Arts & CultureArts Features

Story Teller Open Mic Boosts Charlotte’s Soaring Storytelling Scene

Oh! The stories you'll hear

Story Teller Open Mic event in Charlotte, NC
Julie McElmurry (third from right, top) hosts a Story Teller Open Mic event. (Courtesy of STOM)

A teacher remembers that one bratty, boundary-testing kid who finally got their comeuppance on a school trip. An older man recalls his first job at a rural hotel and how he lent an overly helpful hand to a thankful thief. Another man recounts his supernatural trans-dimensional encounter in a hotel room.

This is just a surface sampling of the pieces of time and memory that make up people’s personal stories — stories being shared on a rainy January night within the cozy confines of Common Market Oakwold.

Julie McElmurry is the producer of Story Teller Open Mic, which meets on the last Saturday of every other month at Common Market. McElmurry encourages people to place their names in a white cowboy hat and reminds them to keep their stories between three and five minutes.

“I’ve only [recently] started using a timer,” McElmurry tells me a few days later. Already she can tell it has given the (mostly) amateur storytellers a helpful guardrail, a reminder to each that their story should be winding down. “That’s the most I want to do to shape a story.”

Meanwhile, storytelling events like the ones McElmurry organizes are seeing a renaissance in Charlotte.

Once Upon a Trauma Storytelling features a mix of the harrowing and healing, which “transform(s) isolating pain into connective power.” Initially held at 3102 VisArt, Once Upon a Trauma recently presented a program of Black voices in honor of Black History Month at NoDa’s Free Range Brewing.

Epoch Tribe has been at the forefront of Charlotte’s storytelling scene for years, hosting events that center untold narratives in small and large productions ranging from co-founder Hannah Hasan’s Muddy Turtle Talks to I am Queen: Charlotte, scheduled to take place at Belk Theater on March 3.

Then there’s Charlotte Storytellers, which is approaching a decade of stories, having launched in February 2015 and still meeting regularly at Edge City Brewery in the East Forest neighborhood. That esteemed gathering focuses on workshopping and honing the presentation of stories by first-timers, amateurs and pros.

And for those who want to learn, Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte (CATCh) hosts a regular six-week storytelling class at its location on South Boulevard, culminating in a student showcase at the same venue.

Add the city’s countless open mics that welcome storytellers among their mix of performers, comics and musicians, and Charlotte is bursting at the seams with stories to be told and heard.

That said, storytelling is a pastime as old as early humans who first gathered around a fire pit. We’re sentient beings that take stimuli, experiences and memory, then craft it all into a narrative every day. A story is how we navigate and make sense of the world.     

“[Storytelling] helps us all feel a lot less alone,” McElmurry explains. “[Stories] take us on this adventure to … places we’re probably never going to go, but we’re able to feel like we’re part of it because we’re relating to this other human … describing their highs, lows and struggles, dusting themselves off and getting back up again.”

From childhood adventures to documentary filmmaking

McElmurry grew up at the Adventure Trail Campground, a business owned by her parents outside of Cherokee in Jackson County. An extrovert at an early age, McElmurry’s earliest memories include welcoming visiting campers’ kids and showing them around the camp’s facilities, which included a swimming pool, a playground and hiking trails.

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Story Teller Open Mic event (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I would run around the campground unsupervised and have new combinations of kids every few days because families would come camping,” McElmurry remembers. “It was like Lord of The Flies without the bad parts.”

For a stretch of four to five years during that time, McElmurry remembers making the hour-and-a-half trip to the International Storytelling Center Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“I was aware that … there were professional storytellers, and [that] people traveled from all over the country to come hear them,” she says.

When she was 16, McElmurry’s parents agreed to let her apprentice for the summer with Maine-based professional storyteller Jackson Gilman. McElmurry traveled from town to town through Maine with Gilman, handing out flyers, setting up chairs at venues and selling tickets at the door.

Gilman told stories, sang and played guitar.

