Storytelling Part 1: Memory, Voice and Heart with Hillary Rea
In this episode I interview Philly-based storyteller Hillary Rea. Hillary is the producer and host of Rashomon, a podcast where different family members share the same story; she is also an experienced oral storyteller with a background in theater. She runs her own business, Tell Me A Story, where she coaches mission-driven individuals on the art of storytelling.
Associate Producer Elizabeth de Lise composes an original song for each episode, inspired by the material and interview preceding this one (pigment with Alexis Joseph, which aired in May). Listen here or visit their bandcamp for the full Material Feels collection!
Hillary: I feel grounded. I feel powerful, but I also feel light and open. And like, honestly I just like, feel like a channel of connection.
To me stories live in my, and my heart and then where I am in my life now that gives me like the filter to like bring those out. I think like that getting get triggered by a bunch of things. So photographs, objects, whether they’re my own personal possessions or others, uh, uh, current experience that I’m going life experience that I’m going through, that maybe I don’t have a beginning, middle and end for, but it helps me see other beginning middles and ends that maybe I couldn’t identify from past life experiences. Sometimes just like extemporaneous talking like off the cuff verbal blahs, that’s like, uh, that’s how it can take shape
Even in hearing other people’s stories, my like little, I always think of it as like the Amtrak, like the old train, at least like Penn station in New York and Philadelphia, like the old, like tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, like when the trains were all like updating, like that’s what it feels like in my brain of like memories or like a Rolodex, like something very old timey. I’ll be deeply listening to someone else, but they’ll like say like one specific detail. And I hear that like tick, tick, tick, tick, like thing. And it’s like trying to grab onto the thing that I then want to think about or share about. So again, it’s like this weird bifurcation that happens where I’m like, I can pay attention, but I’m also just like creatively inspired. So I think hearing other people’s stories really generate stories for me.
I am Hillary Rea. I am in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I would say the materials that I work with are my memory, my voice, and my heart, and all of that outputs as stories from my life that come out in many different shapes or forms from those materials.
Welcome to Material Feels, where we talk to creative folk about the materials they have fallen in love with. Each episode focuses on a particular material and maker. Often we focus on tangible materials like clay, wood, wool, pigment, paper, or glass. And sometimes we go a little conceptual, covering sound, time and, right now, the materials used in storytelling.
I’m your host, Catherine Monahon. I’ve got a background in art and I live in Oakland, California. I created this show because I believe creativity is a human right, and that creative practices and material knowledge should be accessible and inviting. The guests on Material Feels are small business owners, risk-takers, independent thinkers and material lovers. I focus on the voices of queer, trans folk, women, and/or people of color.
This episode was recorded on Ohlone land (my side of the conversation) and the unceded land of the Lenah-pay people (Hillary’s side). For those of you listening in the Bay Area, please remember to pay your Shuumi land tax to the Sogora Te Land Trust. Wherever you are listening from, if you are not an Indigenous person, please learn the names of the ancestral lands you occupy and contribute to Native-led organizations and businesses in your area.
Each episode of the show is accompanied by an original piece of music created by Associate Producer Elizabeth de Lise; at the end of this episode we’ll be playing the song they created based on last month’s show on pigment with Alexis Joseph at Case For Making.
Material Feels is sponsored by Brown Sugar Botanicals. Brown Sugar Botanicals is Oakland’s black, queer and trans founded CBD company, proudly crafting herbal CBD infused products with herbal ingredients grown by resilient communities. Great news – Brown Sugar Botanicals’ online shop has reopened with a brand new respiratory relief salve as well as our classic pain relief salve – both for just $15. We also restocked our popular 100 mg CBD tincture infused with lavender and lemon balm for just $45, and our starter pack bundle if you want to try it all at a discount! Go to brownsugarbotanicals.com/shop to order yours, and use code BSBPride until June 30 for 10% off an order of $45 or more. Happy Pride!
Hillary: I am a storyteller and I always feel weird labeling myself or saying that because I feel like we live in a culture where every person across disciplines says, but I’m a storyteller I am though. I really am.
Catherine: How did you know that being a storyteller was a core part of your identity and how did you, when did you feel comfortable claiming that I am a storyteller because I have very similar feelings about saying I’m an artist. So I’m really interested in hearing your perspective as a storyteller.
Hillary: Yeah. I mean, I actually didn’t say, and I can only say it in like a funny voice. Like I’m a storyteller. I didn’t claim that title really until I actually could feel comfortable saying I’m an artist, which I always had trouble claiming, even though I’ve been making art in some way, shape or form since a kid. But I actually did an artist residency in 2011 at a place called Elsewhere in Greensboro, North Carolina.
So before Hillary tells us about her experience at this artist residency, if you haven’t gone back and listened to previous episodes of Material Feels, we did an entire show on time as a material in the context of artist residencies, featuring collaborators Alicia Toldi and Carolina Porras of Piney Wood Atlas.
This would be a great episode to go back and listen to before continuing. Alicia and Carolina have created a series of guide books featuring unconventional residencies across the United states. And they actually have their fourth book that just came out, focusing on the Northeast region! If you’re curious about how residencies work, you should definitely check them out on Instagram or at www.pineywoodatlas.com and buy their books.
