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Telling our own stories

If you want to see what community building really looks like, attend a performance of Raven Narratives.

Last weekend in Cortez and Durango, Raven Narratives co-founders Sarah Syverson and Tom Yoder assembled the spring 2024 edition of the storytelling series.

With the theme of “Re-emergence,” Yoder shouted: “We’re back.” After shuttering the Narratives during the COVID-19 pandemic, he revealed some uncertainty about resuming. “But here we are.”

From the beginning of the project – locals telling personal stories to a local audience – the purpose has been “to connect us with each other and the places where we live and play.” So goes the mission statement. To give a framework for an evening of amateur storytelling, the co-founders choose a theme and offer coaching. Topics have ranged from “Family” or “Baggage,” to this year’s “Re-emergence.” Next summer, “Weather” is the framing topic, and next fall’s theme is “Friendship.”

Potential tellers submit an idea for a true, personal story that will run about eight to 10 minutes. Syverson and Yoder winnow the submissions and select finalists. In turn, coaching is available. Tellers eventually present without notes in a well-rehearsed public offering.

Over time and with experience, Raven guidelines have added “no soapboxing, preaching, etc.” Over time, audiences have also changed. In the beginning, a cheering, interrupting “hometown” crowd almost derailed storytellers. Since the early twenty-teens, the co-founders have added courtesy guidelines about audience behavior. Last weekend, Syverson simply encouraged the audience “to help the folks on stage. We need two things, deep stories and deep listeners.”

Syverson’s short talk seemed to work. In general, the audience listened intently and saved cheers and enthusiastic applause for the end of a tale.

The 2024 roster included Curt Brown, Margie Connolly, Geneva Toland, Jim Duke, Tom Garcia, Monique Alvarez and Christina Rinderle.

One, a spontaneous tale, chosen by drawing a name from a Cracker Jack Box, continues. Syverson chose Durangoan Suzanne Lander. Limited to four minutes, Lander breathlessly gave what’s known as a resume-talk. She started at birth and ended with her sense of re-emergence now. She mastered the arc in her time limit and dramatized the difference between summary and storytelling.

Two more elements rounded out the evening: a request to have Raven alumni stand and a segment that could be titled “In Memoriam.” Both gave historical and emotional weight to the evening. When asked to stand, more than a dozen residents garnered warm applause.

More profoundly, the posthumous segment deepened a sense of Raven continuity.

In 2017. Ernie Garcia, a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital, told a Raven story about the challenges of a long-distance run. In 2020, he died from COVID-19. His presentation had been recorded, so Syverson and Yoder decided to play it again. The stage with its simple spotlight and microphone was an appropriate setting for this tribute to a Raven teller no longer with us.

The inclusion of Ernie’s voice and often humorous tale reinforced the legacy of Raven Narratives as a cultural institution of collective memory.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.