My heart is racing as I sit on a chair, gazing at patchy screen of my laptop. While I read my story for the last time before the show tonight, curtain brushes back of my neck as cool breeze gushes through the window facing my bunk-bed. It’s raining outside. Perhaps, nothing new for a Montreal weekend. In past eight months of my stay, there have been very few weekends when it has not rained (or snowed during winter). While reading through the lines of story, out of anxiety, I am constantly flipping the tabs of browser between the final scores of today’s Indian Cricket League matches and an email from Taylor (my mentor for the show) with some advise on how to be ready for tonight’s show, Confabulation – a monthly all-true storytelling event in Montreal I signed up for, last week.
I was randomly searching for storytelling events in Montreal, when I accidentally landed on Confabulation’s website. While reading through their webpages, I realized their next show was little over a week away. On further research, I found a video on Youtube highlighting some of the performances three years ago. That was intriguing. This month’s theme was Big Dreams. “I too have a dream. Should I write to the show producer?” I asked myself. After hours of self doubt, deprecation and no expectation of response, I agreed to send my story pitch to Matt Goldberg, an actor, comedian, storyteller, teacher and the man behind conception of Confabulation many years ago. This was supposed to be their seventh anniversary special, thus, show had big stakes. Already, a Grammy awardee, a professional comedian, a Huffington post journalist and a professional storyteller-author were lined up for the show. With no past experience of storytelling at any level and not even a single appearance in a Confabulation event as spectator, I was aware that sending an email to Matt was nothing more than spamming his inbox. However, I reminded myself, failing is not a crime, but lack of effort is. I stretched my limit, and wrote to Matt with a story pitch from my latest ultramarathon, Actif Epica.
Two days ago, I had just met race operations director in Montreal, where we had talked a lot about the race experiences, where I had confessed that the trail was a mess and I was not prepared to tackle something crazy like Winnipeg. So, memories were again fresh and scripting story was seemingly an easy task. Also, I had written a long blog post Snow, Mud, Sweat and Tears that I could consult. I was ready with a raw draft in two days, while I was secretly expecting a response of the email. I thought my story was appealing. The things that could have stopped a reply from show producer were either no more available slots (only 6 storytellers perform in one show), email actually had landed in spam folder, I had no past experience of storytelling or like the Crow Wing Trail, I had overestimated my pitch.
It was just one week remaining for the show, and I had lost hope. And then, against all odds Matt responds with a yes, in the late night, and asks to meet one of the producers of the show to refine my story. It was then I first met Taylor Tower, the producer and now my mentor for the show, to talk more on story and make some sense out of it. Art of storytelling is much different than blogging, I learned this in the best possible way – by getting my hands dirty. After an hour long discussion, I had a rough idea that my story was complete, however, it had many misplaced segments that were required to be corrected. Writing a fresh story is much easier than correcting an old one. Things get even more challenging when you don’t know your audience, have no knowledge of what makes a good story, what are your expectations from the story and you try to be funny when you are not. I realized, in many segments, I was trying to enforce a laughter which was not even funny, thus, I was not being true to myself. After night long session of multiple iterations, the final version of story was ready, but, it was a struggle to absorb the new sequence three days before the show.
While reading through the email of Taylor’s advise, I look at myself in the mirror and recite the story for final time. Thinking my grey hair are a looking a bit messy, I begin to trim my facial hair and touch up the hair on sides. Bam! I rip off an entire bunch of hair off right side of my skull in accidental slip off my finger. Now, my left side of head has twice the amount of hair than on my right, not to forget, right side now has a pothole (Ah, Montreal summer). Messed up hair are much better than “very” messed up hair. It’s still raining outside and I am in panic zone. I can’t blow up things like this. I remind myself of Taylor’s words “Do not bail-out on last moment” when I joked about bailing out of nervousness had I not met her. “This is not my show. This is dream of someone. I must show up, no matter I look however bad”. Bullshit! This is not the time to recall wisdom words. I rush to the closest barber, and get the hair fixed with an hour to go for the show.
Meeting the fellow storytellers, who are as nervous as I am, I realize may be I’m overthinking. Happy being the fifth performer of the night, I join the laughter riot with audience as comedian John Cotrocois begin like a storm, and Jennifer Gasoi continues the intensity with her utter humility, charm and courage. After the intermission, as the fourth performer begins, I enter the panic zone and rush to the backstage. Sipping water relentlessly, I see the lit “SORTIE” board. I push, and the door opens. “You still have a chance, you can run and no one will know”. While I am still holding the door in thoughts, Matt walks in and gets busy with his bag. I silently let go of the door, and slip in front of the mirror looking myself in eyes, asking “What’s the matter? Why are you scared? It’s your evening.”
As I close my eyes, I recall my last ever appearance on stage. I find myself in school, on the day of Christmas celebrations, when I was supposed to deliver a speech on “Significance of Christmas”. In panic, I didn’t speak a word. Standing in front of mic, with all the students laughing, the memory had haunted past sixteen years of my life. Speaking in public had been my biggest fear. I blew up that day, and I’m scared of blowing up today as well. I’m a brown Indian guy with a weird accent, in front of an audience I don’t even know. They’ll be laughing at me. While still arguing with myself, I recollect, I have my friends sitting in audience, waiting for me to come out and give out my best. Producers have worked so hard for this, and more than anyone else, I have to do it for myself. In past sixteen years, a lot has changed. From a nerdy bookworm, I have moved many significant steps to be here. This is my moment of another transformation and I must live to it.
Suddenly, Matt announces my name and I run towards the stage in panic. While trying to locate the mic hanging from ceiling under bright lights, I pull up my arms and begin my story “It’s the middle of peak winter in Manitoba, and tears are rolling down my face…”. This erupts a laughter in audience, as I hesitantly continue. With bright lights, an unexpected laughter and looking a hundred people around me I strike the panic zone again. “God, not again” After, what feels like eternity, I look down, close my eyes and imagine myself on Schepansky Road on the midnight of Actif Epica while I was wiping off the blood with my wet socks. And begin to narrate what I now see with closed eyes. Getting my nerves back, I now start looking in audience’s eyes while I present each nail-biting twist and turn of the story with some weird expressions.
While audience responds with “whooaaaas”, “aaarrrrhhhhh”, “ooooooooss” and occasional laughter, I go back in thoughts “I’m reaching the finish, so quickly. Have I missed an important segment? They might not know the story, but I do. It was taking 13 minutes in rehearsals, how can this finish in 7 minutes here?” While I’m still in thoughts, now I’m gripped by the anxiety audience has created in thrill of approaching finish line of the race. The theatre roars in applause as the climax unveils. I stand there in silence, absorbing all the energy, feeling light as feather as I recall the moments from Udaipur. I’m feeling reborn.
It took me sixteen long years to break the jinx, collect enough courage to step on the stage against all my mental barriers to connect with people, who want me to succeed. I didn’t hear myself. So, I still do not know, how I sounded from the centre stage. However bad it may be, today I feel the confidence to step up again with a belief “I will not blow up”. Audience’s response after the show was overwhelming when MANY of them stepped up, while I was trying to shy away from eye contacts, to congratulate and appreciate the story, that they found gripping with a thrill that kept them on edge of seats right till the end. Having discovered a new dimension, I dearly hope I’ll continue to recite stories as I progress with adventures of my life. Confabulation, I believe, was a much needed step and an experience for lifetime to meet myself, so I could see again in my eyes and repeat “I have a dream. And I know, I’m going to win”
PS: A heartfelt thanks to all producers of Confabulation and fellow storytellers.