I’d like to share a residency with you that I’ve learned about recently: The Black Freedom Fellowship. The Black Freedom Fellowship is a movement that liberates remembrance for vital futures. This artist incubator creates opportunities for Black and Indigenous artists to breathe deeply and critically assess the realities of our current moment in order to to imagine, integrate and express the truthful needs of what it will take for us to embody our free future, now. My good friend KaliMa AmiLak, artist, herbalist and co-founder of our sponsor Brown Sugar Botanicals, will be attending a group residency through The Black Freedom Fellowship in Haiti this August. They will be traveling with ten other multi-disciplinary, Black artists. The Black Freedom Fellowship is founded by Isha Rosemond, a queer Haitian-American international organizer, artist and cultural worker:
Isha Rosemond of The Black Freedom Fellowship:
Hey ya’ll, this is Isha, cultural curator and founder of the Black Freedom Fellowship. I started the Black Freedom fellowship when I return the U.S. after living in Haiti for two years, because, Black and Indigenous people deserve to have spaces and practices that remind us that freedom is and has always been our earthright. On August 14th, 1791, Haitian liberationists used Earth-based practices to organize the spiritual ceremony, Bois Caiman that initiated the Haitian revolution. 230 years later, this August, a group of 10 artist-activists who are leaders in the fields of medicine, social services, visual and performance art and academia, are returning to this land in order to initiate the personal revolutions necessary in order for us to live our free future, now. We are currently raising 10,500 dollars in order to fund this decolonized cultural exchange program. To the Black Freedom Fellowship, decolonized travel means that people are able to travel engage in rest, without financial hardship. It also means we are committed to paying a minimum wage of $5/hour to our Haitian staff, whereas the average local professional earns less than a dollar per day. We’ll be working with Haitain teaching artists and organizers who are on the frontlines of changing Haitian history. Our mutual aid fund is a fund that provides all of these activities and cultural investments free of charge to all the participating Black freedom fellows. Please donate on cash app or Venmo @BFFIncuabtor. Visit our website at www.blackfreedomfellowship.com, to donate or shop at our store where 100 percent of the proceeds go to our mutual aid fund. Black and Indigenous artists are essential artists, and we are leaning on an essential community of people like you to support our efforts. Thank you to the Material Feels podcast for supporting us and allowing us to share our message.
So to summarize – listen to the Material Feels episode on artist residencies, contribute to the Black Freedom Fellowship to support the unapologetic freedom and creative expression of Black creators and consider applying to an artist residency of your own utilizing the Piney Wood Atlas guidebooks!
Okay, back to Hillary’s formative experience at her first ever artist residency at Elsewhere in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Hillary: It’s a living museum in Greensboro, North Carolina that actually used to be owned. It was a military surplus store that was then taken over by this woman post-World war two to be a thrift shop. And then I believe she just sort of went mad and hoarded and started collecting objects and not selling anything and then cataloging these objects like in Ziploc bags and all this stuff. And eventually she died in there. And so in the early two thousands, her grandson and his friend from college, went there and started to build it into this living museum. That then became an artist residency, which I believe to this day, they still have artists living in the space here, basically living in this museum in the second floor. And you can go there and your job is to create some sort of project based on objects in the space. You can’t bring any new materials in and you can’t take anything out. And so I applied. I was telling funny stories in comedy venues and art galleries and any place that would give me a microphone essentially. And I knew that they weren’t like standard stand-up jokes, but I, I knew it had something to do with storytelling. So I applied to do something with, I, I think I used the word storytelling in the application, but I show up there and I’m supposed to make something with materials from the space. And I was like, well, my materials are my memory, my voice and my heart. My first night there, one of the artists and residents was leaving and we were all gathered. There were these community dinners every night. And we were all gathered around the table and the guy who was leading, I said, Oh, what was your project? And he gestured to this beautiful table where we were sitting and he said, I made this table. And I just started freaking out in my head and was like, I like, what am I going to do? I’m not going to make a table. I don’t know how to make a table. Like, I don’t think I’m an artist. Like, what am I doing here? Kind of thing. But in that three weeks or four weeks that I lived in this space, I called myself an artist. I even, I gave an artist’s talk. And I claimed myself as a storyteller because what I ended up doing in that space was walking around for, I think days, I didn’t keep track of time while I was there exploring objects in the space, touching them, looking at them, sitting with them, taking pictures of them.
And what it did was really like shake up my brain and my memories and my heart. And I started to think of all these stories from my life that I wanted to share. And then I actually wrote them all down. They gave me a field recorder that I didn’t know how to use and I hit record and I recorded all the stories and actually turn them into like digital files that lived on QR codes and the QR codes. I fixed them to the objects. So at the time QR codes were very big and people could scan them and listen to the stories.
Narration: With a background in theater, Hillary began telling stories on stage over ten years ago; she started out in comedy clubs and art galleries. Over time she realized she wasn’t really interested in standup comedy, rather than telling a series of jokes, she preferred to tell long form stories to share her experiences and connect with an audience of listeners. After her experience at Elsewhere, she created a live storytelling show in Philadelphia that ran for about a decade and she is also the producer and host of Rashomon, a long form narrative storytelling podcast where one family tells every side of the same story. She also runs her own business, Tell Me A Story, where she helps mission-driven folks in leadership positions use the art of storytelling as a powerful communication tool.
