Connecting through storytelling

By Sophie Pizzimenti

When I am about to leave the Grand Theatre after breakfast with Christina Mercken, where we talked about the ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’ event from the night before, she stops me. “There is one thing I wanted to add,” she says. “You know how comedians often say they create the illusion of connection? Well, with storytelling you actually create the connection”. She then gives me a hug and heads off.

From Amsterdam to Groningen

Christina Mercken is the woman behind Mezrab in the House, a storytelling event inspired by the Mezrab group from Amsterdam. She is a storyteller, spoken word performer and much more. Along with a few other performers, she brought storytelling to Groningen.

Mezrab in the House came to Groningen around a year ago. It hosts free storytelling events once a month, where local storytellers and performers from Amsterdam join together to offer their stories to the audience.

Compared to Amsterdam, where there is a multitude of storytelling events, Mezrab events are something new to Groningen. Christina explains that, as there was no such event in the city before, people had no pre-conceived notion of what stories fit the idea of “storytelling”.

“No one had a box to think in. So, the storytellers that started coming [to Mezrab in the House], started telling science fiction stories and horror stories. You never hear those in Amsterdam. When we brought some storytellers from Groningen [to Amsterdam], the audience was saying ‘what! You can do science fiction? You can do horror?”

Where do stories come from?

All about the connection

After attending a few of their Mezrab events here in Groningen, I fully understand what Christina means when saying storytelling creates a connection. When going to a storytelling evening, one has to be prepared to laugh, cry, and talk with strangers who will feel oddly familiar.

“Story telling is not just telling a story or an anecdote, but it’s really trying to also get the audience along and get them to also feel with you. Not to tell a story to them, but have them join you in your story,” explains Marjon Kamp, host of the latest Mezrab in the House edition. “It’s the connection,” Chistina adds. “I think that’s also why I find it so important what we had with Abhishek’s performance: a circular set-up.”

Abhishek’s performance

Abhishek Thapar is the performer that opened the Mezrab ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’ event, a special paid edition organized by Storytrooper and Mezrab in the House. A multisensorial story, starting with Abhishek sharing with the whole audience, a piece of lemon pickle made by his grandfather in the 1990s, taking it out of a big jar, the last object left of his home in India.

After this introduction in the hall of the Grand Theater, everyone walked silently to a room where we were asked to take our shoes and socks off, and led to sit in a semi-circle on a floor covered with grains. There, the multimedia performance of Abhishek takes the audience through his family history, intertwined with the history of the Sikh uprising.

Abhishek with the audience

The room is dark, only a gloomy light is shining over the performer and the audience. The silence is pierced only by Abishek’s voice, and the sound of the seeds on the floor when someone moves. The light allows Abishek, who is sitting just half a meter from the audience, to look us in the eye. There is no physical barrier between performer and audience, and among the audience members.

As Christina explains “in theater, when you are next to each other you are in the dark. You might have a connection with the performer, bur your emotion is a very private thing that you feel. With storytelling, because you see each other, and because there is a light on the audience as well, you see the other person cry, you see the other person laugh, and you are actually sharing their emotions and feelings at the same time.”

“We call it connection, I think it’s love.”

The role of the audience

Marjon and Christina say the importance of storytelling in today’s society is its power to create connections among people. Christina explains how in storytelling events, you see people taking their phones out only to take picture as they are all captivated in the present moment of the story. Christina believes that “you can’t dislike people if you know their story. There is a saying: ‘your enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard yet’.”

Storytelling, to Christina, is about honesty, and recognizing common feelings, “you [as a storyteller] show yourself, not to show yourself, but to show the audience a mirror.”

Another aspect of storytelling Christina is enthusiastic about, is the possibility of playing with the roles of the audience and the performer. After Abhishek’s performance of the ‘Offstage – World Storytelling Day’, the audience was split into groups.

The audience joins in

The one I was in, walked up a lot of stairs, through the backstage, and technicians’ rooms, to reach a stage. We, the audience, were made to lie on big cushions on the stage, while the performers appeared on the chairs. At the end of the act, we were asked to share our emotions, while silently, the other groups sat on the audience’s chairs, looking at our conversation as if we were performing for them.

The evening continued with storytelling from locals of Groningen for the usual edition of Mezrab in the House. More people joined, who had not been to the paying event, and the room was soon filled with chatters. In between performances, a music duo called Tamanduà, meaning anteater in Portuguese, formed by Beatriz Oliva Teles and Roberta Spigola, were singing in Portuguese and Italian. Despite the language barrier, the music was felt through the audience, creating yet another connection.

The mixture of internationals and Dutch people, young and old, is what is so special about Mezrab in the House. “Groningen is a very international city, you have a lot of international students, and students in general, I think this is the perfect way to connect these people.”

Tamanduà’s performance