“It was like a one-man vaudeville show,” McElmurry says.

McElmurry attended North Carolina State University, where she earned a degree in Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management with a minor in International Studies. While at college, McElmurry planned cultural programs with international students including parties and dances with students from around the world.

After graduating, she worked at Hostelling International Boston before spending a belated gap year working at Bruegger’s Bagels in Asheville and Boston, crashing on a friend’s couch in Berkeley, California and traveling to Europe. She has since visited 23 countries.

McElmurry then worked at the YMCA Youth Emergency Shelter in Hartford, Connecticut, before becoming a campus minister at Wake Forest University. She spent 11 years at Wake while spending her summers earning master’s degrees in Religion and Religious Education from Fordham University in New York City and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University in western New York.

During those summers, many of McElmurry’s roommates were nuns. While all of her travels and adventures had cultivated her love for storytelling, it was these women who inspired her the most.

“I had so many times laughing and hearing [their] stories that I … wanted to capture some of [them],” McElmurry says. A volunteer gig visiting Jesuit priests in nursing homes cemented that notion.

“[One priest] had been a vaudeville performer,” McElmurry says. “He said he and his partner would hang out in the rafters above a show and try to write down jokes from Jimmy Durante.”

By 2015, she had moved to Charlotte, where she saw a Facebook ad offering a $1,000 grant to film a documentary. She immediately thought of the sisters and nuns she had befriended.

She already owned a camcorder, so she Googled “How do you make a documentary.” Eight weeks later, she completed her first film, which she showed to a small audience in Charlotte. She’s gone on to make seven documentaries, four of which are about women in religious orders.

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Participant at a Story Teller Open Mic event. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Realizing she needed more training in her field, McElmurry looked into a documentary filmmaking class that cost $2,000. She decided the money could be better spent funding an affordable workshop program.

“I thought, ‘What if I found other people like me that wanted to learn,” McElmurry says. “Then, all those people could chip in and pay for [teachers], and I could go to film school for free.”

So, in 2017 McElmurry created the Charlotte Unconventional Film School. By 2019, the school had held over 150 workshops, many led by film industry professionals.

Meanwhile, McElmurry’s interest in hearing and telling stories, whether in person or on film, led her to Charlotte Storytellers. She started attending sessions regularly in 2017, but when the group went on hiatus and resumed sessions post-COVID, she didn’t return.

By that time, she had launched her own event.

“It was the summer of 2021, where COVID had been going on a long time, and I missed live events,” McElmurry says. “I asked myself, ‘What is the easiest possible thing that I could put on?’”

She had been listening to storytelling podcasts like The Moth and Risk, which inspired her to produce a storytelling open mic.

“I didn’t have to do a whole lot to prepare,” McElmurry says. “I just had to get the word out and invite people.”

Common Market Oakwold’s Roger Raymer got onboard. The weekend after Thanksgiving 2021, Story Teller Open Mic held its first show. McElmurry deliberately chose “story teller” over the compound word “storyteller” because she feels the latter is jargon and therefore exclusive.

“I’m willing to butcher the language to make [the open mic] as welcoming as possible,” McElmurry says. The event’s first iteration was so successful that a second was scheduled. Eventually McElmurry and Raymer decided on a show on the last Saturday of every other month.

“I think that every month is too frequent,” McElmurry says. “You want something to be a little bit rare and precious for people to prioritize it.”

The intersection of life and narrative in film

It was 1976 in the suburbs of Chicago. I was 16 years old, and somehow Harvey, a middle-aged man, had talked me into getting into his unmarked work van.

Harvey told me that in his spare time, he entertained sick children in the hospital while dressed as a clown.

Harvey also mentioned that he owned a construction company, and that he might have a good-paying job for a kid like me. He even confessed that he loved performing magic tricks.

I asked if he could do one for me, but Harvey demurred. He didn’t have any of his props, including a trick pair of handcuffs.  “Maybe I can show you one later,” he said.

