I didn’t know storytelling was an art form until I attended the Forest Park Arts Alliance (FPAA) Moth storytelling event at Exit Strategy Brewery on Sept. 27. The event featured five experienced storytellers from the Chicago area. They were a diverse bunch and the brewery was an ideal venue.

The tellers included Forest Park’s Susan Rohde, who described finding her way through Germany, using her high school German. R.C. Riley described dating a string of “skinny white boys” before finally finding love. Errol McLendon recalled trying to win a beer-chugging contest. Lou Greenwald reminisced about chaperoning a group of students through Israel. In an ecumenical moment, Greenwald arranged for the three Christian students to baptize themselves in the Jordan River.

The last storyteller was the most prominent. Nestor Gomez has won national awards for his tales. He described the harrowing experience of being an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala living in Chicago. Besides introducing the speakers, Margaret Burk had her own tale to tell — about a neighbor and her sister re-gifting a box of fruitcakes for 20 years. 

Rohde believes storytelling is a good community builder. “We put people in boxes without getting to know them,” she said, adding that people who have the nerve to get up and speak feel vulnerable, but audiences are kind. There were at least 40 people at Exit Strategy that night, listening while sipping wine and beer. The tales were between 5 and 10 minutes in length. Some were funny some were serious but all were compelling. Rohde and the other storytellers were paid a $25 stipend.

Storytelling is a national phenomenon and Moth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling. Moth hosts festivals and competitions nationwide. Rohde noted that Gomez has been a Moth Slam winner 70 times. He is among the few making a living by telling stories. McLendon is another prominent storyteller, who was invited to the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which typically draws 10,000 people. 

Hosting a storytelling event has long been on the mind of Lin Beribak, a charter member of FPAA. “Forest Park is more than a bar town. It’s filled with artists, writers and musicians.” The FPAA reaches out to residents and supports their artistic projects. This year, they organized five Stoop Session concerts, Garage Galleries and their first spoken word event. 

Beribak believes artistic events improve the financial health of the village. They raise our commercial, retail and residential values. The FPAA has more projects planned, like a Poetry Slam and a film fest for young filmmakers. As one member noted, the FPAA doesn’t just discuss projects, they make them happen.

The FPAA is hosting their next storytelling event at Exit Strategy on Tuesday, Oct. 25. There’s a $15 cash cover for non-members and $10 for members. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., the stories start at 7 and end at 9. 

Burk will again serve as host and has lined-up of six storytellers, including Rohde and McLendon. They’re planning to tell scary stories in keeping with the time of year. Some will be based on fairy tales. Burk has long hosted storytelling events in Oak Park and River Forest, including “Backroom Stories” at the Oak Park Brewing Company. She has also hosted national Zoom storytelling events. She believes good storytellers find what’s poignant in their lives and tell tales that “nourish the audience.” 

This would include natural storytellers, like Katherine Valleau, the co-owner of Exit Strategy. During a previous interview, she told a compelling story about how the brewery navigated the pandemic. Valleau promises to take the stage some night. 

Storytelling also appeals to me. Did I tell you about the Thanksgiving we hosted when our oven suddenly burst into flames?

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.