So how does she define a story?
Hillary: I define story now as an experience shared, with the beginning, middle and end. So I think that definition translates across mediums because stories live in so many different forms and come out in so many different ways. And so, as long as it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you’re using that structure to share an experience, whether it’s a true experience from your life, a fictional world, whatever it is like to me, that’s story.
Narration: And stories are everywhere. Embedded in objects, like what Hillary mentioned during her artist residency at Elsewhere. The items that we keep on our bookshelves and nightstands. There are the stories we are bombarded by on the train in the form of ads… There are the stories we love to listen to over and over, like, our favorite songs.
We illustrate stories on our bodies, through the art of tattooing.
We enjoy the slow unfolding of stories when we exchange letters with a far off friend.
We create wacky, fantastical stories through board games or performance.
And there are the stories that we tell ourselves, narratives we’ve crafted about who we were at different points of our lives. Our personality is a story. Our relationships are stories.
What is interesting to me about oral storytelling in particular is the act of standing on a stage in a theatrical environment, and choosing to be…yourself. Not a character, but still having choice about what you reveal. Being intentional about the story that you share, having delved deep and interrogated each element until it is exactly the story you want to tell: a powerful blend of authenticity and craft.
Many of us who work with in concert with the material world have a variety of storytelling tools. Perhaps it is fiber and you are weaving a tapestry, or wax and you are layering meaning into an encaustic piece. Maybe the materials themselves tell a story like the origins a particular pigment.
Hillary mentions that her materials are voice, heart, and memory. And the ingredients of a story are simple. A beginning, a middle, and an end. So what kind of stories is she drawn to telling?
Hillary: All of the stories that I told initially, and this is pre going to that artist residency where I think I really found my way and my voice as a storyteller and like my art, I guess, but prior to that I think it was like a way of me like releasing like heartbreak and loss and disappointment. I called everything crushed comedy because all of the stories that I originally came with were like crushes, gone wrong. Whether it was like when I was a little kid through high school, through like things that were in my pretty recent past. And I think it was a way of me like working through that or like releasing that in a funny way. But a lot of it were things that like maybe at the time were not funny to me or devastated me. I did this one story over and over about how every time I knitted someone either liked or was in a relationship with a scarf, they would immediately break up with me.
So I actually turned that into like, that is it’s funny because it was a story, but I, I had a scarf on stage. I like sometimes I think I was knitting or like finishing a scarf, but I always had this like really long scarf wrapped around my neck. And I would bring, I would call someone up from the audience every single time to break up with me on stage. Like I would give them the scarf and they would have to break up with me.
Narration: Hillary used of props in her early days of storytelling, and she engaged with the audience to transform disappointment and rejection into something humorous and novel. The story is mutable, building on itself… with the essential role of an audience member. This storytelling tactic reminded me of Theater of the Oppressed, a revolutionary type of theater created in the 70s by Augusto Boal
Theater of the Oppressed took off in communities throughout Brazil and beyond as an effective way of organizing…and was actually seen as dangerous by the state. It blurs the boundaries between actors and audience, a non-hierarchical tool for problem-solving. The audience members are spect-actors, part spectators, part actors. Each show focuses on a particular social problem or societal struggle that is relevant to the lives of the community. The actors play out the situation once, as it went down in real life.
Then they do it a second time, but this time audience members, or spect-actors, can step in… and interrupt the cycle with their own actions. A person known as the “joker” is a sort of facilitator, though they don’t change anything or control anyone. They simply ask the audience to reflect on the newly created scene: was it useful? Bow-al thought that theater could be a means to achieve something greater, a form of social justice where solutions were discovered as a community.
Thinking about Theater of the Oppressed in the context of oral storytelling and sharing our own personal stories, my mind shifts to drama therapy: the intentional use of theatrical processes to achieve therapeutic goals.
Agency is a big theme in drama therapy – practitioners create a safe space where people can make their own decisions. Movement is also a big part of drama therapy: getting emotions and thoughts outside of yourself, into the physical world. Movement is key to many of the creative practices we’ve talked about on the show, weaving threads together, pressing and shaping clay, sculpting glass, folding paper.
And drama therapy has actually been influenced avant- gaurd/revolutionary theater thinkers like Boal!
So, I’ve gone down one of my rabbit holes to learn about drama therapy: I discover a therapeutic tool called role-playing. A framework where people are invited to try on different personalities: victim, martyr… and literally practice different frames of mind.
I feel a connection here: oral storytelling, and Hillary’s specific brand of storytelling: stories that feel true to her, being herself onstage, and the process of playing with/exploring the story inside and out before choosing how to tell it.
I think working with the material world, we do this as well: we transform materials in the same way a spect-actor will step on stage, interrupt a story and imagine a new outcome. Introduce a new ingredient. That’s what I feel the material world does for our psyche, and what our psyche does for the material world; it’s a mutual form of magic.
I think about how a person crafts, communicates or deeply listens to a story. Learning about theater of the oppressed and the political power of theater and storytelling, I see the power of stories in a larger context. And I zoom back in, meditating on the transformative power of storytelling for personal growth through the frameworks within drama therapy.
