Every Wednesday night, a crowd of people gets together at the Lawn Gnome bookstore and tells stories. Yarnball Storytelling Mic is about as simple as it gets: There’s a basic stage, a speaker system, and an audience crowded into old chairs. The outdoor space is so open that you can watch planes landing over downtown skyscrapers.
“I think it’s a desire to see something real,” says Dan Hoen Hull, co-creator of Yarnball. “We think in narrative. The storytellers are mirroring what’s in our heads, hopefully in an artistic way, but at least in an honest way.”
For Hull, this is more than lip service. After a half-decade of hosting story sessions in Phoenix, the Detroit native hopes to strengthen the storytelling scene even more. If all goes well, a passion project could become a nonprofit organization – and a pillar in the local arts scene.
“Before, we were more of a house band,” Hull says. “Now, we’re a band on the road.”
If you’re familiar with The Moth, the world-famous storytelling series that started in New York, you already know the drill. People stand up and recount a tale that is personal and true. They don’t bring aids, like notes or props, only themselves. They cover the gamut of tones and topics. One speaker explains why she broke into her own house and blamed it on a fictional burglar. A man describes how he ended up in jail. A woman in a wheelchair recounts how she broke her neck diving into a pool.
Yarnball is part of a larger project called The Storyline, which Hull founded with Rachel Egboro around 2012. While Yarnball is a casual community event, drawing a wide range of regulars, Storyline is a more serious endeavor: Hull and Egboro host workshops, cultivate storytellers, and produce themed evenings.
“I think storytelling is the sexy thing to do right now,” Egboro says. “I think it’s important for all modern people.”
Like any great raconteur, Hull has a colorful past. He was a dedicated student of Zen Buddhism, an experience he recounts in his one-man show, Bad Buddhist. He performed stand-up in New York City, and he and his wife spent many years splitting their time between Phoenix and the Big Apple.
In 2012, Hull attended a “story slam” at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. In a rare moment of haughtiness, Hull was certain he would win the competition. Most of the contestants looked like rookies, and Hull had enough experience on stage to play the odds.
But he did not expect Egboro, who had recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in English. Gentle and easygoing, Egboro was an unassuming presence — at first.
“I had never done storytelling before,” Egboro recalls. “It was my first time ever.”
Egboro told her story, wowed the judges, and took first place. Hull took second. Years later, it now seems significant that the theme of the evening was “connection.”
“I saw her and thought, ‘This woman could be an amazing storyteller,’” Hull recalls.
Shortly thereafter, Egboro signed up for one of Hull’s storytelling workshops. Hull was so impressed with Egboro’s abilities that he offered to collaborate with her. They started the regular series at Lawn Gnome, a used bookstore on Roosevelt Row with ample performance space in the back. After a time, they conscripted Jessie Balli, another prodigious greenhorn, to co-host.
Yarnball has evolved over the past couple of years. The event was once free, but organizers found that a $5 cover discouraged lukewarm guests. (Patrons who sign up to tell a story still get in free.) Open mics are still unpredictable, but that is part of what they enjoy about the process.
“As long as people are genuinely themselves,” says Hull. “I like the razor’s edge of the open mic. Your expectation permeates the environment. And what makes it work is the host.”
Instead of story slams, Yarnball keeps things egalitarian – all comers are entitled to their six to eight minutes of fame.
“Story slams were creating competition where that wasn’t necessary,” Hull notes.
From the Yarnball crowd, Hull and Egboro farm for skilled storytellers, whom they often invite to more formal events, like the recent Halloween-themed revue Haunted. These shows are planned well in advance, curated by either Hull or Egboro, and enable them to rehearse their material. During a static set-list, storytellers often echo each other’s words and themes, lending a certain “magic” to the evening, as Hull puts it.
On Saturday, November 14, for instance, Hull will host Holidaze, a series of irreverent holiday stories, at Space 55 theater in downtown Phoenix. Next month, Egboro will produce a series of women storytellers, called All-American Girl, at Changing Hands Bookstore. For each production, either Egboro or Hull takes “the driver’s seat,” as they put it.
These are the kinds of events that the pair hopes to embellish in the coming year. As Storyline attracts more talent and produces more shows, Hull and Egboro plan to apply for 501c3 status. The process is long and laborious, especially with such limited funds and manpower, but becoming a nonprofit will help solidify their name and afford new opportunities. As a longtime teacher, Hull wants to introduce storytelling to public schools. They hope to play larger venues and draw bigger crowds, while maintaining the “intimacy of strangers” – a concept Hull borrows from Garrison Keiller.
For such a simple medium, storytelling has become extremely popular. There are nationally recognized series, like The Moth and Mortified, but Phoenix has its own homegrown series, like Bar Flies and Arizona Storytellers. The difference, says Hull, is backing: Arizona Storytellers is produced by The Arizona Republic, and Bar Flies is produced by New Times. These series started big, are thoroughly advertised, and always sell out.
“They’re about fostering spaces to help the community tell stories,” Hull says. “Which is great. But we’re about creating spaces that foster a community of storytellers.”
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Hull and Egboro can wax philosophic about their craft for hours. Their relationship is punchy and good-humored, and hardly a minute passes without one of them relating a prescient anecdote. Part of the draw, they assert, is that a digitized world encourages people to do things the old-fashioned way. Hull himself collects vinyl records, and he knows folks who love typewriters and vintage bicycles.
“The things that are truly worthwhile,” Hull says, “are worth the extra effort.”
Holidaze takes place at 10 p.m. Saturday, November 14, at Space 55. Tickets are $5. Find more information at Space 55's website.