The open mic stood center stage like a blinking cursor on a blank Word document, expectantly waiting for someone to approach it. Natalie Nix, 26, a UF English alumna and emcee for The Conch, was the first to take on the mic.
Nix greeted everyone and introduced the parameters of the event: Tell a five-minute true story without using any notes relating to this month’s theme, “Tell your favorite story.”
In Gainesville, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month, talkers of all types are encouraged to come out to Lightnin’ Salvage, the open-air bar attached to Satchel’s Pizza, to share their stories. The nights are put on by Grow Radio, Gainesville’s community Internet radio station. The events are recorded, and select stories are uploaded as podcasts on the radio’s website, http://www.growradio.org.
Bill Bryson, founder of Grow Radio, was inspired to start the true storytelling project he named “The Conch” in Gainesville after visiting Atlanta and seeing its popularity there.
“I was just hopeful that this would capture an audience and an interest in local storytellers,” he said.
And a year since he organized the first Conch event, he believes it has.
Tuesday evening, The Conch’s one-year anniversary, the locals showed and, with alcoholic beverages and pizza slices in hand, settled into the booths facing the bar’s short platform stage.
Speakers are not allowed to use notes: “The idea is to tell a story from the heart and not get so caught up in your head,” Nix said.
Some people prepare their stories, but many choose to get up spontaneously, Bryson said.
“There seems to be a direct correlation to how much alcohol has been served,” he said and laughed.
Tuesday night, the crowd was hesitant, so Satchel’s bartenders were the first two speakers to break the invisible barrier between the tables and the stage.
Soon, a fairly steady stream of people came up with only slight persuasion from Nix.
Woody Blue, 61, a local massage therapist, told of her cross-country trip in an Oldsmobile with an expired registration and insurance, how she was stopped by police and let off, only to hit a deer and have a cop pull over.
The stories were a mixture of hilarious rants, confused but compelling meanderings and captivating dramas. The storytellers stood on stage with The Conch’s very own conch shell and had their moment to tell everyone to shut up and listen. And unlike Piggy who held the conch in “Lord of the Flies,” the participants were not beaten to death if the audience disliked what they had to say. Rather, the audience was friendly.
Woody Blue said she thinks it takes a lot of courage to share a part of yourself with strangers and to be vulnerable. It seems everyone listening Tuesday night recognized that.
We all know them. There are the people who can spin a five-second moment of a pizza falling to the ground into a gripping 10-minute story. They could be narrators on those murder mystery shows that build the suspense for an hour until dramatically revealing the perpetrator.
We also know the people who can drone on about nothing with no punch line in sight. Not unlike info marketers, they keep adding pointless details to try to spice up a dull product, but in the end, it’s still just a rag to clean things with.
But despite the quality of storytelling, the audience still clapped and cheered. It was like in karaoke when the singer doesn’t know the lyrics, is tone deaf or chooses Celine Dion, and the audience chimes in to support him or her.
The emphasis on community was evident and is representative of the go-local movement that Satchel’s, Grow Radio and the arts embody. Even the decorations were created from mostly local contributions, from the chandeliers made up of keys to the posts adorned with beer cans.
So if you are interested in backing a community radio station, a local restaurant and a dying art form, the tradition of The Conch will continue Oct. 8 with the prompt “You wanna hear something really scary.”
Participants are encouraged to dress in costume for the occasion.
There will also be dramatic under lighting to enhance the spooky effect.
A version of this story ran on page 7 on 9/12/2013 under the headline "The Conch turns one"