For those of us not on stage telling stories… how does all this connect to our everyday life? Choosing what stories we want to share, with whom and where, to me… that means observing our surroundings more, asking ourselves more questions, and getting really specific about what emotions we are feeling.
It also means getting more familiar with our preferred materials for communicating our stories. In Hillary’s case, memory, heart and voice. She shares more about how her storytelling practice has changed over time, especially her relationship with her memory.
Hillary: Right now I’m really drawn to stories from childhood and trying to figure out like, what is my memory? What is just living in photographs that I’m interpreting? Or what are the stories passed down to me about the parts of myself that I can’t remember. I really love like sitting with something that felt so small and insignificant, unfurling it to illuminate the bigger meaning for me. And then for the people listening.
Catherine: Can you walk me through what it feels like to think about a small moment and then turn it into a story?
Hillary: There’s an urge to say something or explore something I get like a flash of like a memory, like I’m very visual. that links me to like an emotion or a time, or like, uh, a piece of my identity, whether it’s like how I see myself now or how I think I saw myself and then this like urge to figure it out. I often like think of my memories or stories, like as I’m moving around, like if I’m walking around my house or doing things like that, I’ll share it like anecdotally, like in conversation, and then some writing always happens around it. And then I like find a way to then give voice to it again after writing. So whether that’s like in front of behind a microphone, like in a live setting.
I make a choice about how I want to share it. And I always make the choice of like, this is my worldview. This is my perspective. This is what I want to think about in the story. This is the details I want to bring to life or the feelings I want to explore within the story. And so I do like prep work always and that’s evolved over time, but then a lot of what makes the story or the experience come to life in that beginning, middle end is like, what happens in the moment? What happens when there’s a listener? Or I know that someone’s going to listen and then that sort of went it morphs and takes new forms. And then if I tell it again, it might change again, depending on like where I am in life or who I’m speaking to.
Narration: I think of memories as the presence or the absence of something. The way a handprint leaves a mark on soft clay. Our brain creates a memory of that hand by seeing a visual representation of the pressure it once put on the material. I think about how very specific smells take me back to a time and place.
When Hillary talks about her relationship with her memory, she references childhood photos, ephemera, books that she wrote in grade school, and small moments that she investigates until they blossom into an intricate story.
And it’s not just objects that hold memory; memory is also a physical material in our brain. It’s actual matter. Memory refers to processes that acquire, store, retain, and retrieve information. There are three major processes involved: encoding, storage, and retrieval. To get into the nitty gritty, our brains have about one billion neurons, and each neuron represents about a thousand connections … that’s over a trillion points of connection. Because neurons combine forces to share various memories, our brain’s storage capacity is estimated an one million gigabytes. Which, fun fact, translates to 300 years of a continuous, 24-hour Netflix binge. Indulging in another rabbit hole, and to help myself wrap my neurons around these very large numbers, apparently there is only about four years of content currently available on Netflix. Aaaaaanyway.
Hillary uses her memory like a rolodex: one of those rotating spindles people used to have on their desks with names and addresses catalogued in alphabetical order. She mentally scans a library of encoded small moments, sorted and filed in storage. She also responds to her environment organically, allowing certain experiences to call a small moment from the past forward. She then uses her heart and voice to explore and develop that memory.
Hillary shares a bit more about how she works with others to help strengthen their relationship to their own storytelling materials.
Hillary: I know that I have a way of helping people tell their stories based on the casual workshops I’ve led or the way I’ve helped people with their story for these shows. Like what can I turn this into? And so over time I like built it and was like doing it part-time and like took a business plan, writing class and went into doing all these corporate trainings. And then I was like, I’m an anti-capitalist, I can’t do this kind of thing. And so now who I work with are mostly female identifying folks, not always, that run their own businesses, I often work with folks that are like going through some sort of big transition, whether it’s like a life transition personally or professionally. And so, and, and that group of folks really work on their stories for themselves. And so yes, they have to give voice to them and share them out loud, but they’re doing it for personal development and it’s to help shift what stories are happening for them inside and like kind of rewire their memory bank to like really embrace the stories they would tell to other people. With the entrepreneurs and the leaders, it’s really like finding a core story that serves you where you are in your life now. And again, not just professionally that you can share in a professional setting and then you have all these other stories that can spin off of it. And so when you are taking up more space or expanding your visibility and you want to be the one in control of your narrative, you have the stories to tell.
The type of storytelling work that I do that I’ve shared an onstage of myself and that I help other people do is really linked to identity. But I think so much of art, like different art forms are linked to identity. And the way that I see storytelling linked to identity is that there are three prongs of identity stories. It’s the stories we tell ourselves, the stories other people tell about us and the stories we choose to tell other people about ourselves. And I think culturally, and just the way, yeah, just the way of the world, like we’re really used to clinging on to the stories we tell ourselves and the stories other people tell about us to inform our identity and how we show up in the world and how much space we take up and whether or not we open our mouth.
I think of it as this like internal power source to really choose again, like use the materials of memory, voice, heart, to deliver the story of yourself that we want to share with other people you can reframe the narrative of what’s happening inside the internal dialogue or self-limiting beliefs or fictional stories. You can make them more in line with what you choose to tell other people about yourself. And then those other people telling stories about you become more in line with how you want your story told, and you still can’t control that. But if you, if you focus on that, like I’m using my voice and my experience and my perspective to share my story, those other people are going to shut up and listen.