It’s 2024, and I’m telling my story on camera for documentary filmmaker and storyteller Andy Heck at his office space at Charlotte Art League. Charlotte-based Wisconsin native Heck is a friend and colleague of McElmurry. He had heard me tell my true 1970s tale at a Story Teller Open Mic in fall 2023.

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Story Teller Open Mic event at Common Market – Oakwald. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Heck thought then that it could make a good documentary, but it just needed shaping. For instance, when I told the story live, Heck felt I should have built suspense.

For the camera, Heck suggests I withhold Harvey’s identity until the end the story, allowing an audience to piece together the clues until they realized that “Harvey” actually turned out to be Chicago’s killer clown, serial murderer John Wayne Gacy — a disturbed man who used his handcuff trick to incapacitate young men and relied on his construction business to bury his victim’s bodies.

We do a couple more takes where I tell the story in slightly different ways.

Heck was one of the first people McElmurry recruited to attend Charlotte Unconventional Film School. He was a teacher as well as a student there, instructing one of the school’s classes. Heck, who launched his production company Perz Media in 2021, got involved in Charlotte’s storytelling scene around the same time as McElmurry.

“I started going six or seven years ago … to Charlotte Storytellers,” Heck says. “Originally it was at The Third Place coffee shop, which was in the basement of a church.”

He remembers the meetings as group-led efforts, which included interactive games as well as workshopping sessions for stories.

“I’ve always had this inclination to entertain people,” Heck offers. “But I never saw myself as the type of person who is going to get onstage and act in a play, or tell comedy.”

Instead he turned to documentary filmmaking, where he can perfect the story he wants to tell. He sees a similar opportunity with storytelling.

“As I get further into my filmmaking career and storytelling, I’m learning more about the power of stories, not just [the] grandiose [ones], but the everyday stories that everyone has,” Heck says. “Often I share a film or a story, and I meet somebody … telling me how they connected with the story because of something that had happened in their past.”

One such impactful everyday narrative appears in Heck’s award-winning short Junkin’- A Redemption Story. Here, the filmmaker turns his camera on his father to document the elder Heck’s lifelong battle with alcoholism, depression and hoarding, and the path he found to recovery.

Junkin’, which is available free on YouTube, saw its Charlotte premiere in February at Noda Art House. The screening was presented by Charlotte Unconventional Film School, and the documentary short lists McElmurry in the credits for her support.

Heck touches on the dark subject matter that courses through some stories, harrowing themes and moments that inform Junkin’, my encounter with a notorious serial killer and topics that arise at Once Upon a Trauma. Although Heck believes all stories deserve to be heard, he feels some should be preceded by the courtesy of trigger warnings.

“You should absolutely be able to share a story as long as you’re not saying something with the intent of hurting someone else,” he says.

Andy Heck (Photo by Kiefer Andrew)

Similarly, McElmurry says any story can be conveyed in a million different ways, and that storytellers should read the room.

“My preference is that everyone leaves [the open mic] feeling better than when they came in,” she says.

While she has included a story about someone encountering their friend’s torturer in one of her documentaries, McElmurry prefers that people leave her event “feeling lighthearted and less alone in the world.”

“You’re taking people on a journey when you tell a story, so don’t harm other people as they’re giving you the gift of listening to you,” she says.

That said, McElmurry thinks the most interesting part of Story Telling Open Mic happens when there aren’t any stories being told at all.

“The most important thing that happens is people talking to each other and connecting during the intermission and after the show,” she says. “It’s bringing people together.”

To illustrate her point, McElmurry recalls living in Boston at age 22 and being taken with a statue of Eliot Morison on Commonwealth Avenue. The statue depicts the military historian sitting on a boulder wearing a baseball cap.

“It’s a very modern-looking statue, and it says; ‘Dream dreams, then write them down. Aye, but live them first,’” McElmurry says.

In effect, it’s living that unleashes and informs stories, she says: “People got to live a little.”

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