Lauren Huffman And The Comeback of Storytelling

Turns out, the guy was a serious loser. Not even a “bad boy” who lived down to already low expectations. Just your basic self-centered jerk. Of course, that hadn’t stopped Lauren Huffman from wasting a nice chunk of her early thirties on him, she told an audience gathered recently at a “Loose Chicks” storytelling show at Uncharted Books in Logan Square.

“It was such a tumultuous, stupid relationship that like, ‘Hello, why didn’t you cut this off years ago?’ But of course you don’t. You keep going. ‘This is the exception,’ you say to yourself. ‘He is going to change.’ And he doesn’t,” she recounted.

As Huffman began to spin her relationship-gone-sour tale of regret, she figured it might generate a tinge of sympathy, maybe even a disheartened head shake or two. But au contraire. “People were on the floor laughing, because everyone can relate to being so caught up in a stupid relationship that you just can’t let go,” she said. “In the story, they saw themselves and they were laughing at themselves for making the same stupid mistakes.”

Storytelling, Huffman explained, is all about connecting: “How do we connect with one another? By stories. Everyone is always telling stories. My friends in the storytelling community range in age from twenty-three to eighty-five, and what you discover is that for all of our diversity, everyone is just the same underneath. My eighty-three-year-old friend can tell a story about losing her job in 1975, and I can tell her about losing my job in 2010, and we are able to connect on that. We went through the same type of thing, even though we were different decades and completely different times of life.”

And therein lies the seductive attraction of storytelling, a social and cultural act of expression, often dressed up with theatrics, improvisation, and a little extra sauce, that has been connecting performers and audiences dating back to the cave man.

The good news is that the storytelling connection is being regularly booked in close to two dozens venues around Chicago, and on any given weekday night in Chicago is playing out in at least three or four public venues, primarily on the North Side. And with all that buzz, it has in recent years spawned a vibrant local subculture.

“I don’t know if it’s actually true, but it feels to me like Chicago is the national hub of storytelling,” said Huffman, whose participation in and multi-pronged promotion of storytelling shows has helped spur its growing local popularity.

Currently, the thirty-three-year-old Old Town resident hosts two storytelling shows. “Do Not Submit: Old Town,” at The Sedgewick Stop, is an open mic show on the third Thursday of the month. Often, it serves as practice for storytellers preparing to take their act to the Moth, a New York-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling.

Huffman also co-hosts and produces “Tenx9,” an international storytelling showcase that features nine storytellers on the last Wednesday of the month at Kibbitznest. (Other storytelling haunts Huffman flags are Hopleaf, Mrs. Murphy’s and Sons, Mary’s Attic, Holiday Club, Emerald City Coffee, Uncharted Books, and Rosa’s Lounge.)

As well, Huffman co-hosts Flabby Hoffman’s Radio Extravaganza, on 1680 AM Saturdays from one to four in the afternoon. “This is the low-rent Howard Stern, and I am Robin Quivers. It’s a cast of misfits and a lot of noise. I enjoy the whackiness,” says Huffman, who manages to squeeze in a story here and there. Then there is her critically acclaimed “Waiting for Huffman,” which sold out at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. She and her two partners are currently prepping for a one-shot appearance at the next Sketch festival in January. “I’ve always loved being on stage and I love being the center of attention and this is the perfect way for me to get all those things and connect with other people,” said Huffman, whose live wire personality complements her affinity for storytelling.

Huffman, a native of suburban Deerfield, recently brought her relatable and entertaining stories to Kibbitznest in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. (Photo by Geri Fernandez)

Her first performance was a backyard rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for her father as he mowed the lawn. She was two. Singing, dancing, and acting lessons followed, and later on parts in plays and musicals at Deerfield High School, followed by a degree in broadcast journalism and TV from Columbia College in 2006.

Early in her professional career, Huffman worked on the reality-based Judge Mathis show and booked guests on the Jerry Springer show. “What I learned then is that you really can relate to anyone,” she said. “Growing up in Deerfield and going to a private college is a completely different world than your typical Springer guest, but at the end of the day we are all human and we all connect. We all have the same feelings.”

Shortly after Huffman moved to Wells Street, across the street from Second City, she signed up for an improv class, then a storytelling class, and began telling tales at Second City’s Sunday Morning Stories in Donny’s Skybox. One thing led to another and from 2014 to 2016 she was co-host and producer of “Sunday Mornings Stories” and the “Sunday Morning Open Mic” show that followed, each of them attracting a committed mix of storytellers, comedians, and fans of both.

Of course, her storytelling gigs, both past and present, do not a living make. That’s where Huffman’s day job comes in. She is a senior manager of ad operations at Performics, a performance marketing agency. “I manage why you received the ad you saw when you are on the internet,” she explained.

“Many of us, myself included, obviously need a day job in order to survive, but that doesn’t have to define us and we don’t have to erase what is behind everything,” said Huffman.

As for the nuts and bolts of a storytelling show, some are booked in advance, while others take walk-ins. Typically, they are allowed to last five to eight minutes. In all cases, the story has to be a personal one told in the first-person that actually happened.

And the storyteller also has to have their head on straight. “The good storyteller has already processed what they went through and is able to present it in survival mode,” said Huffman. Storytellers whose experience is perhaps too fresh or unresolved “tend to take people out of the story rather than connect with it and relate to it.”

Still, anyone can be a good storyteller, she said. “You just have to put your ego aside and you have to put your fears aside and actually be on stage. You have to really bomb, too, but once you get past that, you become so much stronger in your performing and you are really able to connect with an audience.” Huffman figures she has told thousands of stories, “and most of them were bombs.” But that’s okay, she said, because when you are in the middle of a bomb, “you keep going going, and that’s when you learn the most.”

But bomb or no bomb, both the telling and the listening potentially make for a uniquely personal and even profound moment, she said.

“In a weird way, I think what I like most about storytelling is being recognized for being human. People come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Thank you for telling that story. I needed to hear that.’ I’ve known people who ended a relationship that had been going on for fifteen years because they heard a story from someone who finally did it. I love to hear when people tell you they moved forward after they heard a story, or a story validated a feeling they had.”

And then there’s this: “You don’t feel as alone when you hear people tell stories.”

In her spare time, Huffman numbers animal rescue and “‘watching terrible reality TV” among her hobbies. “I love everything on Bravo, like all the housewives shows,” she said. “Basically, anything where I can completely turn off my current reality and watch these train wrecks live their life and feel better about myself.”

But that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time.

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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