It’s funny words are my material, but it almost feels like the scraps that get thrown out. And like, I know obviously, like my stories are documented, like as I tell them and there’s words involved and I do write, but I see it as I’m, I it’s my voice. It’s beyond the words. If that makes sense.
Narration: I think about how malleable my voice actually is. Though when I open my mouth it feels like only one sound could possibly come out, my voice changes over time. In the morning versus the night. When I’m stressed or anxious and like super on edge and overwhelmed versus when I’m relaxed, chilled out, maybe I just took a bath, I dunno. When I’m feeling amorous or if I’m feeling aggravated.
The human voice is so intricate. There is the spectrum of masculine to feminine voices, androgynous voices, accents, dialects, pacing, loudness, tone, emotion. Familiarity. For instance: when I hear voices that remind me of my relatives in Philly and New York, I feel instantly relaxed and at home, no matter how gruff the content.
What is your relationship to voice like? Do you ever find yourself in situations where you might code switch, depending on who you’re talking to? Code switching is the practice of adjusting the way you express yourself to mirror others around you. There are a range of reasons for doing this, from getting the locals-only discount to trying to fit in or feel safe. The voice is an incredibly powerful material, that, just like all the other materials we talk about, can be influenced and shaped by social dynamics of power and oppression.
Voice is an essential tool for a lot of artists, musicians, storytellers and… yeah, and podcasters. I’m using it right now, it is a material I pay very close attention to once a month: the few days before I record narration, and the day of. It only takes me about 30 minutes to record narration for the show… but I spend two days hydrating and one day pretty much avoiding any social contact to spare my voice, and my mental energy. I like to rest my voice before recording narration. I drink tea with honey, I like, actually hydrate, like my pee is clear for three days. I floss, I dunno I think that helps? I won’t pick up the phone… and when I warm up to record, I wake up my articulators, I open up my posture and breathe.
The voice is a physical and an emotional material.
It is created by a combination of work from the lungs, the vocal folds within the larynx (or voice box), and the articulators (tongue, palate, cheek, lips). Breath from our lungs flows through the larynx; air is made to pass through the slit in our voice box and the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound. Our throat transforms this sound into speech. When we tighten our vocal cords, vibrations increase, a higher pitch is produced.
And like Hillary said, using our voice in all the ways possible is literally taking up space and flexing every role in the book: talking, singing, laughing, whispering, crying, screaming, shouting, moaning. That’s… like every emotion right there.
And so for a storyteller like Hillary, who puts so much of herself in her stories… her stories ARE her… her voice is a direct channel of her third material: heart.
Hillary: I think vulnerability is a part of storytelling, but I also think people feel pressure that they have to share everything about themselves. Like it’s either don’t talk about myself at all, or I have to share everything, but there are things that aren’t ready to be shared, whether it is like deep, serious trauma or just something that you don’t have perspective on yet, or like feel compelled to think about or explore further. And so I really encourage people to find the life experiences that are in that wound phase, that then they have this like urgency to get out in some way. Um, and that the scar phase experiences or memories can like live on a list or like in your head.
And you can say like, you know what, I’m going to leave that for now, but maybe I can revisit that at some point. And so that I think creates a lot of boundary, both for the storyteller, but also for the audience, because then the audiences receiving stories that are vulnerable and true, but also from this inner strength and power that I think is also saying to the audience, like you’re going to be okay, listening to me, whatever it is I share. I’m not going to burden you with anything that’s an unhealed. doesn’t mean it’s only happy stories, but I think when the storyteller makes that choice, you’re also like letting the audience know, like, come on this ride with me because I’m okay.
Catherine: While you were saying that I started imagining the story again, as an animate, as something, not inanimate and animate object, like it’s a living and breathing and, and you, you like put part of yourself into it with like, and it might ha have like those wounds that you’re like examining and caring for and getting ready to share, and then someone receives it. I almost see it as it’s feels sculptural to me for some reason.
Hillary: I think of all stories as animate objects as well, and like con constantly shifting, especially I’m I, when I say storytelling too, I mean like, ultimately the output is orally, like giving it and there’s somebody there to receive it. And I think, yeah, it’s even if the audience is like, Oh no, is this a wound? Like the, obviously they’re not thinking in that forum, like if the storyteller has that boundary of like, Oh no, this is a scar, then you’re taking care of your audience and you’re taking care of yourself.
Narration: Makers often have some studio that they work from. Whether it is a room, an area, a designated surface. A specific space lends itself to specific rituals, tools, and a mindset. No matter what material you work with of what your studio looks like, it is how a person gets to the mindset of their creative practice that I’m curious about.
Hillary: I’ve had so many different studios for storytelling, but I honestly, I think of that museum that I, where I did the artist residency in Greensboro, like even if I’m not surrounded by piles of hoarded objects that have been cataloged in Ziploc bags.
I see that space, like as the space of like creativity and like where all of my like core stories, especially when I was like actively performing stars on stage, like that was the studio where they came from.
So my studio, it doesn’t really matter the location. I do like to be like, I don’t want people crowded around me, but I did spend a lot of time in the New York public library, the Rose room, writing stories at one point in my life and at this weird artist residency.
