CultureHUB has had the pleasure of catching up with broadcast journalist and poet /community worker Pádraig O’Tuama, the pioneers of Belfast’s ever popular storytelling event ‘Tenx9’. Today we get the inside scope of what inspired the storytelling event that would start in the Black Box and travel to Sudan and beyond.
By Ciara Conway • Photography: Bernie McCallister
For those who mightn’t know what Tenx9 is, could you tell us a bit about it?
Paul: Tenx9 is where nine people have up to ten minutes to tell a true story from their lives. There are two rules: the story must be true and it’s a ten-minute limit. And the ten minutes is not a target, it’s a limit. So we’ve had great stories that last five minutes, six minutes, seven minutes, we have to keep reminding people your story does not have to last ten minutes. Ten minutes is the outer limit, at which point we will then blow a bicycle horn (Pádraig laughs), a light-hearted way of saying ‘get on’.
I’ve never actually experienced the horn.
Paul: Most people are very good, and to be fair you have to use a bit of discretion because you can tell when someone is coming to the end of a story, usually, if someone’s about to reveal their dying grandmother’s last words you’re not going to blow the whistle . you can use it as well if the story is not going the way you’d hoped. You can encourage people to wrap it up and get on.
Can you tell us a bit about how it started?
Pádraig: We started it in 2011, here in Belfast. People keep thinking ‘Oh it’s great you brought this thing from America’, ah no we didn’t! So we started it, it was our idea. We came up with it when we were going to a wedding in Galway. Paul said we should start a storytelling night. We’d been to a thing a few nights previously in Belfast and I had read some poetry and people had done some sincere things, but somebody told a story and it was a very well told story. Ruth McCarthy who runs ‘Outburst’ festival told a story about pop music during the 1980s and how it had sustained her. It was just brilliant, it was true and full of anecdotes about the aunty and the priest and the bishop. It was all about her life and how pop music had helped her. And she made references to music and you could almost hear the sound of it in the background. And Paul said that was the thing that mesmerised him. So that Saturday morning in Connemara, over breakfast, we said we should start a storytelling night. And we just hashed it out over breakfast. And because I do lots of community work I said , sure I’ll book a place and a few weeks later I texted him at work and said ‘are you happy I’ve book the Black Box for three months’, just one night a month and he was like ‘what!’ . So booked it and wrote 100 individual emails to people asking them to come, friends, and then 30 people showed up at the first night . And that morning, we had the whole thing … the name the format, it all was hashed out over that breakfast in Connemara. Nine people, ten minutes each, true story from their life. I wanted to call it nine by ten.
Paul: I was having none of it.
Pádraig: Tenx9 sounds better. And I agree it does. Yeah, that’s where it all started.
So you struck a deal with Black Box for one night a month? It’s a fantastic venue.
Paul: It’s a great venue. We started in the Green Room. I mean there were thirty people for the first few and then it just grew. And then we made the leap into the big room
Pádraig: Our first official one with Pride had to be in the big room because we were getting eighty people in the Green Room and I said to the person who was running it : god we’ll be hitting health and safety limits soon. So then we went to the big room for the first pride one. And we were amazed at how many people turned up. They just kept on coming. But we love it.
And it’s free? Is there a reason?
Paul: There is. The ethos behind it. Maybe that sounds a bit pompous but, the idea behind it is that we want to create a space where people can say whatever, we don’t want to filter they’re true story but we also feel that people have a right to fail and that they shouldn’t feel under pressure to provide entertainment. If people have paid in, they’ve a right to expect a certain level of return for their money. And I don’t think that’s a fair pressure to put on someone. So it’s always free and we’ve used other means to raise the revenue and cover our costs.
I’ve had two such enjoyable evenings in there that for me I’d have absolutely no problem, and I’d say the majority of people would have no problem, paying a £3 or whatever just to help cover costs you know?
