Who's ready for storytime?
At long last, Raven Narratives return with community-connecting event

Who's ready for storytime?

Ellen Shinkle tells her story at the Raven Narratives in 2020 where the theme was "First/Last." Ironically, it was the last Raven Narratives since the pandemic hit. Now, after four years, the local story-telling event is returning./ Courtesy Photo

Jonathan Romeo - 03/07/2024

After a four-year hiatus, the Raven Narratives is making a comeback, bringing to life a storytelling event where your neighbors take center stage, telling tales filled with laughter, tears and sometimes really embarrassing details about their lives.

“We’re coming back,” Sarah Syverson, who founded the event with Tom Yoder, executive director of KSJD, said. “And almost four years exactly to the date.”

The Raven Narratives kicked off in early 2016 with a straightforward but daunting idea (especially for the public-speaking averse): get regular people to share a personal story on stage, each time focusing on a different theme.

Up until 2019, the Raven Narratives held around four events a year across Southwest Colorado, mostly in Durango and Cortez. Indeed, the events, which usually sold out quickly, evidently struck a nerve within people who wanted to tell a story and those who wanted to listen.

“It’s a very human experience to want to tell a crazy story you experienced from your life, or something that transformed your life,” Syverson said. “And we invite everything from the micro to the macro.”

But then… 2020. However, even after the pandemic, Syverson and Yoder said they were not quite yet ready to bring the event back. In fact, it wasn’t until this past fall that the two started to feel the timing was right, compounded by interest from the community.

“We kept being asked by community members if we were bringing it back,” Syverson said. “I’m amazed people remembered. But it was an impetus for us.”

And so, at long last, the Raven Narratives will return this March, fittingly with the theme “Reemergence.” The shows sold out in record time, Syverson said, but take heart. Now that Raven Narratives is back for good, organizers are planning at least two other events this year

“For it to sell out so fast, signals that people really want it in their lives,” she said. “I think it connects the world in a way we need. It shows we’re not so siloed and isolated; we’re more alike than we think we are.”

See if it sticks

Around the time the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez was being built in the mid-2010s, Yoder started to think of outside-the-box ideas to bring to the community event space. Meanwhile, Yoder attended “The Moth,” a national storytelling event, in Telluride in May 2015.

“It was so impactful to hear these stories,” Yoder said. “It lit a fire in me.”

Yoder then talked to his friend and former KSJD colleague Syverson, who had done some one-woman shows over the years. The initial thought, Yoder said, was to bring a localized version of The Moth to Southwest Colorado.

The first event was in February 2016. Yoder and Syverson decided on “Wild Places” as the theme, and then reached out to their circle of friends and network for anyone interested in telling a story. Two nights were booked – one at the Sunflower and the other at Durango Arts Center.

“We were just like, ‘Let’s try it and see if it works and see if people are interested,’” Yoder said. “And it was really well received.”

Breaking the ice

A few months before an upcoming event, Raven Narratives will announce the theme and put out a call for pitches. Each story must be real, told in the first person and last about 8-10 minutes. Oh, and also no soap-boxing for your favorite presidential candidate or pizza place.

Syverson and Yoder come up with themes on their own, looking for that sweet spot for topics open enough for everyone to take their own spin on them. Past ones have included “Baggage,” “Exposure” and for Halloween, “Spooked.”

“We didn’t want everything to be challenging stories of drama and tumult,” Syverson said. “We wanted a mixture of joy, comedy, the unexpected – everything.”

The best part? Anyone can submit a pitch, whether they’ve had experience on stage or not. Yoder said his favorite tales often come from those who were initially shy about speaking up – but went for it anyway.

“You can feel them quiver on stage, and that they’re not a natural storyteller,” he said. “But still, there’s something in them that wants to tell it, and you can see their transformation on stage. That’s some of the most beautiful storytelling we’ve had.”

Letting it all out

Mary Quinn was in a similar situation. Previously, Quinn hadn’t spoken publicly about her felony charge and the stigma that some people associate with it (which was for having weed in South Dakota and was ultimately vacated. We know, boo South Dakota!).

“When I got my felony, I retreated into my shell,” Quinn said. “So it was like a release to be able to talk about it. I realized it does not identify me; it’s just part of my story and journey.”

Quinn, who previously had stage experience, ended up writing and performing a one-woman comedy show about it, “Felony Ever After.” And, she now heads Lower Left Improv, an improv company based in Durango that teaches improv classes and holds regular shows at the DAC.

“Without Raven Narratives, that burden and guilt would have stayed with me,” she said. “Now I have a sold-out show.”

Tom Garcia also found Raven Narratives at the right time. Still dealing with the emotions of the passing of a close friend, Garcia started working with plant medicine and holding fire ceremonies – practices that transformed him spiritually and made him feel less alone, he said.

So it was only fitting he told his story when Raven Narratives held a show in October 2018 with the theme “Belonging.”

“For a long time I felt alone, even though I had a wonderful wife, kids and a great community,” he said. “(Speaking at Raven Narratives) was like moving a big boulder out of the river so the rest (of my emotions) could flow through me. It was a turning point in my life to tell that story from the stage.”

For the lucky few who have tickets, Garcia will be taking the stage once again for Raven Narratives’ March shows.

Back better than ever

So, with people clearly pumped to share their tales, and consistently sold-out shows proving the demand, what happened to Raven Narratives in the years since the pandemic?

Well, it’s tough to talk about, the pair said. Syverson and Yoder admit those pandemic years hit hard, struggling to grasp how people all over the country and political spectrum reacted to everything happening.

“The pandemic hit me in a way, where I can say I lost my faith in humanity,” Yoder said. “I had to work through some general resentments, just about society and how things were looking from a cultural point of view.”

What’s more, Syverson said they wondered if they had it in them to host the event anymore.

“I felt like I was withdrawn,” she said. “Did I want to be that person on stage?”

Turns out, the same community spirit that made Raven Narratives a hit also sparked its return. Whether at the grocery store, in restaurants or wandering around town, people kept bumping into the duo, asking, “When is Raven Narratives coming back?”

“It got to the point, for me, where something shifted and it felt like (Raven Narratives) had a higher good; it wasn’t just entertainment or creating a place for someone to tell stories on stage,” Yoder said. “It was something that connected people on a deeper level.”

Syverson said that storytelling is such a deeply human experience. It’s a way to share, a way to connect and a way to build community. And now, more than ever, she’s hearing from people that this is precisely what they’re craving in their lives.

“We’re re-emerging, too,” Syverson said of the Raven Narratives. “We’re clear who we are, what we can offer, and we’re here to learn and grow and be aware of things as possible for the future.” ?

Who's ready for storytime?

Sarah Syverson and Tom Yoder co-founded the local story-telling event based on "The Moth" national storytelling event, in 2016./ Courtesy Photo