The way Kirk Henning sees it, everyone has a story to tell.
The Cayucos resident invites members of the public to share true tales in front of a standing-room-only audience at SLOlio: A Gathering of True Stories at Linnaea’s, held the third Wednesday of every month at Linnaea’s Café in San Luis Obispo. The free storytelling series celebrates its third anniversary on Wednesday.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” said Henning, adding that the event has grown largely through word of month. “It’s passed all my expectations as far as the quality of the stories and the quality of the storytelling.”
An environmental scientist who performs as a storyteller in his spare time, Henning has been sharing folktales and fables with audiences for two decades.
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He and his wife, Patty, produced the Stories ’Round the Fire storytelling series in Cayucos for 16 years and the Pacific Storytelling Festival at Montaña de Oro State Park for five years.
“It ended up becoming a fantastic event that just about killed us,” Kirk Henning said of the festival, explaining that the event grew “too big for us to handle.”
SLOlio, which is modeled after The Moth storytelling series in New York, is much more manageable, Henning said.
The event derives its name from a common occurrence at storytelling festivals that features folks swapping short stories on stage, he explained. “An olio is a hodgepodge or collection of some kind of artistic endeavor.”
Before each SLOlio gathering, people interested in telling stories scrawl their names on scraps of paper and drop them in a box. A typical SLOlio event features an average of eight to 10 storytellers, who are each allotted eight to 10 minutes to talk about their experiences.
Each night revolves around a specific theme, usually selected by Henning, that’s intended to provide guidance while allowing ample room for interpretation.
During the most recent SLOlio gathering, held June 18, participants shared stories inspired by the theme “Full Circle.” Michael Kaplan described his “tortured relationship” with food while Holly Sweeney recalled her travels in the “friend zone” and Chris McKinney described a recent hiking trip to the remote Outer Hebrides island chain in Scotland.
Wednesday’s edition of SLOlio will feature the theme “Driving.”
While stories typically don’t feature offensive subject matter, Kenning emphasized that SLOlio’s mature content is intended for teenagers and adults — not families with small children.
“A lot of the stories have a lot of humor in them. A lot of them can be very raw and telling and emotional,” he said, adding that the majority of SLOlio storytellers are middle-aged.
Storytellers must find a balance between being open and vulnerable and unloading emotionally on the audience, he added. “It’s pretty tricky because you need to interest the audience. You need to hold their attention and not have them feel uncomfortable.”
Watching someone bare their soul onstage can be like “watching someone on a tightrope,” he said. “You want them to make it but you know there’s a lot of risk involved.”
Henning said SLOlio audiences appreciate the fact that participants aren’t merely storytellers, but also characters in their own stories.
“Storytelling is such a communal event,” Henning said. “I guess it just gives people comfort to know that they’re not alone in the world, that they’re experiencing the same things that everybody else is.”
Plus, he said, storytelling has an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by newer art forms.
“With movies and television, there’s always a medium in between” the audience and the actors, he said. “With live storytelling, there isn’t that intermediary. It’s just you and them.”