CoLAB Arts Gives Storytellers a Stage with ‘The Vom’

2-6-15 By Maddie Orton Arts Correspondent

If you’re a regular listener of podcasts like The MothRisk! or This American Life, you know how engaging storytelling in its purest form can be. For those who’ve always wanted to try their turn at the mic, New Brunswick’s coLAB Arts has a new monthly event: The Vom.

Dustin Ballard co-hosted the event’s kickoff at the New Brunswick restaurant/bar World of Beer in late January. “Stories are the things that connect everyone because everyone has a story,” he says. “Even if you tell a story about an experience that I’ve never heard before, I’m going to somehow find myself in that experience.”

If the story slam’s name evokes icky feelings, it sort of should. “The vom” — short for “vomitorium” — is the name for the pathway in a theater that leads actors from the audience to the stage. The word is derived from the Latin verb “vomere,” meaning “to spew forth.” So, just as actors are “spewed forth” from offstage to on through a theater’s vom, stories in “The Vom” story slam will be expelled from performers’ hearts and minds to audiences’ ears.

“Telling stories live can totally be scary,” says Ballard, a theater practitioner and storyteller who’s performed for The Moth. “But when we’re vulnerable and when we really tell all of the details, that’s really when our truth comes out.”

Ballard is joined by co-host Molly Graham, a storytelling specialist in her own right. Graham teaches Oral History at Rutgers University and is Assistant Director of the Rutgers Oral History Archives.

“I think there’s an urgency to this kind of stuff where, if you don’t take the time to tell these stories, they disappear,” Graham says. “You lose those memories and those stories if you don’t sit down and share them.”

Graham says stories are like time capsules. “You get to hear what life was like during the Depression, or overseas, or just an experience that you’re removed from in time and place,” she says. “We so rarely just turn to someone and say, ‘What’s your story?’”

On this blustery winter evening, Graham and Ballard are doing just that. Friends of coLAB Arts are joined by unsuspecting bar patrons who happen upon the event. They’re coaxed to join in and offered a prize. (This and every installment of “The Vom” is adjudicated.)

“[Judges are] listening to make sure [the performer’s] story is between four and eight minutes, to make sure that it’s organically connected to tonight’s theme, which is ‘Miscommunication’ and also that it’s one single story,” Ballard explains. Judges also ensure storytellers speak without the aid of notes — a key element to this story slam.

This new project fits squarely into coLAB’s new, holistic programming model. Producing Director Daniel Swern says, “A lot of coLAB’s programming is now directed towards looking at critical issues that affect the New Brunswick community.”

Each month, a broad topic is chosen as the group’s focus, and various branches of the organization use that as a starting point for discussion and creation. In January, that topic was “acculturation and racial tension” and in February, it’s “religion and politics.”

The topic becomes the basis for that month’s writing labs, group discussions and film screenings. Swern thinks bringing community members of all ages and backgrounds together around a subject fosters dialogue. “I think it opens up perspectives or points of view that otherwise go not talked about,” he says.

The Vom’s “Miscommunication” topic encourages perhaps the most lighthearted variation on the month’s “acculturation and racial tension” theme. Stories are shared about language barriers while traveling abroad, parent/child misunderstandings and even a prop infant being mistaken for a real baby.

This is the program’s first installment so Swern, Ballard and Graham take mental notes as they watch: How can The Vom best be recorded to create future podcasts? Is the ambient noise too loud? But for the storytellers, their focus is on the rush of performing.

“It was fun and challenging, and I enjoyed doing it,” says “Vom” storyteller Benjamin Ruffle. Ruffle didn’t know about the event when he arrived, but happily participated in his first story slam. “It felt good to get up on stage and tell my story,” he says. Will Ruffle return to the mic? “Definitely,” he says, “definitely.”

The Vom returns Feb. 26 with the topic word “Preach.”