Phoenix Storyteller Jessie Balli on the First Time She Cried Onstage

Jessie Balli performing at Crescent Ballroom.EXPAND
Jessie Balli performing at Crescent Ballroom.
Gary Pratt

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 95. Jessie Balli.

Jessie Balli is one of those rarities — an Arizona native.

The 25-year-old storyteller was born and raised in Peoria. But even rarer is Balli's ability to share deeply personal anecdotes with people she's never met. 

"After sharing a story at Yarnball, I was invited by Rachel Egboro to tell at a First Friday event curated and hosted by Perry Allen," Balli tells New Times. "I shared a story about my experience with domestic violence in a past relationship and closed out the show, the first time I ever cried on stage in front of strangers."

That raw emotion she displayed connected with Egboro and Dan Hull, who were so taken with Balli that they immediately wanted to collaborate. The trio has continued to co-host the aforementioned event Yarnball, a weekly storytelling open mic night that's held at Lawn Gnome Publishing and part of Hull and Egboro's project, The Storyline.

"They had never seen someone so new to storytelling share such raw emotion," she says, "and I’ve never looked back."

I came to Phoenix with the desire to participate in a space where people can be themselves unapologetically. After graduating from NAU and returning to the Valley from Flagstaff, I realized I was craving a more diverse cultural atmosphere than where I was raised in Peoria.

I make art because being vulnerable in front of an audience is an illuminating personal experience. The connection you feel when sharing your most intimate moments with a room full of strangers has allowed me the opportunity to grow. I want to be able to share this feeling with others through the development of an inclusive and welcoming space. Yarnball is that place for me, and it has provided so many opportunities for myself and others in the community.

Balli, pictured with Dan Hull and Rachel Egboro.
Balli, pictured with Dan Hull and Rachel Egboro.
Courtesy of The Storyline

I'm most productive when I’m on stage; the majority of my stories are not written down. Challenging myself to focus raw emotions and experiences in a fluid way is exciting, and occasionally anxiety inducing. The stories I’ve received the most positive feedback from are ones I’ve decided to share the moment I take the mic off the stand. People really connect with the candidness of an unplanned story.

My inspiration comes from the desire to share experiences that are rarely talked about, I’m familiar with feeling alone or ashamed of certain events in my past. By bringing those stories to the stage I can show others that it’s possible to move forward and gain insight from difficult situations. I encourage others to participate in the often therapeutic practice of storytelling. We all have such unique perspectives and histories that I think we forget how many people have lived through the same struggle. It’s refreshing to see storytellers week after week expose their biggest fears, failures, and lessons learned. And I am consistently driven to remove the stigma from talking about the least palatable parts of life.

I've learned most from my conspirators Dan Hull and Rachel Egboro; they took me in and helped mold me into the host and storyteller I am today. Rachel brings a dedication to the development and structure of stories I was unaware of before I joined Yarnball; by listening to her on stage, I’ve learned what works in the flow of a personal narrative. Dan is definitely my mentor in storytelling; we’ve discussed many difficult stories and he’s helped me tackle my own demons in the process. Something he told me once always resonates when I consider telling stories more than once: he told me that the story doesn’t necessarily change, but your perspective of self does. This has helped see myself as the woman I’ve become instead of the woman I once was.

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Good work should always have heart. I firmly believe that Yarnball is successful because we have created a show that inspires others to have compassion for their fellow peers, something that is increasingly rare in a digital world. This all starts with the tone that Dan, Rachel, and myself set through hosting and by telling our own stories. By striving to create a supportive and inclusive space for people to share and connect can be difficult. There are a lot of people who are ready to complain, critique, and condescend any form of optimism that exists downtown. Yarnball has prevailed as one of the most encouraging shows at Lawn Gnome; our audience is engaged and present. People have found their voices and formed lasting connections through open-mic storytelling.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more accessible mediums for sharing art to all audiences. This would help provide a lasting impact to the artist community in Phoenix. This starts with venues and transportation, which can be inconsistent in Phoenix. But I think we have an opportunity to create access since our scene is younger than other major cities. I would love to see an increase in support for artist owned venues, co-work spaces and collaboration. First Friday is wonderful example of that, with pop-up performance stages in unused parking lots. My hope is that we can shift the mindset of our community as a whole to support the local businesses that provide space for the art that keeps our culture thriving.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato


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