by Nora Kovacs for OLY ARTS
“Once upon a time, there was a young woman who knew exactly what she wanted out of life.” That woman is Elizabeth Lord, and thus begins her story as an Olympia-based actor, teacher, vaudeville performer and, above all, storyteller. Lord describes herself as a “professional talker” who turned her exuberant, outgoing personality into a fulfilling career. Since getting involved in theater as a child, she’s pushed the boundaries of her practice and finding ways to connect with her audience in new and more exciting ways. As a graduate of The Evergreen State College, Lord has played a huge role in Olympia’s storytelling community for quite some time and will not be running out of stories any time soon.
Lord got into the art of storytelling in high school, when she attended something called a “storytelling concert.” “I thought to myself, ‘Hey! This is really interesting,” she says. “It wasn’t theater. There were no sets, no costumes, nothing; yet I was fully engaged.” She decided to give it a try. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in a class at Evergreen called “Orality and Literacy,” which focused on the study of oral narrative, storytelling and comparisons between literate cultures. Inspired by the course’s reading list, Lord tried storytelling out for herself.
In 1992, Lord joined the Olympia Storytelling Guild, now called the South Sound Storytelling Guild. “I thought it sounded cool and old, something from medieval times,” Lord jokes. “We would meet every month or so and have ‘story swaps’ in an informal setting, like at a coffee shop or in someone’s living room.” Despite the old-fashioned name and informality of the meetings, these exchanges were crucial to the development of Lord’s practice. By 1996 she was storytelling professionally. Equipped with a degree in folklore and theater, she began by telling and reviving folktales — still a huge part of her performance — but as her rapport with the audience evolved, Lord gravitated toward a more personal narrative.
She was pleasantly surprised by the audience’s reception of this intimate approach. “I told the story of my life in a performative way,” she says, “and got a really positive response. I hadn’t realized that my life was so worthy of an audience. So I put together my own solo show, called Vegas Childhood because I grew up in Las Vegas.” Vegas Childhood was Lord’s first full-length show, comprised entirely of stories from her life. She found she could connect with her audience in a deeper manner by telling these stories, relating to listeners through shared experiences. “People would come up to me afterwards and tell me about a similar story or experience they had,” she says, “and often it was people who were not so inclined to get up on stage and talk about it. It was satisfying to connect in that way, not only for me, but for the audience.” In an increasingly technological society, these one-on-one connections are few and far between. For Lord, therefore, storytelling carries even greater importance as an artistic medium.
For those unfamiliar with storytelling, it may seem a traditional art form, verging on obsolete. It’s oral and live with no added frills. That confrontation and vulnerability, however is exactly the point, Lord explains: “In theater there is this fourth wall of distance between you and the audience that you can sort of hide behind. At a storytelling show, people are sitting mere feet from you, listening to a story, making eye contact just like you would with a group of your closest friends. It is so intimate and makes for a much more powerful performance.” Both storyteller and audience are forced to engage, unable to switch off by swiping through a feed or fast-forwarding to a different part. “There is something about touching someone emotionally just via story,” Lord says, “that can be profound, especially when we think about people watching videos all the time, having conversations over text, et cetera. We’ve lost the tone of someone’s voice.” For her, storytelling is a way to return that animation, personality and tone to our collective voice.
More than simply telling a story, this medium creates a space in which people listen. “I’m often finding new audience members who are stunned that it had such an impact,” says Lord. “They didn’t think they would have the attention span.” If a storyteller opens up to listeners, listeners open up in return. The audience is emotionally invested, Lord explains: “When you tell a story and reveal a vulnerable truth, it’s like they (the audience) have given you something and entrusted you with it. Collectively in the room, empathy and compassion are building, and a connection is happening within the audience.” It’s a poignant experience, but Lord has ways to relieve some of that tension.
“Storytelling is a weird euphemism for ‘lying,’” Lord says, “so there have been times that I’ve invented information to put in a show to see if I can get away with it. It helps people feel safer sometimes if they know that not all of it is entirely true.” In other words, Lord uses fiction to her and the audience’s advantage, broaching familiar topics without hitting too close to home. “In general, I try to share stories that have been moments of embarrassment on my end,” she says, “stories that are cathartic for me and hilarious for the listener.” Her storytelling practice is, therefore, a masterful balance between vulnerability and confrontation, fact and fiction, sincerity and humor, sparking emotional release in her listeners at whatever level they find most comfortable. The key ingredient to that balance is respect. Lord says earning that respect from her peers has been the biggest accomplishment of her career thus far.
Anyone interested in reveling in the cathartic hilarity of Elizabeth Lord’s stories must wait until she opens her next solo show. Till then, she teaches courses at Evergreen and to the general public, and she hosts StoryOly every third Tuesday at Rhythm & Rye. Her annual vaudeville production, The Lord Franzannian Royal Olympian Spectacular Vaudeville Show, runs this year from October 10 to October 22. So the story of Elizabeth Lord goes: “Passion,” she says, “carried her through.”
What: StoryOly: Hopeful
Where: Rhythm & Rye,
311 Capitol Way N, Olympia
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 20
How much: $15
Learn more: 360-918-4500 | Elizabeth Lord