Swing for the Fences

On Friday, Jan. 17, Babs’ Lab will kick off the new year with its third semiannual Grand Slam competition. The event features the winners of the Riverside black box theater’s most recent story slams. For the last several years, the venue, situated in CoRK Arts District, has provided a home stage for playwrights, poets, musicians and (since August 2018) monthly story slams, in which storytellers have eight minutes to tell a true story based on that month’s theme. They must speak without notes and are allowed a two minute grace period. Winners are chosen by audience members and guest judges—then they move on to the Grand Slam.

The concept was conceived by the venue’s eponymous founder, Barbara “Babs” Colaciello. She’s a natural host. For much of her life, Babs wanted only to fill her living room with friends, sing songs and tell stories. “In college, I was doing that in my dorm room,” she said. “In fact, I quit Andy Warhol in 1983 to pursue this lifelong ambition. My mom, of course, freaked out when I told her I was going to tell stories in clubs.”

You read that right. Colaciello worked in Warhol’s infamous Factory in New York. She served six years as ad director for Interview magazine. When she came to Jacksonville in 1993, she relied on her acting background to help make her new digs home, focusing on improvisation and performance training.

Among the Grand Slam contestants is Johnny Masiulewicz, winner of December’s slam. He first became involved with poetry slams in the movement’s early days, the 1980s, when Marc Smith hosted them in Chicago. Creator of the zine Happy Tapir, Masiulewicz also hosts monthly open-mic poetry at Chamblin’s Uptown. He likes the challenge of telling stories without notes or props. As he’s become more comfortable doing it, he’s stopped memorizing his stories ahead of time.

“I like having the rhetorical freedom,” he said. “I know the outline, the parameters of the overall format, but if I keep it flexible going in, I can change things depending on the audience and the mood of the night.”

For December’s theme, “Angels and Sacraments,” Masiulewicz talked about how strange Chamblin Bookmine feels after hours, when books sometimes fly off the shelves seemingly of their own accord. If a writer’s “body of work” is their corpus, then perhaps their spirits sometimes take flight from dusty paperbacks.

Story slams might seem new, but they’re as old as community, as old as the art of telling a story. Erica Saffer, who won the November 2018 slam and competed in a previous grand slam, observed that such events reflect “not only a historical aspect of culture,” but “an intimate aspect of community building.” Slams bring the community into the same space as the storyteller. “It puts the speaker and audience on the same plane of narrative existence,” Saffer said. “It closes the distance between and brings all participants into a shared experience, a collective consciousness.”

In September, Basma Alawee, founder of Iraqi Activist Society in Jacksonville, came with a group of women refugees who spoke about their experiences in war. Alawee spoke about “home” and what the word means to her. “I was able to share how one horrible night changed my vision about my own home, how one Friday night in Baghdad, in a living room filled with my family and cousins, everything changed,” Alawee said. “I loved to spend family time in that living room, eating and playing board games. That night, our home became a prison—no, more like a grave—for me and my family.” Alawee’s own activism connects intimately to her experience telling stories at Babs’ Lab. “Storytelling brings people in,” she remarked. “It connects people and creates the possibility for dialogue.”

What you hear at Babs’ Lab resembles stories you might have heard on National Public Radio’s Moth Radio Hour, stories that come from “curated story evenings” in venues around the country. Just as Moth staff help coach Moth storytellers, Colaciello offers weekly classes and story workshops “for those who want to get up for a slam but don’t feel confident enough.”

Six storytellers will compete in January’s Grand Slam. Anna Jacobson won in both October and August, tying in August with Kaye Byrnes and Luke Colaciello. Kate Gelbman won July’s slam, Basma Alawee won September, Willie Evans and Grant Nielsen tied in November, and Johnny Masiulewicz won the final slam of 2019.