Washington, D.C., has become a thriving area for storytelling, and you can thank Amy Saidman for that. Deemed the city’s “storytelling matriarch,” by DC Modern Luxury, Saidman, 44, is the executive artistic director of SpeakeasyDC, a hotspot for storytelling classes and performances.
While Saidman is a storytelling pro (she’s been at it since 2001), she also performs stand-up comedy and produces SpeakeasyDC shows and other projects with partners including the Washington Improv Theatre, DC Shorts and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, which will host its fifth SpeakeasyDC production of My So-Called Jewish Life on Dec. 18. The University of Maryland alum, who grew up in Gaithersburg and lives in Columbia Heights, talked to WJW about how she became a renowned storyteller, SpeakeasyDC shows and tips for telling a great story.
What’s in store for this year’s My So-Called Jewish Life?
This year’s show features true stories about rival rabbis, forbidden romances, unconventional matchmaking and suspicious Russians.
Are Jewish themes prevalent in most SpeakeasyDC shows or is it only during holidays?
No, we’re not a Jewish organization. We have developed a number of partnerships with Jewish institutions because we have this relationship with Sixth & I. When we started doing My So-Called Jewish Life five years ago, other synagogues and the DCJCC reached out. We have created
performances around Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Purim and Passover. And My So-Called Jewish Life has nothing to do with Chanukah. We always do it during the holiday, but it’s about the general Jewish experience.
How did you get into the business and the art of storytelling?
I went to a show at the Black Cat in 1999. There were 30 people in a room, and it was billed as an open mic, storytelling night. I was like, I have to go to that, who wouldn’t go to that? I enjoyed it and it was also at that time that I was looking for new work. I wanted to be more creative. Washington Storytellers Theatre was hosting this speakeasy, and they had an opening. That’s it, really. But it’s not. I was doing improv. I had always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. So it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it was a genre I’d never heard of, and I was learning about. I was intrigued by this thing I didn’t know much about, and I grew into doing it myself and teaching it.
Who are your favorite storytellers?
We have some of the best storytellers in the country on our teaching faculty – people like Vijai Nathan, Kevin Boggs, Joseph Price and Adam Ruben, who have also produced solo shows. They are all fantastic examples of what storytelling is at its best.
What are three tips you have for becoming a better storyteller?
The first tip is to make it visual – paint the scene. Be honest with yourself and with us. And have an awareness of what it’s about.
Are there topics off-limits for you, personally, when you tell a story in front of an audience?
I wouldn’t call anything off-limits, but there are things that I don’t value as something that is appropriate for an audience. I don’t mean that in a sense of subject matter being too racy, but more that it’s not actually interesting. So, “Oh my God, I went on this trip and there were all these crazy things that happened before I caught my flight.” That’s not interesting. You think it is, because at the time it’s very dramatic. But it’s not interesting. I try to tell stories that have a larger, universal resonance with meaning and depth. You can still be playful and silly and fun. But as far as subject matter, race, class and sex are all open territory and good fodder.
The harder the subject, often the better the content. Atonement isn’t a lighthearted theme, but you can find lighthearted stories and depth with a theme like that. We had a show about death, and we had great stories. It was an entertaining night, even if you think “Why would I go to a night where the theme is about death and dying?” If you look at any kind of art, challenging things are often the best places to find good material.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I’m putting together a new show that will be about mental illness and living with it, whether it’s yourself or your loved one. It’s a new topic, a hard topic. Because of that, it’ll mean a lot to a lot of people. And I’m hosting Top Shelf at the Lincoln Theatre in January, which showcases SpeakeasyDC’s best stories of the year.