Odds are the first four words ever spoken were “tell me a story.” And the next four? “Once upon a time…” It’s why we have cave paintings, sculpture, theatre, film, television both scripted and “real.” Everything in our world is crafted to communicate something, whether memory or information, association or emotion. Everything–and everyone–has a story.

As theatre artists, no matter our discipline or technique, we find, create and tell stories to our audiences. What if we let them have a turn? Would that lead to a stronger bond, a better appreciation of what we all do? Could it let them get a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at the “process” to see how it’s done?

That’s the idea–and the meta-idea–behind 360.

What is 360?

A gathering, much like this, but without computers, iPhones, what-have-you. And you all tell stories. It’s just that simple, really.

Why 360?

Your story can start anywhere, go anywhere. It may be a memory, something you’ve done, someplace you’ve gone. You have six minutes–or 360 seconds–to bring your story full circle. The time limit helps to keep you focused, and also helps to keep the event moving.

All you need is a space and a timer.

Let the people know, see who shows up. We’ll even provide the logo and other images you might need for signage, mailing lists, posters, etc. The license is free–all we ask is that you credit it back to us here at

Unlike the Moth and other storytelling concepts, this can be as formal or informal as you like. It can be made up of invited storytellers or open to anyone in the crowd. If you want to guarantee a theme, you might invite a few people and give them a prompt beforehand, but then open it up and see what their stories inspire from the crowd. You want to stand, sit, doesn’t matter, whatever feels right.

What kind of space?

Any space will do. Any theatre at any size can set up a 360. If you’re Actors Theatre of Louisville, do it in the mezzanine. If you’re Riverrun Theatre, you do it in a bookstore that’s one of your sponsors.

You could move from sponsor to sponsor, bringing people into a coffee shop one month, a winery the next, a bookstore or library the next. Now, you’re doing something even more concrete than advertising their business, you’re bringing actual people into that business.

Was it difficult to set up?

Not at all. The idea’s been percolating for some time, but once we decided to do it, I just walked in to our bookstore sponsor, asked if we could do it. Then, a Facebook event page. A word on Twitter, a note here and there. I did not send a mailing, I did not go to the radio or the newspaper, I didn’t even put it up on our website. This was as under-the-radar as it gets. And then, one week later, I walked in the store with fifteen minutes to spare and we did this thing.

You can do it that quickly and easily, too. I know you can.

The idea is not the polished, practiced story.

That’s for the Moth and others. This is not a competition, this is not a show. If the stories are polished and practiced, that’s icing on the cake. This is mainly to engage your audience, your community. It’s a way to share with them the joy of crafting and telling a clear and entertaining story. And it really works.

The possibilities are endless.

Maybe you archive stories, record them, share them on your website. You become a de facto Story Corps for your neighborhood, city, etc. Maybe you craft a larger work–I’m sorry, maybe you “devise” a work–based on some stories for a wider audience. Maybe you host poetry editions in April for National Poetry Month.

Eric Ziegenhagen posted a link over on Twitter the other day, which was an idea every independent bookstore should steal. (He’s right, by the way, in case any independent bookstores are reading this.) 360 is very much the same idea, only with your own stories instead of books.

I hosted the very first 360 this past weekend as a Riverrun Theatre event at the Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Indiana. We kept it low-key, wanted to see who would show up. I compared it to a restaurant having a soft opening. (Eric Z. ought to like that analogy.) What amazed me was not that it worked–though it did–or that people came–though they did–but how the evening played out…

Lightning in a bottle.

We had a small group, quiet at first, waiting and wondering how the concept worked. (This was all right, the bookstore is small, very intimate.) I started the evening off with a story to show how it was done, finished with seconds to spare.

Once the ice was broken, the stories flowed.

As the timekeeper and host, I would wave at the speaker at the three minute mark and then again at the one minute mark.

For a timer, I used my iPhone. When it counted down to zero, it would play Take Five by Dave Brubeck. The bookstore owner loved that; Brubeck’s on their speakers most of the time. You could use a stopwatch and a bell. Anything will work.

No one ran overtime, although we do plan for that–if you’re in the middle of a thought, finish the thought. If you’re nowhere near finishing your story, if there’s time, we’d have an “overtime” list for people to come back up and finish in three minutes. But that wasn’t an issue this time around.

What did surprise me, and what’s perfectly logical in retrospect, is that one story triggered another and on through the event. The connections weren’t so obvious as if it were a planned, themed set of stories, but there were clear themes and through-lines from one story to the next. None of us really knew one another, we’ve all led very different lives, but all of the stories connected and resonated. And that resonance was exciting, because it wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t proscribed or planned. It just happened.

It was the joy of creating a larger patchwork of stories, shared with everyone in the room.

By the end of the event, everyone was wired, buzzing, talking, chatting, sharing more and more. They had seen what we do, if only on a small scale. It wasn’t like watching a lecture or an open rehearsal, it was participation.

They didn’t get a look at the process. They were the process.

They had seen how exciting it is to be in the room with the story being told. They had seen how different it was from the fourth wall of television or film. And those who had never come to a Riverrun show–those who only came because they’re bookstore patrons or happened upon the listing and were curious–they’re coming to our next show. Some didn’t even know we were doing live theatre in town–now they’re on our mailing list.

Some had never been to live theatre. Now, they want to come.

So what have we learned?

This is a fun, easy way to connect with and develop your audience.

It’s a great way to support and engage your sponsors and bring some of your magic–and patrons–through their doors.

You can set it up and produce it at the drop of hat. The only real cost to you is the hat.

All you need is a space, a sign, a timer and someone to act as a host.

Want to do it? Go right ahead.

Very soon, we’ll be setting up a separate section of the site to host 360 information, news, stories, etc. If you want to record any stories either as audio or video and upload them to YouTube, Vimeo or another video site, we’ll happily embed them here as part of the 360 website.

This will also be where you can go for promotional language, logos, images and more for mailings and PR purposes.

As I said, the license is free–see the Creative Commons license below for details.

And you know, this would be an excellent instant event to produce for World Theatre Day on March 27th…

Creative Commons License

360 Storytelling by David J. Loehr for is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting David J. Loehr via the website.

  • March 9, 2010
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