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Tom Cosgrove: Nearly normal storyteller

Posted: April 26, 2012 - 12:02am
Tom Cosgrove, in his kitchen.   Photo by Geoff Kirsch
Photo by Geoff Kirsch
Tom Cosgrove, in his kitchen.

Storyteller Tom Cosgrove writes and rehearses in his kitchen — standing up.

He thinks aloud and gestures expansively, pacing from sink to counter to stove like he’s cooking a meal, all the while twirling matches in his fingers as if he’s about to light a pilot he never quite gets to. Suddenly he stops, thinks and then starts twirling/pacing/gesturing again.

“I sit in a chair for a living,” said Cosgrove, 54, who, in addition to storyteller — although he actually prefers “monologist,” because it sounds more adult — describes himself as a full-time dad and part-time computer consultant.

“Plus, it’s the sunniest room in our house,” he said. “My son brings friends home and they stare at me. He just tells them ‘oh, don’t worry, that’s my dad working.’”

Even to Cosgrove himself, this doesn’t seem 100 percent normal. It’s more “nearly” normal.

In his stories (and on his website www.nearlynormalalaska.com), he and his family lead their nearly normal existences in a house right “along the concrete banks of Gold Creek,” in Juneau, Alaska, a place where “people live because almost no one else does,” rush hour lasts five minutes and “we all know more about our neighbors than we’d prefer.”

This Friday, Tom Cosgrove brings his Nearly Normal Tales to the University of Alaska Southeast’s Sound and Motion Arts at Egan series, April 27 at 7 p.m. at the Egan Lecture Hall, UAS Auke Lake Campus. Admission is free.

To hear Cosgrove tell it, his Sound and Motion appearance fits right in with his life’s nearly normal trajectory.

“I’m one of eight kids,” he said of his Irish Catholic roots. “We all aspired to be storytellers, writers, but none of us made a living at it.”

Although, Cosgrove notes, one of his sisters worked as a professional actress, and his brother, Jim, who also goes by the stage name “Mr. Stinky Feet,” tours the country as a popular children’s musician.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., —“Missouri, let’s make that absolutely clear” —Cosgrove earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology from the University of Tulsa in 1980.

He then worked as an entrepreneur in the then-nascent personal computer industry, opening the first software store in the Kansas City metro area, before “getting sucked into” a national accounting firm that relocated him to Chicago.

“I was in Chicago when I reached an epiphany.”

What epiphany?

“That’s actually one of my best stories, one of my most poignant, not only about experiencing an epiphany, but having the courage to act on it. Oh, it’s a great story. Of course, I can’t tell it to you,” he said. “Not before Friday’s show.”

Minus the undoubtedly colorful details, this epiphany landed Tom Cosgrove in a sleeping bag on the floor of a friend’s house in Juneau, circa 1990. Eventually marrying and starting a family, Cosgrove did stints in state government and as a self-employed software programmer. He now works as a consultant, which allows him the flexibility to write and rehearse.

“Throughout my life I attempted to publish prose, but I mostly got rejections,” he said. This led him to ask himself what, specifically, drew him to writing in the first place.

The answer: telling stories. And so, Tom Cosgrove the storyteller — er, monologist — was born.

“There’s so little feedback between writer and reader,” he said. “But with live storytelling I know immediately what works and what doesn’t. That’s why it’s so rewarding. And terrifying.”

Cosgrove’s jump from writing stories to telling them came by way of StoryCorps, an American oral history project that records people’s stories for preservation at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps also broadcasts a weekly segment on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

“So StoryCorps comes to Juneau, and I take my folder of old stories I’d written and go record. Halfway through my story — about my father’s death — I start breaking down; I can’t go on. Well, I look over and see the engineer crying, too,” said Cosgrove. “Here’s someone who does this all the time, and I’ve touched him.”

Honing his material with local actor, director and theater instructor Roblin Gray Davis, Cosgrove began thinking of his stories as performance pieces, writing his show as a working script. He also took classes with local storyteller and storytelling teacher Brett Dillingham.

“Brett helped me take a story I’d tell around the dinner table and shape it into something with meaning.”

In the spring of 2010 — “or was it fall of 2009? I’m bad with dates” — Cosgrove performed his first full show, “Nearly Normal Alaska,” at the Canvas, and continued to refine his act wherever he could: in his kitchen, after hours in the sanctuary of Northern Light Church, at public libraries in Juneau, Haines and Tenakee, at the Sheldon Museum in Haines — even the Southeast Alaska State Fair.

“On the main stage, with a kids’ concert over here, and lumberjacks throwing axes over there,” he said of the experience, his first major booking, “that was challenging. But a good lesson in learning to adjust.”

Last summer, Cosgrove took “Nearly Normal Alaska” on a tour of the Lower 48, packing his wife and children into a mini-van for a 14-week, 10,000-mile road trip — ultimately the basis for his most recent show, “Nearly Normal Road Trip,” which debuted at the Juneau Public Library this past March.

For his Sound and Motion show, Cosgrove plans to blend his best stories from the Nearly Normal compendium with two entirely new stories and an update on a story that “continues to evolve.”

“Storytelling is dynamic,” he said. “My stories are all told through me. As I change, they change.”

In addition to stories about everyday routine — arguing with his wife about expiration dates on food, for instance — Cosgrove also plans to tell adventure stories: “mountain climbing, animal encounters, cold water, taking my wife and kids on a three-month road trip. You know, adventure.”

Basically, though, Tom Cosgrove’s Nearly Normal Tales seek to touch upon universal experiences.

“We all have moments,” he said. “Some of them are humorous, some of them are poignant. Everyone’s got stories to tell, you know? These are the things that happen in our lives.”

Visit Tom Cosgrove’s blog at nearlynormalalaska.com. For more on Sound and Motion, visit www.uas.alaska.edu.

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