Oh, this is coming to me now for eight years of my life, I was a standardized patient. So I was an actor for medical students. And that was my day job. And I worked for the national board of osteopathic medical examiners. And so we were there from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and we were not allowed to leave the premises because of, they fed us and all this stuff. So actually my studio for a lot of my storytelling was a mock doctor’s office. And I was wearing a hospital gown and white socks.
And I would bring, because we weren’t allowed to have our computers or our phones or anything with us in the room. So I would bring my Moogy notebook and my Moogy pen. And I would write stories in a hospital gown underwear on, but that’s it and white socks. And I would lie on an exam table that had a pillow. And I would like put the notebook on the pillow, open it up. And we had, I think, nine minutes in between the time that we saw medical students taking our exam. And so I would write for nine minutes straight.
Sometimes I had to stop, like, they’d say like one minute, or they’d say like, stent, SPS, please take your places. It was, there was like an announcement that came on. And so I would have to, I would have to like put my notebook away, like put it in the drawer and then get back into position to play whatever character I was playing, which I played a suicidal teenager for awhile.
And I had to start every encounter in a cutter, curled in a ball. So I would like be writing my story, closing notebook, and then having to quickly be like, all right, I’m a suicidal teenager. I have to sit in this ball. Or like once I had a stomach thing and I had to like lie, curled and pain. So it was like this switching in and out of like my life, my stories, getting them out on paper and then like becoming a weird medical character where I was sort of acting.
Catherine: One of the reasons I ask that question is because I like to g
ive people different ideas of where, what they need to be creative and where they need to be. And it’s usually everyone’s answers are just so different or simple. And so I think what you’ve brought to the, to our attention is that if you have your tools and you have your, your drive, you can do it anywhere. Yes. In the hospital gown, in the, in a completely, I mean, that’s such an uncomfortable situation for so many people, and yet you like just did it. So I wonder, like, do you feel like being kind of having, having a limited amount of time and being like, all right, you should use my time to do my thing. Like that was, that, did that help?
Hillary: I think with that, like eight years of my life specifically, I think it was because I had this job where I was sort of a robot, like I could get away with, I didn’t have to do much, like, yes, I had to pay attention to, like, I had a checklist. I had to score these people and that was a very high stakes exam, but I knew how to do that. I knew how to bifurcate my brain to do that and still live in my creative head space. And that was the reason why I held onto that job for so long before I went full time with telling me a story as a company is because I could bifurcate my brain successfully and like, like swirl ideas in my head, or like, think about a story. And so I could do that basically for like the eight hour shift…my studio was also just getting up in front of people with a microphone and trying things out. And so my studio would be like daytime swirling writing, whether that happened there, um, on the Megabus to New York in the Rose library room, but then like getting up in front of people and, and seeing, and not like asking for feedback of like, what did you think? But like receiving feedback in the form of non-verbal response.
Catherine: What’s the point of storytelling?
Hillary: I get that question a lot and I actually get that from people that I work with or that like really are scared to, and not what’s the point. It’s the, why would anyone care about my story? And so when you ask that I’ve asked myself, like, what’s the point, but it’s always about like specific stories. So I feel like that is like a fear based response to being visible or a fear based like resistance to being visible. What’s the point of storytelling. And as I see it, like an experience shared with a beginning, middle and end, because that’s how we understand each other as human beings, no matter what form the story takes, takes, shape, whatever shape it takes, how we like understand ourselves, each other what’s happened around us. It’s literally, it’s like beginning, middle and end structures in everything.
Catherine: Visibility. You were literally conjuring things to be shared that would not be shared unless that person opened their mouth and did it.
Hillary: And then the other what’s the point is like, cause people need to be heard and also people need to become better listeners and that’s the way to do it.
Narration: Hillary and I have a common thread: a theater background, though hers is much more developed than mine. I was a theater geek in elementary school and middle school; by eight years old I knew every word of Les Mis. Yes, my ego was bruised when I didn’t get into the freshman year musical in high school, but that did not prevent me from continuing to be completely obsessed with Broadway shows, musicals, and theatrical fun of any kind. I ask Hilary what she misses most about theater over the past year and a half of a pandemic when gathering indoors was not an option.
Hillary: So one feeling or like sensation that I like want to go back to for theater that I can like conjure every time I think about it, is that feeling right before, something’s about to start. So like if you get the cue of the lights going down, but for example, like I wrote the story last night that I shared out loud with this writing group that I’m in about the musical rent and like different things in my life that have related to that musical. But I still remember sitting there and I went by myself, um, in Philadelphia to the tour and I was clutching the play. So it was always like I was holding onto the playbill, which I always wanted to get to the theater early to read before it started. So I could read all the bios and see the song list and know if there was an intermission, like all of the rules.
No matter what the show, I, it’s not even a choked up, like in my gut and in my throat, I do feel like I could, but I always hold on to the tears, but I know that the tiers are going to happen at some point and mostly because of joy. Um, and so if anything disrupts that like probably millisecond, but it feels like completely slowed down for me that whole, like when something’s about to start, if somebody like sits down late, has their phone glowing unwraps their wrapper, I feel rage. So I like to hold on to that special moment. I can like channel that moment if I need to, even if there’s distractions around me.
