Hear tell’s Elise Pepple is committed to conversation in her community.
Ryan Smith tells a lot of stories from behind the bar at Eventide Oyster Co. But at a recent storytelling event in Portland, the bartender found herself in an unfamiliar place—behind a mic and in front of an audience of more than 200 people. “At first, I was really nervous,” she says, “but when I got up there—boom, it came right out.”
Smith was one of a half-dozen speakers at a recent Hear Tell event at Oxbow Blending and Bottling that featured stories from Portland- area restaurant industry workers. She told a story about punching and breaking someone’s nose in high school for breaking her glasses, but her favorite came from Karen Franciose, a server at Becky’s Diner, whose story connected Franciose’s career path, from teacher to ordained minister to server, with the thread of caring for people. “Her story was so cool. I wanted to know more about her,” says Smith. “You’re getting a piece of somebody that you never had before.”
Elise Pepple started the Hear Tell storytelling series two years ago after working in New York and Alaska on initiatives for StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that records and shares everyday Americans’ stories. With Hear Tell, Pepple finds community members to tell tales around a subject or theme. Oftentimes the speakers have never met each other, and the audiences are made up of both supporters for each speaker and strangers.
At heart, Pepple is a connector of people; she connects community members to each other through storytelling. “We live in this culture of quick fixes and self-help. The thing about live storytelling is that it’s not therapy, but it’s therapeutic because it comes from the position that, radically, who you are is what counts,” says Pepple.
The first Hear Tell, titled Epic Fail, took place at Pistol Pete’s Upholstery Shop in East Bayside and included a small handful of storytellers sharing tales of failure with around 40 attendees, all seated on packing blankets on the floor of the shop. Since then, Pepple has hosted Hear Tell events at Maine College of Art, Tandem Coffee and Bakery, and Space Gallery, among other locations. Often Hear Tell benefits a specific organization through cover charges or donations. For example, an event at Tandem this past winter supported Portland Outright, an organization that describes itself as a queer and trans youth movement fighting oppression with tenderness. The event, titled Tenderness, oh oh oh tenderness, offered community members the chance to share stories about different kinds of love.
Hear Tell has attracted a variety of speakers for dozens of topics. Earlier this year Hear Tell held an event at the Abyssinian Meeting House, the third-oldest standing African American meetinghouse in the United States, featuring stories from Portland’s African American community.
Pepple first came to Portland in 2012 to study communication at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and established permanent residence here in 2014 when she started working as an instructor at MECA and volunteer coordinator at Space Gallery. Pepple has also worked on a public art project called Portland Brick, which installs sidewalk bricks inscribed with stories about the neighborhood where they lie.
“Live storytelling events are my favorite thing,” says Pepple. When people listen to each other’s stories, she says, they experience connectivity within their communities, which draws them closer. “By the end, whoever is left in the room is one group of people.”