I spent this past Friday at Busby’s East, watching three of the shows in the LA Storytelling Festival. Then on Saturday night, I performed in the festival at the Story Worthy show at iO West. I’m very green to this storytelling world, which is why this weekend was more important to me than I had expected going into it.
Unless you count my UCB Improv 101 graduation show or the 1998 Edison Middle School production of Music Man where I mouthed “watermelon” over and over again because I was in the chorus and no one knew if I was singing or not, I hadn’t really been on a stage before. And let’s be honest, neither one of those experiences really counts as stage time.
I dig attention, sure, but I’ve also battled years of low self-esteem. I don’t have a small frame and never will, and that made me believe that I wasn’t the type of person someone wanted to see perform, so I never tried. The beauty of writing is that in its first stages, its personal and hidden. But also, I didn’t realize there were so many options besides acting that constituted performing. I’d been to plenty of stand-up shows and beat poetry nights in Manhattan (the only explanation I can think of for the latter was my longtime obsession with the Beat Poets), but it wasn’t until I got to Los Angeles that I saw how many different (and incredibly difficult) opportunities there were: still stand-up and poetry, yes, but also the alt comedy scene, one-man plays, essay readings, improv, and, yes, storytelling. So last year, propelled by curiosity and too much free time, I took a storytelling class at iO, because that seemed less terrifying than stand-up open mics, and volunteered to collect tickets at the LA Storytelling Festival. I talk so damn much that I thought storytelling could be a good fit.
I think it was. I loved the class, and I loved taking more classes and writing for the form and meeting storytellers who’ve been doing this for years and begging them to let me on a stage with them. In April, I started a monthly show called Stupid Smart Kids, which kicked off with a charity event in April and has run monthly ever since. The performers have all been so good, and I’m amazed at the talent performing at this humble little space in Koreatown every month – and that they’re all crazy enough to let me record their stories and put them up on a podcast.
I have a long way to go with my performances and Stupid Smart Kids, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m going. I’ve struggled a lot over the past few months with being able to sit down and write, to feel creative and motivated. It’s been a rough couple of years, for various reasons, and not letting life – and not living it fully enough – has weighed me down. I’m not proud of that and wish it was as simple as yelling, “Snap out of it, Emily,” but fixing problems is never that easy. (Wouldn’t that be nice?) I’m trying my best to dig myself out from under this emotional mess, and hopefully I’ll get there sooner than later.
What I’m trying to say is that I needed this weekend. I needed to see these people who were strangers last year but a welcoming community this year. I am ridiculously hard on myself, especially when I think a story I’ve performed bombed, but when I got off stage on Saturday, Story Worthy’s producer said I had a “bright future ahead of me.” I wasn’t expecting those words, nor prepared for them, but I appreciated it. They may even have been the exact words I needed to hear.
What surprised me most though was the reaction to the story I told. The story I shared was one I’ve told before: About a month after I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I tried to have one night out. None of my friends knew I was sick yet, and I wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. I want dot be “normal,” but I ended up having to tell one friend. I had to just hope she’d keep it a secret, and to my surprise, she did. I’ve told that story at Muse, Risk, and Public School, so I thought it was a safe bet for Story Worthy. It got a lot of laughs at Risk and a good handful at Public School. This weekend, it got maybe two. Lines that have hit before didn’t it. Places I hoped people would laugh elicited a few “aws,” like I was a sick puppy.
I don’t litter my stories with punchlines (that’s not the point of them and wouldn’t work), but my goal is to inject my stories about my experience with cancer with humor, because I’m a big believer in the idea that you can find the humor in tragic moments. It’s a way to cope, understand, and survive. I’m not making any ingenious revelations here – that’s pretty common knowledge as far as comedy is concerned. As I’ve said, I’m very new at this. I hope to learn and grow and get better. But what I have figured out very quickly is that the word “cancer” is a hurdle for audiences to get over. As soon as I say the word – which is generally within the first sentence or two of my stories to get it out of the way – I can see people looking confused or sad or intrigued. It’s not a word you expect to come out of a 30-year-old’s mouth. They don’t think they’re allowed to laugh, yet that’s all I want. You can come out the other side of illness and not just live to tell the tale but want to tell the tale.
I might be asking too much. I might just not know better yet. I might simply need a lot more time and rewrites. But I hope I get there. Because, man, I need you all to laugh in the face of cancer. It’s the worst, and it deserves to be torn apart and analyzed and fought and beaten. There’s a reason people constantly compare cancer to war and use violent terminology when trying to explain what it feels like to be sick: For any cancer fighter or survivor, it is a personal war. Battle after battle, it’s war. I just want to fight it with laughter. I want to know I’ve beat cancer both mentally and physically. Above all, I want to keep telling stories. I really enjoy it.
Hopefully, I’ll get there.
(Photo: Kelly Rose; Originally posted on my Tumblr page)