Seagull Society explores art of storytelling

BY RILEY UBBEN | MARCH 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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Once a month, Chris Mortenson and his friends flock to an underground stage for one reason: to hear great stories.

Mortenson is the founder of the Seagull Society, a storytelling collective that meets in the basement of the Jefferson Building. The idea is simple — one person gets up on stage and has the floor to talk about any kind of experience he or she has had, as long as it relates to the theme chosen by the “Dean of the Gulls.” No props, no notes, just honest, off-the-cuff storytelling. The stories run the gamut of emotions, ranging from comical anecdotes to deeply personal narratives.

The Seagull Society’s March meeting will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Public Space One, 129 E. Washington St. Admission is free; anyone is welcome to tell a story.

Mortenson said having the undivided attention of a friendly audience breaks down some of the barriers that keep people from sharing their experiences under normal circumstances.

“I think because you don’t have all the other noise of a typical social setting, it becomes like a performance,” he said. “Some people are really afraid to tell stories in front of groups, but they get up there and open themselves up in these really profound ways. They tell stories that are really painful to tell that they wouldn’t tell in [social settings], and I think it’s because they have that attention.”

Mortenson has always been a bit of a raconteur and often told stories to go along with his projects. He was pushed to do something with his storytelling by a close friend in graduate school after giving a presentation about his trip to Nicaragua.

“As a punishment for missing class, [the professor] made me show my vacation pictures, giving me a hard time for being gone,” he said. “I put 60 or 70 images together, and it turned into this hour-and-25-minute story about some of the people there.”

It was around this time that he discovered The Moth, a storytelling group based in New York that was growing in popularity. After reading about the national, and even international, following that the new and exciting forum was generating, Mortenson knew that he wanted in.

“It was a good idea from the start,” said George Dawes Green, the author and founder of The Moth. “These Moths now are beginning to spring up all over the globe. There’s a new one in Dublin, Ireland, mixed with some Gaelic traditions. It’s everywhere.”

Hoping to get a chapter of The Moth started in Iowa City, Mortenson approached John Engelbrecht, the manager of Public Space One, who liked the idea right away. They enlisted the help of two other friends, Josh Eklow and Eric Asboe, and started trying to get in touch with The Moth to make the affiliation official.

Eager to get started on the project, the group began planning its first event in September 2009 while they waited to hear back from The Moth. Mortenson put up posters anywhere he thought great storytellers might see them, advertising the event as Moth Up Iowa City. When the big night came, he was hoping the money spent on promotion wouldn’t be in vain.

“I was terrified about our first one. I thought it’d be me, Engelbrecht, Eklow, Asboe, and that’s it,” Mortenson said. “But we had like 23 people show up. From there we’ve been steadily growing to our last event, where we had about 60 to 75 people.”

As the meetings started to gain popularity, concerns grew regarding how the use of The Moth’s title might get the founding members in legal trouble. The Moth remained unresponsive to the group’s requests, so after two months of waiting, the team decided it was time to go its own route.

“We thought, ‘Well, this is kind of stupid; we just want to do storytelling,’ ” said Engelbrecht. “People have been telling stories for thousands of years; we don’t need The Moth title to start a storytelling series. By the third one, we decided to just make our own thing.”

The original members brainstormed at a local bar, and Eklow eventually came up with the Seagull Society — taking inspiration from Joe Gould, also known as Professor Seagull, who was an eccentric Harvard graduate with a unique story of his own. Gould was homeless by choice and claimed to be compiling stories that he had heard living on the streets in order to put together the longest book ever written, titled An Oral History of Our Time.

“The trick was that he was full of it,” said Mortenson. “He was basically writing a few stories from his life over and over. Still, I think the idea that he was compiling stories, or even just rewriting the same stories over and over, is a compelling idea, and it’s part of what endeared him to us.”

Though inspired by The Moth, Mortenson and company have put their own spin on things and don’t follow the original formula. The Seagull Society’s meeting are much less structured — they simply draw names out of a hat rather than selecting storytellers beforehand. Even if a person’s name isn’t called, he or she can always come up at the end if they feel inspired.

“When you’re just hanging out telling stories, that’s kind of how it goes,” Eklow said. “Somebody tells a story, and that reminds you of something. We’re trying to keep that very casual aspect of storytelling, like hanging around a campfire.”

Tyler Luetkehans, a junior in one of Eklow’s classes at the University of Iowa, told his first story in October 2010. As a newcomer, he said the casual atmosphere kept him coming back.

“It’s a really open environment for people to go and just listen to stories or to tell a story,” he said. “It’s really informal.”

Having passed the title of “Dean of the Gulls” to Eklow, Mortenson’s role is now more a participant in the Seagull Society than a leader. While he admits that he misses being a central part of the group, he’s happy to see that fresh faces such as Luetkehans are giving his project a life of its own.

“It’s weird; I used to be involved in everything,” he said. “But I think it’s a success if it’s still going strong at the point where nobody [left] was around at the start of it. I hope it goes a lot further after I leave.”

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