Always looking for that hook: An Interview with Carla Wilson
On January 28th, Tellus 360 was packed with people waiting to hear stories. It was a Tuesday. It was cold (it was January). It was a literary event. Why were people out, and why so many?
Well, if you were there for Lancaster Story Slam’s inaugural event, a night of storytelling themed “Embarrassing Moments,” you understand. If you weren’t, it might be hard to explain, but I don’t think I’d be alone in testifying that there is something powerful about watching people tell honest, unscripted stories… about being people. It’s a sharing rooted in human history.
In order to dig deeper into just how Lancaster Story Slam came to be (and how it came to be so instantly popular), I met the LSS’s event producer, Carla Wilson, the woman without whom these monthly storytelling events wouldn’t exist.
We met at Prince St. Cafe, and as we took our first sips of our coffee, I asked Carla what her creative life was like. Heading up a storytelling series, I figured she must write. Maybe a memoirist, a poet? I was surprised when she laughed, ” I don’t have this whole storyboard running in my head. It’s one of those things I have a jealousy about.”
“So you don’t tell stories at slams?” I asked.
“No, never. I’ve heard so many, I might be able to do it. But, no, I haven’t yet. I got really close [to signing up] at West Chester in January. Then I just backed out,” she said.
Carla isn’t a storyteller. She isn’t a writer, painter, or musician, but she’s exactly the kind of person that people who make art need so desperately. She connects, communicates, promotes, and creates venues for the art to happen. And she’s damn good at it.
Carla Wilson’s return to Lancaster County last October was not only exciting for her and her family, but for the arts community at large. She brought with her a formula for a special brand of literary gathering that Lancaster’s been lacking. A story slam is born of a marriage between creative non-fiction and poetry slam. In Philly, the story slam has been a staple for years. Podcasters will recognize the genre from shows like The Moth and StoryCorps. Philly’s First Person Arts has been holding twice-monthly slams for years. Locals from West Chester will point to the West Chester Story Slam (WCSS), or its creator Jim Breslin, the friendly bespectacled man whom Carla met through her marketing agency back in 2012 and eventually inspired her to create a sister event in Lancaster. In January 2015, Lancaster Story Slam premiered at Tellus 360 to a crowd of just under two hundred people, which for a literary event, especially one in its infancy, is beyond impressive.
Carla grew up here, but she lived in Chester county for most of her adult life. There she raised a family and started her marketing business, Wilson Media Services. It was in West Chester, and through her business, that Carla met Jim. He wanted some help with marketing this event he’d been doing for a few years. First it started in his living room, and then it was being held above a bar. It was a storytelling night. Carla was interested and soon became a regular attendee of the West Chester Story Slam. After reading an article about the WCSS that ended with the statement, “Jim wants to expand story slams to cities like Lancaster and Philadelphia,” Carla approached him and said, “You know I’m moving to Lancaster, right?” He laughed and asked her if she wanted to do it.
She thought she was offering to help him make connections, maybe assist in promotion, spread the word. But Jim wanted her to take the reins, as he was swamped with the WCSS and the newer DelCo Story Slam. “From there I just kind of laughed. I was like, ‘Um, sure. Why not?'” said Carla. “We all need more projects, right?” she laughed.
In the fall of 2014, after asking around town and walking in to a number of Lancaster city bars and venues, Carla and Jim happened across Tellus 360. Carla had heard about it, but when they stopped by one afternoon, the venue was closed. “I always say this really fell into place. The door [to Tellus] was ajar. We could see people in there. So we were like, ‘Hey we’re trying to find a venue for this thing.’ And the marketing guy was there and he just took us on a tour of the building and told us, ‘You have got to do this here.’ And Jim and I looked at each other and said, ‘We totally want to do this here.'”
It was a match made in storytelling heaven. Since Tellus 360’s recent renovations, they’ve become a hit for touring performers, musicians, and gatherings. Their back room (‘The Temple’) boasts plenty of room for major live events. This stage is where the Lancaster Story Slam was born. When I attended the first slam in January, I was blown away by the turnout, the enthusiasm, the overall bigness of the event. Honestly, my initial reaction was that it was too big for a literary exchange. How can you connect with an audience on a truly personal level from the a 4-foot stage, with a big-time sound system, and two hundred faces hidden behind show lights? Simply put: I was wrong. Stories hush people; they make room for collective engagement. Widespread laughter makes you laugh harder. A gasp in a room full of people is like a rush of wind.
So I had to ask Carla, what was the key to getting the word out about this event? What brought so many people? Carla is a wordpress wiz. Using websites and blogs to connect and share ideas is a big part of what her business does. She says the publishing of a single blog post (written by her about why she was excited to bring a story slam to Lancaster) which was then shared by Tellus and West Chester Story Slam, was the catalyst for a slew of newsletter subscribers. They used other forms of social media to spread the word as well, following Jim’s model of promotion for other slams. The idea truly seemed to resonate with people. They were hooked.
I asked Carla what she thought it was about Lancaster that set it apart from other cities doing story slams. She had this to say: “I just think it’s the size of the creative community here in Lancaster, honestly. The venue is big as well, which helps. The other slams had typically been in a restaurant. At max 75 people could be there. So now that we have this humongous room at this amazing venue, with a whole marketing department with their pulse on what’s happening… But really the biggest difference in the Lancaster story slam is the creative community and all the support we have behind it.”
Lancaster Story Slam has a season of events planned. You can catch it every fourth Thursday until November, when they’ll hold a Grand Slam featuring all of the winners of the ten preceding slams. So far, that list includes Matthew Kabik and Joanne Rafferty, whose stories you can listen to on the LSS’s podcast.
Lastly (pay attention, aspiring slammers), we have the scoop on Carla’s advice for impressing the judges. I asked what makes a great story and Carla said, “Does it have a beginning middle and an end? What’s really important is does that beginning have a hook? I think if you have a hook, I’m on board. I’m in. Take me for a ride.”