Pádraig We’re going to move towards having one special one a year, a comedy night a year that will be the funniest stories of that year and that one will be a fundraiser for it. Just to say to people, look, we will only do this once a year but if you want to put in anything, we’d love to do that. We’ve worked so hard to get people and you know they might be nervous, they know they have a story but they’re nervous. And the worry is that they’d think that nobody should have to pay to hear me. Even if it’s three quid, it’s a payment, or I didn’t like the story I’m not paying for that. I suppose we’re interested in creating an economy of listening and story rather than an economy of money. Money obviously has to serve that but money is not the first thing.
But people can’t just get up and tell whatever story they want, can they?
Paul: (Chuckling). Oh no no no. it’s not an open mic. It’s a curated evening.
Pádraig: With editorial guidelines, it’s an arts night!
Paul: Though it is storytelling, a lot traditional story tellers would down their nose at us. If people want to write out the stories, they have to provide us with a draft but we’ve been really keen from the start that we want people who have never told stories before. Who never thought they could tell stories. They may be revealing things they’ve not told any living person and in order to get those people you really have to allow them to read. Because otherwise what you’ll get are the accomplished storyteller and we want those as well, the performer and those things are all great.
But, in among all that we want the person who has never had the nerve to stand up in front of a crowd, or in front of anybody, or never thought they could. So you’d have to allow them that security blanket of the page.
Well everybody who stands up on that stage seems so at ease. You say that you want it to be a place for newbies but you wouldn’t think they are, for example the lady who spoke about the crucifix on Wednesday. She was engrossing!
Paul: She only did it because her daughter had done it. That’s the democratisation of it – look I can do so you can do it.
Pádraig: Maybe democracy isn’t the right word but it’s the one I like at the moment, that there is a democracy of participation. That you might be sitting there and then the person sitting next to you gets up to tell a story and then they’re coming back down and sitting next to you. We don’t have a green room, we don’t have a place where all the speakers sit even though when the Black Box is full, practically it would make sense to say to everybody oh sit around this table. But we don’t do that because the whole point is that it is an audience listening to the audience. It isn’t that they’re a performer on a stage and we don’t use the stage in the Black Box, or wherever we’ve been unless it’s impractical. We’ve tried not to use any elevated stage and to have the speaker on the same level as the audience because it provides a sense of it’s a community storytelling night and it’s an arts event but it’s an arts event that anybody can take part in. but in terms of that it’s an arts event, we are very careful to say to people if you have a story send us an idea and you don’t have to read that exact draft if you’d prefer to tell it but we need to know that you have a story rather than a talk, or rather than an opinion or a live blog post about why I don’t like the Guardian. One of the editorial guidelines is that unless people are asking, pretty quickly, after the first or second sentence ‘what’s going to happen?’ or ‘why did that happen?’ or who’s this? It’s not a story. We don’t need long introductions, and we definitely don’t need ‘the reason I’m telling this story is…’
So where can we find these editorial guidelines?
Pádraig: Tenx9.com/editorial guidelines.
And if people do have a story, where do they submit?
Pádraig: on the website, or on Facebook.
And it will be one of the two of you guys who they are submitting and talking to?
Pádraig: Yes. Both of work professionally with words. Paul from journalism and me through essays and poetry so we both bring a different approach to language. Stylistic differences. Certain people have learned a lot in terms of storytelling.
Paul: We’ve learned a lot.
Padraig: So one time there was this fella who had a brilliant story. It was about a lads’ weekend away when he was 19 But all the Female characters he had in it in his story
they were just screeching and wearing hoopy earrings. And I said to just take it all out because it doesn’t portray women well, you can tell your story well, you’re using caricatures and stereotypes, and coming across as a bit of an eejit and that’s funny but you don’t need to offend people. We’ve also had times where people have told very personal stories about experiences of domestic abuse or rape, and we work very closely with people in advance to make sure the story is projecting for them, that they’re not putting themselves outside the possibility of taking prosecution. We give a trigger warning if we know a story will feature domestic abuse we’ll say something like, look the first story after the break is about that if anybody wants to a longer break come back in once you hear the applause. I think it just helps people know, especially for something as serious as that.
