather on a Thursday night to re-learn, through whatever creative craft we might choose, how to be with one another, to just be. It was a time to put up boundaries around our deadlines and obligations for a change so that we might sit down with someone to be truly, simply, and profoundly present with the people around us.
What has The Story House been for you? Feel free to comment below.