Catherine: So the moment of sitting down right before it starts, um, the theater’s dark and then the lights come up. So you’re imagining being in the audience now.
Hillary: That’s my feeling in the, and at sometimes the lights don’t go down. So sometimes you don’t know and things just start, but I still get the, like, I need like a breath from myself and like peace. And then I need to like fill up with like the emotion for the true beginning.
I don’t like being on stage in theater. I never, and like, I think I did as a kid. Like I can, I have really good memories, but I think as soon as I went to school to study singing and theater going on stage was actually like really traumatic. And so I don’t have good feelings equated with standing on a stage as a character to somebody else. I don’t want to be a character. I just want to be myself. And I think honestly, like I don’t feel that way if I’m on a stage, whether it is like a formal theater stage, which I have been telling stories or like a coffee shop in that space, I feel grounded. I feel powerful, but I also feel light and open. And like, honestly I just like, feel like a channel of connection.
Narration: Now that I understand Hillary’s relationship to voice, and storytelling as a tool for identity, this makes total sense to me. I ask her to help us understand what it feels like to be in that place where she is fully herself.
Hillary: Now when I am on a stage or when I think of positive experiences on a stage, I am in my own clothing. There’s a microphone in front of me on a mic stand, but I can take it out if I want to. Um, there are enough lights so that I can’t really see specific people in an audience in the audience, but I could figure out who was there if I wanted to. Um, there’s, uh, I can, I have to breathe like before I open my mouth, um, that kind of thing. But I also, and this has been something that has happened in my storytelling is I have a memory of being a kid in theater at a time where I felt so free and open and thrilled that I channel that even if it’s like, again, image or a split second now, before I’m going to get up in front of people.
Narration: Hillary then conjures that very specific memory – She takes me all the way back to the third grade.
Hillary: So we had this multi-purpose room that they used for everything. There were risers. We had music class there, but when there were theater productions where they were, so there was no stage, but everybody that came had to sit on the floor. And so it was like a flat so that you could see what was happening in the part where the play was going on. And so in third or fourth grade, we did Paul Bunyan. That was the musical. And it’s like an opera at a British operetta about an American folk tale. It’s like very confusing. I don’t know why you would give that to third graders. The teachers music teacher, like chooses based on like the capabilities of the student, but you could write down what you wanted to be. And so I, I knew we were doing Paul Bunyan. I think I asked for the cassettes of it. I don’t know if like my parents got it from the library or we bought it, but I remember listening to the cassettes of this operetta and like, it came, it was like in one of those big, this is like how old this I will feel. It was like in this like big, long box that had like all the cassettes in it. And then there was like the booklet with the, um, lyrics and like pictures and stuff. And so I was like listening and I didn’t like any of this, like women’s songs.
And like, I also knew that I wouldn’t get to be Paul Bunyan. And so there was this one character that came in and act one and act two, just one time, each act that had a solo and it was the Western union boy. And he had the song is like, it’s about delivering a telegram to Paul Bunyan. And that was it. And it was like a comedic relief. Like it was all the stuff. And so I was like, well, I want this role. Like I got a solo, like I got to deliver this message. And then in my head as a kid and how I remember it is that I wanted to ride a bicycle. And so I asked my music teacher, if I could, well, I like put this down as the role. And I got cast because nobody else had done research.
I asked if I could ride my bicycle to sing the song while riding my bicycle. And I don’t know like how many people had to be asked, but I got, got permission to do so. And so that became part of the plan. So the memory that I have in the feeling that I always get now, when like being on stage feels good for me. And when I can channel like a good theater experience is like on a pink Schwinn, a flower banana seat at the back end of the multipurpose room, going down this narrow aisle where like all the kids and parents and teachers are sitting on the floor around me and it’s on carpet. And I have to pedal to the tempo of the song and sing. And I like grew up in a city. I like rode a bike in parking lots.
Like I wasn’t riding through the streets of Philadelphia as a kid. So like, I was also like new to riding a bike riding and singing is like kind of hard anyway. And it’s on carpeting and with people staring at you, but for some reason the memory I hold on to, and the experience I had doing that is like joy, freedom, unapologetically being like this weird version of myself, even though I was a character and I was like the Western union boy, but like, I feel like I created the world for that character and like had permission to like show up and take up space in this weird way. And so I can like connect to that any time I’m now up in front of an audience, like as small or large as formal or informal. And like, I tap into that like theatrical freedom that I felt. And I wished that I had that memory to tap into when I was experiencing so much fear and pain on stage in front of people. Cause I think I could have, it could have supported me in a really good way.
Catherine: Wow. I, I love how specific you got with that memory and I feel like your relationship to your memory is so intricate and intimate and like you think about your memories a lot. through our conversation. I’ve just noticed that you, you are a very, I feel that you’re a very detail oriented storyteller, like the small moments and you really paint a picture with very specific ingredients.
I do believe like everyone can tap into those places and that they don’t have to be scary and dark or if they’re scary and dark and you want to explore them. That’s okay. Um, but I do also know that I’m like, the way I hold on to memories is, is very specific. And also like has got sharpened, I guess, like over time in like storytelling being my fault, like the form in which my materials go out into the world. Um, so yeah, I don’t know if it’s me like that. I it’s just like that I’m special. Like I just think like it’s possible for people to do it, but I also think it’s the other thing is like memories are also playing tricks on us, even if we feel like we have ownership over them. So it’s like, I don’t know what really happened in that, like there was no video tape of that. Like I know I’m not lying about the circumstances, but I know that like the emotional story or like the perspective I have on it, like that’s always going to shift.