Paul: I’ll always disagree with you on trigger warnings. There are plenty of events where people want to hear nice happy stories and that’s not what we do. I’m not saying we seek out the grotesque but if somebody has an awful story that they want to tell, then they have to tell it. And we get an amazing mix. Any night, any theme, you will find someone who can find humour in the silliest silliest story and then somebody else who will have something really dark. And we have swearing, which we have no problem with as long as it’s used effectively and most people when they do use it use it really well. So it’s not like, bring your kids along to Tenx9, it’s not a family night out.
How do you decide on the themes?
Pádraig: A theme that can be interpreted in a multiple different ways.
Secrets and lies was great.
Paul: We do have some staples. We have show and tell, comedy and courage
And have you done a bit of travelling with it?
Padraig: Fairly soon after we were running, maybe a year or two, people who might have been here for a university degree or doing a masters or whatever, said ‘oh I’m moving back home can I start it there?’ So we actually got a small bit of money from the Green Bell festival, a festival in England, which paid for the time to write a fairly in depth manual for anyone’s who’s starting it because the whole point is that it’s very easy to come to and participate in but behind it there’s a lot of work and a lot of protection. So you can’t run it in a place of religion or politics. You can never use it to recruit, even for a good cause. You can never say ‘and oh by the way our group meets on a Sunday morning at ten o clock or we have … if you wanted you join up’. People telling a story should not feel at the end of the night that their story was used for the recruitment, even a good thing. So for us it’s absolutely an arts night, and because my work is in religion and people would go ‘oh we’d love to run one in our church’ and I’d go ‘we don’t own storytelling, start off your own storytelling thing in your church but you can’t be in Tenx9’.
Paul: Well the question was about travelling and festivals. We did one in Dublin, a friend asked us to come down and do one. Then I did one at the Institute of Physics Annual Conference which was bizarre but fantastic. We’ve been to Greenbelt in
Scotland, Ballycastle. Still want to get one on the way in Derry, that would be my ideal.
But it’s a staple feature in some American cities now is it not?
Pádraig: Sorry, I interrupted myself earlier on. So we got a bit of money to put a manual together so that people who wanted to start them can do, but that we have a very clear pretty strict set of guidelines that it’s always free, we always have the same kind of logos, same format for twitter, that there’s a recognisability. So it’s started up in Nashville around four years ago and that’s become a big night too about 120 people come every month. It’s in Montana, it’s in Chicago, Chicago’s been going about three or four years. There’s one in Balham in London. There’s one in Glasgow that happen quarterly, there’s three in the Netherlands. There was one in Valdivia in the South of Chile. There’s one that just started Winnipeg, it’s started in Adelaide, there’s one that’s starting in Melbourne.
It’s just fantastic how it’s caught on.
Pádraig: And Sudan. There were some Irish aid workers and one of them, her daughter was in Queen’s in Belfast and she came along to visit her daughter one week and out one night to Tenx9 and then she got in touch afterwards and said ‘I work with Irish aid in South Sudan’ and ‘can I start it?’ and as it happens a friend of ours was also working in South Sudan with a volunteer service overseas and we put them in touch. It wasn’t just ex-pats, it was also south Sudanese people.
Paul: And they all put their own stamp on it. Although here’s a formula, they don’t have to stick to the letter. Different cultures will have different ways of doing it.
And have you done it yourselves?
Pádraig: Oh god yeah. Regularly. We’d usually have back up stories just in case someone pulls out. Or sometimes we only have eight stories so one of us will tell one. So we’ve told loads, yeah. Plague you with mammy stories.
Paul: I would consider myself a very very very private person and I don’t like talking about myself but I can go up there and reveal things I’ve never told anybody, ever.
The crowd it attracts is fantastic as well. All sorts!
Padraig: Half the time we just look around and go ‘why are you here?’ you know? I’m delighted that they are.
If you have a story to tell, please submit your draft to Tenx9.com. It will be Paul or Padraig who receive and proofread your draft. I cannot stress enough how truly welcome your narrative endeavours are. And on a closing note, never fear if you’ve missed a Tenx9 event: we’ve been told there’s a podcast in the pipeline!