ANCHORAGE — Ever wonder what you’d do first after being struck by lightning? How it felt when Iliamna Street split apart in 1964? How you would react if you’d had cerebral palsy your whole life but didn’t realize it until you were in college?
Those are some of the tales related in Arctic Entries, a program that has gained a large, loyal following over the last several years in Anchorage (you can hear the stories mentioned above at arcticentries.com). The show is beyond minimal — just seven normal people telling a story of their choice for seven minutes, with a musical guest. But that hasn’t stopped the event from becoming overwhelmingly popular, and after a couple years of packing the events hall at the Snow Goose, it’s picked up and moved to the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Emily Fehrenbacher, who co-hosts the show with Matt Rafferty, said the decision to move Arctic Entries wasn’t easy. Organizers liked the intimate atmosphere of the Snow Goose and audience members liked being able to grab a drink during performances.
But not only was Arctic Entries selling out the 250-seat hall, Fehrenbacher said, people were showing up two hours early just to make sure they could get tickets. Staff were turning people away who’d waited in line for an hour. They starting hearing people weren’t coming because seats were so hard to come by.
“It was becoming obnoxious to our audience members,” Fehrenbacher said. Now, tickets are online and can be bought in advance.
The idea behind Arctic Entries isn’t complicated or original. Tara Loyd and James Keck started it at Cyrano’s in 2010, taking the concept and format from “The Stoop,” a storytelling series in Baltimore. In the Eastern states, they thought, people tell stories on a stoop. In Alaska, it’s the arctic entry where you’ll walk in the door saying, “You’ll never guess what just happened.” Arctic Entries is sometimes compared to the public radio program “This American Life,” but it’s actually much more low-tech — the presenters are not, in general, writers or performers, and there’s about zero production value added to their stories. (The stories are, however, broadcast on KSKA at 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesdays.) In its five seasons, Arctic Entries has never had the same storyteller twice.
The success, Fehrenbacher said, is because “people in Alaska just have phenomenal stories.”
“You could never get bored of it, because every show is so vastly different.”
Alaskans may have great material, but any tale can be made tedious with the right (or wrong) person telling it. And tedious is something Arctic Entries is extremely good at avoiding, a success perhaps due in part to the seven-minute time limit. No story can go on long enough to become truly boring and almost all the stories “leave you wanting more in a lot of cases,” said Fehrenbacher. The volunteer “story board” that runs Arctic Entries also does a lot of coaching. They encourage everyone — strongly — to attend an hour and half rehearsal, where they give detailed feedback.
Story coach Vikram Patel said that in addition to rehearsals, he happily volunteers several hours of his time with individual storytellers who want more help.
“If there’s someone interested in taking this risk, they will not be alone,” he said. “If they want to be helped and talked to we have a family of support. We’re all really into it.”
Volunteers coach storytellers to make stories personal, reflect on lessons learned, and “I tell people to memorize the very beginning and very end, and just have the middle flow in a structure they can understand,” Patel said. Also, he encourages storytellers to practice because they’re not allowed to bring anything on stage to read off of.
“My favorite storytellers are nervous story tellers, because if you’re nervous you’ll practice a lot and your story will kill,” Patel said. He likes to remind storytellers that they’ll be in front of a friendly and sympathetic audience.
The success of the program hinges on continually finding new people to get on stage. It’s the biggest challenge by far, Fehrenbacher and Patel said. About half the performers at Arctic Entries are sought out by story board members. Others have submitted a story online. While more people are reaching out as Arctic Entries becomes better known, Patel noted that the volunteers tend to run through their group of friends and acquaintances quickly.
Why not just invite the best storytellers back to perform again? Fehrenbacher said it’s an idea the storyboard has discussed a lot and decided against.
“Our mission is to build community, one story at a time. If we had the same people telling stories -- most of them people we know already -- then it’s not forcing us to find people from different communities, and making it as diverse as the community we live in,” said Fehrenbacher.
While they sometimes don’t accept a story for a show, Fehrenbacher said Arctic Entries has never turned down a storyteller. “If they want to get on that stage, we will find a way to include them.”
That stage has gotten bigger. Patel said their first show of the new season at the Discovery Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts sold about 566 tickets. A show at the Sydney Laurence, with 350 seats, sold out in 25 minutes.
The tickets have gotten a little more expensive (it’s now $8.25), but Arctic Entries donates all of its profits to a different local non-profit each year -- last year giving $13,000 to a program that serves at-risk Alaska youth, the About Alaska Youth & Parent Foundation P.O.W.E.R. program. This year they’ll donate to the Alaska Literacy Project, which offers tutoring in low-income communities.
“The key is that there are smart, funny interest and thoughtful people in Anchorage and they’re into the idea of a story telling program,” Patel said.
“No one leaves Arctic Entries and says ‘I wish I hadn’t told that story.’ They say, ‘That was the one of the best things I’ve done this year.’”
Arctic Entries next show, “Close Calls: Brushes with Fame, Fortune and Death,” will be held Nov. 12. For more information visit arcticentries.com, for tickets see centertix.net.