Narration: The bicycle moment that Hillary shares was a small moment in her life. Her relationship with her memory allowed her to access that small moment, and her comfortability with her voice and her heart allowed her to expand and that moment so that it blossomed into a many petaled fractal, intricate and specific and fragrant.
She accesses that memory with the snap of her fingers before every show. She shares that memory with me with such detail that now it’s a part of me.
Stories are physical beings because they are pieces of information that we internalize and store in our minds. And so if you create a relationship with specific stories in your life a relationship that is so strong that you feel comfortable sharing those stories with other people, and they are open to receiving it, that flower is now a part of them.
Catherine: Why do you love what you do?
Hillary: It just feels right. And not that like, other things felt wrong, but I just really love that. as a kid I wanted to perform, I like have in various places that I’ve wanted to be an actor, a director, a writer, like I wanted to like express myself in some way. Like those were all the things. Um, but the path that got me here and I guess like, everyone’s no one really knows what’s going to happen to them. But like, it just feels right. Even though it was never what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know what opportunities would be there for me. And also what opportunities I could create for myself. Cause honestly, honestly, I’ve created all of this for myself, both like my art and like now making a living from like helping people find their stories for whatever thing they need them for. And it just feels right in like a weird, like I’m not even a religious or spiritual person per se, but it feels like the universe did it.
Catherine: Feeling right.. what does it feel like in your mind and your body?
Hillary: I feel grounded, which feels like my, like I can feel my feet on like hit the earth, but the earth keeps going. And then I feel at the same time, like jumping freedom for me is like singing on the bicycle moment of my life. But then the thing that’s like bringing those two, the grounded and the jumping together is this core of trust. And it’s like trust in myself, trust in the materials, the work, the story, and trust that, however, it comes out, it is going to land and be received. And that’s all I can do.
Narration: I am particularly taken with the vivid sensation Hillary created in my mind: riding a bicycle down the center aisle of the third grade rendition of Paul Bunyan, singing an pedaling and being fully myself. I’ve been trying to figure out… what’s my bicycle moment?
What moment can I conjure to support myself when I’m about to step off the ledge and free-fall into my creative practice, which is so thrilling but also so unknown? What details would I pull into that story that would not only get across exactly what I mean, but make the experience palpable to the person listening, get their version of a rolodex spinning?
To me, that story is a distilled drop of water, a memory that is both pure and refined… and when it is brought out into the world, it creates a ripple effect. I absorb it, and my own memories begin to convalesce. Condensate. Pool into droplets that I can collect, examine and craft into my own water droplet.
Every time I interview somebody who works with the material and has a studio, often we will do a demo. It’s an opportunity for them to give me all the delicious sounds that their creative process makes, to see their material in action, and witness them in relationship with it. Hillary’s version of a demo was a storytelling activity that she does with her clients; I’m going to close out with that activity and pick back up next episode to complete it, kind of like the values conversation at the end of the show with Paper artist Zai Divecha… some food for thought. So Hillary is gonna lay out the activity for us, and I’m gonna complete it for the next show. There is an open invitation to participate, either now or next month… I was pretty amazing by how many people reached out to me to discuss their core values, so, I’m just gonna keep the introspective workbook vibes going.
Hillary: Your materials are pen and paper, but it can be any pen, any paper, and you have five minutes and in the five minutes.
I want you to, uh, create your five word life story. So it’s five words that encapsulate your life up until this very moment, focus more on the story. You choose to tell someone else about you, not the story you’re telling yourself, not the story other people are telling about you. It doesn’t have to just be adjectives. You can use all kinds of words, action, words, places. Five minutes, five words. Um, and a lot of people like word dump and create like a bunch of words to choose from or draw a picture. Sometimes it just comes to people. So I will give you five minutes.
Put the date because that’s the whole thing is you can do this over and over again, and it doesn’t negate the story that came before. It. It’s just your five word life story that serves you in the present moment. And then the other thing is when you, I want you to say it out loud, at least for this whatever ends up happening in production. That’s fine. But, just say the five words don’t give me any other words or context.
Those five words are an invitation for further brainstorming. And I think if you think about your brainstorming, um, it’s like, again, tapping into my memory, heart, voice and see what happens and like, yeah. There’s ways to do it. DIY there’s ways to do it with support. There was, you know, um, but I think like not being like trusting yourself enough, like, Oh, wow. Like, look at what I just did in five minutes with five words, what else is out there? What else is inside of me?
Material Feels is produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon. I’m a writer and audio storyteller with a background in art. Associate Producer Elizabeth de Lise composes original music for the show as well. This episode features sounds from www.FreeSound.org, as well as underscores by MSFX and music created just for the show, by Elizabeth. The show is a labor of love; and your contributions mean the world. Here’s how you can support our creative community:
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And now, an original piece of music composed by Liz, inspired by pigment and our interview in May of 2021 with paintmaker Alexis Joseph.