Secret Storytelling Shows (Sssh...) were live guerrilla busking shows that happened in the parks, streets, and subways of New York City and San Francisco.
Storytelling was not cool back in the early 2000s. There were very few NYC performance venues for storytellers—let alone a solo bass playing storyteller like me. I wasn’t quite a folktale teller, nor was I a singer-songwriter, but I tried working in those circles, because where else?
Reluctant venues told me, “we tried storytelling,” if I managed to get them on the telephone after repeated attempts at trying to book a gig.
The Moth was new to hosting its now-famous story slam, which was based on the popular poetry slams of the 1990s. I attended a few times, but I didn’t like paying money to possibly get five minutes onstage.
I tried performing at other NYC open mics: The Raven hosted by Joie Dead Blonde Girlfriend, and Lach’s marathon Antihoot open mic at the Sidewalk Cafe. At the latter, I’d sign up at 7:30pm, leave, come back at midnight, and get on stage by 3am to do five minutes for a small crowd of other performers who were barely awake, and awaiting their turn.
Eventually I got a few decent gigs: a spot on Sunday (AKA weird act night) at The Living Room. It snowed a several feet on the night of my a twenty-minute set at CBGB’s Gallery. The bartender enjoyed my show, but that wasn’t enough to get me booked at the famed venue for a second chance. I landed a midnight residency on Saturdays residency at the Detention Lounge, which was great, but the venue was short lived.
The Nuyorican was a spoken word venue, but it was focused on performance poetry. Comedy venues wanted performers to bring at least ten friends who would buy two drinks each. I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I wasn’t able to pay to play. Something had to give.
Inspired by NYC buskers Ned Landin (Flathead), Theo Eastwind, the Saw Lady, and Phil Roebuck, I started performing on the streets and in the subways. I modified a Squire Jazz bass to make the instrument lighter to transport, and used an Electro Harmonix battery-powered Freedom Amp mounted it to an A.L.I.C.E. backpack frame for portability. Later I added a microphone mount so my voice could be heard over the din of New York.
I placed ads on craigslist.org and drove traffic to my website where folks could join my Secret Storytelling Show notification list. Announcements went out via email, and I’d meet my audience on location in the parks, streets, or subways. When I left NYC, I took the shows to San Francisco.
The subway late at night was my favorite place to perform. Every ten minutes or so there’d be an entirely new audience, which meant that I could workshop and repeat my stories. I once got a standing ovation from commuters on the 42nd Street platform. Woo-hoo!
The streets don’t lie. There’s immediate feedback from real people who reward you with cash donations or punish you with indifference, and sometimes scorn. I was harassed by bucket drummers, police, and street people. On the plus side, the street has no time limit, no audience size requirement, and no middleman—just the freedom of getting paid while you practice and perfect your performance craft.
Secret Storytelling Show Locations
New York City: Union Square, Union Square Subway, Stuyvesant Cove Park, Battery Park, 42nd Street Times Square subway platform and halls
San Francisco: Haight Street, Panhandle Park, Fisherman’s Wharf