In the past while, the normally placid byway of oral storytelling has been enlivened by public salvos on the issue of taste and censorship. Several years ago a group began running “Story Slams” at a south-side Edmonton restaurant.
The idea was up to 10 people could tell a story in a competitive framework. I attended one or two of these monthly events and thoroughly enjoyed them. That changed last fall when one of the tellers used his five minutes to talk dirty. Not my choice of listening matter and spoiling my enjoyment of the fine dinner served by the restaurant. He got a low score from the judges. In January I was back and so was this fellow with the same effusion of sexuality including mention of menstruating dolls. This time he scored higher, but still didn’t win.
When an e-mail came from the Story Slam organizers reminding me of the upcoming February performance, I advised that in view of the off-colour routines I would not be attending again and they could take me off their list. I promptly received a polite and well thought out response that indicated the organization did not feel they could censor performances. I replied the organizers of such events have a right to control what is delivered from the stage they provide. I thought probably more people would, like me, be voting with their feet, whether or not they wrote to the organizers or (which I did not do) to the restaurateur. Two months later the Edmonton Journal [April 15] carried the news that the storytelling group was departing the restaurant after a blow-up at their March event. Commentary posted on the Journal website by people attending indicates the problem was not a repeat of the gyno kid, but the overly salty stage patter of the event’s compere. The story also made clear there had been ongoing tension between the storytelling organizers and the restaurateur, who essentially took the old vaudeville manager’s line, “Clean it up, this is a family act.”
I wrote to the Journal [April18] referring to the earlier exchange of e-mails. I pointed out I have co-produced two major storytelling events and would not have hesitated to pull the plug on any performer who strayed from the agreed upon story to venture into blue humour. The executive director of the Story Slam group responded that she could not imagine how to choose the criteria for what would be offensive at an unrehearsed, open microphone event. Obvious enough, I should think, given what has happened. However, she makes clear that in the name of artistic freedom they do not wish to restrict performers.
In mentioning Story Slam’s relocation to a new venue in what she termed a “gritty neighbourhood” on Stony Plain Road, she concluded by saying that Story Slam “is not a device to bring in patrons, [but] a free space for writers and thinkers and all those who want to experience what that’s like.” Sometimes profanity improves a story. As an instance, incredibly foul language underscored the dehumanization of gulag inmates in One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch. What I heard at Story Slam seemed like people were just getting a kick out of talking dirty in front of a mixed audience. They’re free to do so, but I won’t be paying the cover charge to get in.
David Haas is active in various performing artistic endeavours.