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Big Blue Door

Story-telling is an ancient art, but it’s getting a modern makeover in Charlottesville where two refugees from the theater world in New York are offering classes and promoting regular story-telling competitions.

It’s a Thursday night in Charlottesville – a school night – but the Wooly Mammoth bar is packed with people anxious to hear stories, like the one told by actress Broocks Willich.  She and a friend had gone to Mexico to buy tile and were  stopped by three policemen who searched the friend, found marijuana, demanded and got a $400 bribe.

“And they are smiles and ‘Gracias, Buenos noches.’ And off they go.  So I breathe a sigh of relief, and he chuckles and says, ‘You’re never going to believe it.  They gave me the weed back,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’  And then I go, ‘Oh my God.  What if they come back and bust us again?’  The four-by-four crests the hill, and pulls up beside us. They give us one hundred bucks back, and then they drive off, and that’s the last we see of them, and I’m like, ‘Well what do you know?  A Federale rebate!’  We just figured they couldn’t break up $400 three ways.”

Willich is one of six people taking part in a monthly story-telling competition organized by Joel Jones.  He had the idea while working on a theater set in New York -- hanging a big blue door, so he decided to start a company called Big Blue Door.  It would invite people to enter a new space, where they could discover their own voice and learn that it’s okay to be nervous.

“The very fact that you’re up there and you’re nervous conveys a sense of vulnerability, which can really work to your benefit.”

The stories must be true, and Joel has heard some strange ones.  There was a woman who claimed her mother had the kids taking library books out under false names – and keeping them.

“Their house was filled with these library books. They had tables made of library books and chairs made of library books – hundreds and hundreds of books.  Police raided their house for library books. “

His wife, Jennifer Jones, is co-founder of the enterprise.  She’s surprised by how candid performers can be.  One woman, for example, came through the Big Blue Door to share her secrets.

“She was talking about sexual identity as a small child, willing to express what it’s like really to be a kid and really to be exploring.”  

Jennifer Jones says it’s important to make a strong start and to have a good ending.  Ironically, her husband insists it’s the middle that makes a story memorable.

“Y’know if you’re listening on a YouTube or anything like that, if you don’t like the beginning, you’ll click off and you won’t watch it, but if you’re in front of people live, the beginning and the ending aren’t as important as the middle.  Like in fairy tales, most of us have different versions of the endings, but we still remember the core elements.”

After each Big Blue Door Jam, panels of judges award the prize – a jar of Big Blue Door Jam.  Laura Ingles hoped to win with a tale about her alma mater.

“So I recognize that this is a dangerous thing to say in Charlottesville, but I have been obsessed all things Virginia Tech for a very long time.  My Dad took me out to a football game when I was a kid.  The second I set foot on that campus I was head over heels in love, and by the time I was in high school, pretty much my entire wardrobe was orange and maroon.  I mean my laundry was orange, maroon and other.”

The winner, Maggie Thornton, goes on to compete in a Big Blue Door Slam, held twice a year. That performance, May 15th at the Wooly Mammoth, invites story-tellers to share tales on a theme – flirting with disaster.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.