- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cindy Kane was 21, “a poor college kid on the way home from Bible study,” when she experienced the scariest moment of her life.

“It felt like forever, but it was maybe 15 or 20 minutes,” Ms. Kane, now 34, said to a small group of D.C.-area residents with their own terrifying moments who gathered Sunday in a Northeast dance studio for a SpeakeasyDC rehearsal.

In 7 minutes and 23 seconds, Ms. Kane took her audience back to the empty subway car in Philadelphia, to her seat next to her boyfriend as the they watched two armed men guarding both exits. She spoke of her shivering and her boyfriend’s calm demeanor and how shocked she felt when she fled the scene, unsure of where she was and stunned by the thought she might never see the boy again.

Formerly Washington Storytellers Theatre, SpeakeasyDC was established in 1997 and encourages area residents to step up to the microphone and tell their stories. Audience members include storytellers and everyday people looking for offbeat entertainment.

There are special performances every month, a monthly open-mic series, as well as courses that run for several weeks that teach newcomers the craft. Since 2007, the nonprofit has grown from offering one class to 18 classes.

From left: Cindy Kane, Derek Hills, Amy Saidman, Stephanie Garibaldi, Alex Petri and Kristala Pouncy listen as Brian Leonard recounts an experience of diving in shark-infested waters to a class meeting of SpeakeasyDC students in preparation Sunday for performances later in the month at Dance Place in Washington. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)
From left: Cindy Kane, Derek Hills, Amy Saidman, Stephanie Garibaldi, Alex Petri ... more >

The stories must be true. But aside from the general theme of a performance night — such as scary stories on Oct. 29 — and a seven-minute time limit, storytellers have free rein as to what they will relate to their audience.

“People want that honest connection; personal, true stories,” said Stephanie Garibaldi, director of education for SpeakeasyDC. “People connect, and that’s what keeps people coming back.”

While storytelling in the District has begun to grow in popularity in the past few years, it’s not a new concept, said SpeakeasyDC’s Artistic Executive Director Amy Saidman.

Citing examples such as the Moth, New York City’s successful storytelling nonprofit, and the Chicago Public Radio-produced “This American Life,” Ms. Saidman said there is “a market and appetite for true stories from the heart.”

What determined a “scary” story is unique to each person at Sunday’s rehearsal.

S.M. “Scott” Shrake lays out the evidence that supports his hunch that his grandmother was involved in a killing.

D.C. resident Derek Hills recounts a case of humiliating stage fright. And Brian Leonard, also a D.C. resident, has the group chuckling at his re-enactment of a scuba adventure in shark-infested waters.

Mr. Shrake also thinks the District is “a little behind on the trend of telling stories.”

The 40-year-old Adams Morgan resident has been with SpeakeasyDC for 1½ years and even started his own storytelling organization, Story League.

“You hear ‘storytelling’ and you usually think of children’s stories and dragons, but this is first person, autobiographical and usually funny,” he said. “People will pay to see it.”