Holiday StorySlam at L’Etage

An interview with gay host S.M. Shrake who talks about Philly's gay holes and Paul Lynde

Courtesy of S.M. Shrake

Philly’s First Person Arts presents its Holiday Spirit: StorySlam at L’Etage on Tuesday, Dec. 28 (8:30 – 10:30 p.m.). The openly gay host S.M. Shrake, a storyteller who has been heard on This American Life, is also a Moth GrandSlam competitor and frequent Mortified contributor by way of Detroit, Philly and most recently Washington D.C.. He gives G Philly the scoop about what to expect from the spirited slam, as well as a few of his favorite things this season.

For the people who may be partied out from a little too much spiked punch, why should we come out to this First Person Arts event?

Because the likelihood of hearing a story that knocks you on your ass is much higher at an First Person Arts StorySlam than it is at a family holiday gathering with your snooze-worthy uncles and cousins. I mean, unless your family includes Ira Glass or something. You can also try telling your own story. No one is allowed to interrupt you for five whole minutes, which, for me anyway, feels like heaven.

That’s a change from the holiday roundtable at my house where it’s tough to get a word in edgewise. What may also make this event a G Philly crowd-pleaser is that two gay men own L’Etage, probably one of the more creative venues in the city for seeing local and out-of-town performers. Seems like a great spot for more intimate storytelling.

It is an agreeable space, because you can eat and have drinks during the show, so it’s like a supper club atmosphere. And the stage actually has bench seating upstage along the back wall, so it’s like a cool “theatre in the round” effect. Unless it makes you nervous to have people behind you. Like, if you’ve been mugged a lot or something.

What should we expect from you and the other storytellers on Tuesday?

From me? You can expect a story that makes the audience smile, then weep, scream, convulse, throw up, faint, and finally curl up and go to sleep in the fetal position. From the others? That’s why it’s fun: We don’t know what we’ll get. Anyone is welcome to think of a story worth telling on the theme “Holiday Spirit” – the themes are always purposely broad – then just sign up when you get to L’Etage. We then draw 10 names randomly. The stories are timed, and there is a bell that goes off at four minutes to warn you when you’ve only got a minute left.

There’s great tips on live story-spinning on the First Person Arts website, to which I would add just a couple things: Tell a story you’ve told a million times to your friends because they love it. Or if you have never told it, I personally think it’s important to try out your story at least once in front of people, because they will de-bug it (“That part doesn’t make sense”) for you. I also would paraphrase George Dawes Green, the founder of the mothership of live storytelling: The audience should feel like you are cooking this up on the spot just for them. It should be well-prepped and not canned.

But know this: The crowds at these story slams are really supportive! They clap and laugh plenty. Because there’s a bunch of people in the audience who have done this before or are about to do it too, so everyone knows that what goes around comes around.

You lived in Philly a decade ago (confession: we worked at the same publishing company) and you’ve been back to town often for special events. What’s your take on Philly then and now?

Philly is one of those places where I think they must sign 50-year leases on things. Because nine-tenths of the places I loved when I lived here in the ’90s are still here. Bob & Barbara’s LoungeLa ColombeMorning Glory, even Doobies! The list goes on, that’s just the first few that spring to mind. Now a lot has grown up around and among these places, too. New stuff. So for me when I visit, it’s totally boss because “my” stuff is still there, but there’s nowhere near the number of… “holes” that there used to be. You guys filled so many of those old, depressing holes! You know, like the holes that were boarded up when I lived here. They’ve got stuff in them now.

Readers may wonder about this transition from holes …but what about the gay scene in Philly?

You mean Midtown Village? [laughs] It’s showing me a lot more love now that I’m middle-aged. I went to the Bike Stop last time I was here, never had more fun in my life. Back in my 20s when I lived here, though, my own hideous baditude clashed with the local attytood, and it wasn’t pretty. Remind me to tell you the story of me, the bloody towel, and the bathhouse.

Every place I’ve lived, people say their town has the worst gay scene. I say no, every town’s gay scene is awful. It’s the nature of gay scenes to be abysmal, and it’s the job of gay people to complain about their local scene.

One good thing: Here and elsewhere, you will find the story-show scene has a healthy number of gay people in it. We’re often on the vanguard of creative trends, so it’s not surprising that performing true stories live, which has taken off hugely in the last decade, has lots of us up in there. In my case, and I dare say I’m a somewhat typical, Paul Lynde-type homosexual of today, regaling people with jokes and stories has always been what I did to survive, from childhood on. I wasn’t good at anything else, such as sports. My mom said my third-grade teacher told her how, on the playground while the other boys were playing kickball or whatever, I would run alongside and “narrate” their game and try to make them laugh, instead of playing. So, there you have it. This is my sport.

As a huge Barbra Streisand fan when you were a kid – the subject of your Streisand-orama presentation – what’s your feeling about her Christmas Album?

You mean because she’s Jewish? Oh, I’m not concerned about that, I think it’s still pretty good! But to be honest with you, I haven’t listened to it since I was 14. I left Barbra behind at about that age, in favor of my other lady lodestars such as Marlene Dietrich and Janis Joplin. If you combine all of these women (and a few more), you get what’s inside my soul. My identity has always been stable only in the sense that it’s always pegged onto certain well-loved female entertainers. But that’s the subject of the one-person show I’m writing, so I don’t want to give too much away…

Besides lady entertainers, any stories or headlines that have inspired, angered or humored you this season?

I don’t have feelings. So, no. But I have been collecting other people’s stories to tell, to supplement my own first-person ones. Like my friends who had a baby and their (old, sick) dog bit the baby, so they took the dog to an animal shelter, which agreed to humanely put the dog to sleep because she was in pain and miserable, ornery and dangerous. Everyone mourned good old Pepper. Then a few months later my friends received a letter saying the shelter had found a new home for Pepper.

Another proto-story to be written is about my parents’ neighbor who is in her 80s and is now getting married to another octuagenarian she met at a speed-dating event meant for young people. These two stories make me really mad. So I guess I do have at least one emotion. I mean, if you tell someone to euthanize someone for you, they should do it. And I’m sorry, I believe senior speed-dating is just morally wrong. God created Sexy Young Adam and Eve, not Old Gross Adam and Eve. The paintings of them clearly show they did not have gray hair anywhere on their bodies!

Spoken like a true gay man. Where else can we see your work these days?

I am all over the place, in every sense of the phrase. I’ve been on 10 different stages in five cities in the past year. And I want to double those numbers in 2011. And I will be doing a lot more in Philly this year, because I do love it up here (now that you guys are loving me back). I love my UsedWigs family, whose daddy is Jeff Lyons. UsedWigs Radio is going pro this year, stepping up to a studio space and even bigger names on the interview roster. And I super-duper love the folks at First Person Arts: Vicki Solot, Dan Gasiewski, Karina Kacala. They are utterly dedicated to storytelling and storytellers in a way I’ve rarely seen, and I am not hyping or exaggerating. I don’t do flattery, I do the God’s truth. Every event of theirs is so much damn fun, such a good vibe.

Meanwhile I’m getting my own story club going down in D.C., called Story League. We are having our first show in March, at a very intimate venue in Dupont Circle. is where I post my stories and events and stuff.

What are your predictions for the New Year?

I predict I will keep to my New Year’s resolution this year, which is “to be more expressive with my eyes.”