By Carl Etnier
Former logger and published storyteller Bill Torrey was telling of a prank he played when he was a teenager, tricking his buddy into making all sorts of moves the auctioneer interpreted as bids. “This auctioneer had the ability to spot the subtle signals these crusty old hay shakers and stump jumpers would make to place their bids. It could be just a scratch of the chin or a nod of the head. It was this characteristic, along with my help, that almost got my buddy, Kirk Perkins, owning a silage wagon when he was 15.”
The stage for the tale was as simple as a soap box: a four-foot square plywood box, less than a foot high, and painted gray. The crowd shoehorned into the dining room and bar at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro ate up Torrey’s broad humor and engaging performance as part of the Extempo storytelling series, held at various venues in Central Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom, and now in its 10th year.
Despite what associations the name “Extempo” might conjure up, the stories are not impromptu. The name derives from the definition of “extemporaneous,” which is “carefully prepared but delivered without notes or text.” Extempo is for ordinary folk to tell true stories from their own lives, in five to seven-and-a-half minutes.
When she started Extempo in 2010, the force behind this series went by the name Jen Dole; now she goes by the single moniker Lovejoy. She has explained that she started Extempo to provide a more homespun alternative to The Moth, a popular New York City group dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, which she characterizes as having become dominated by actors and other professionals. The first years of Extempo were held in Montpelier, before Lovejoy began venturing out to Barre and Calais. Now the locations include Waterbury and Brookfield, too.
Heidi Lauren Duke owns the Highland Lodge and has told stories at Extempo. She has a background as a professional performer in music and drama but said it was a completely different experience to tell an Extempo story. “There was just a mic in front of me, and the stuff in my head, that was it.” She realized that it takes a certain self-deprecation to tell a story well: “The story has to be more important than the person.” On the other hand, she says, “You have to get up the courage; you have to believe in yourself enough to tell the story, so it’s really hard.”
Nancy Schulz of Montpelier has attended Extempo and told stories since the beginning of the series; she’s frequently been deemed a top storyteller by the three-person jury that has ranked the best stories of the evening in the first nine years of Extempo. At the Greensboro event, Schulz commented on why she keeps going to Extempo. “Some stories move you to tears. Some stories are hysterically funny. All good stories, told well, give you a feeling of connection to the storyteller. There’s a feeling of common humanity and shared experience when you’re in a room with other listeners.”
While a rotating cast of veteran storytellers ascends the Extempo stage, there’s almost always some at each event who are telling a story for the first time. At Highland Lodge, one newcomer was Susan Loynd. She told a white-knuckle tale of seeing one of a jet’s two engines catch fire while she was on a commercial flight. The story mixed ponderings of mortality that passengers engaged in with critique of the pilot’s messaging of their plight. (She didn’t think he needed to reveal his only training for flying with one working engine was in a simulator.)
Undoubtedly, the harrowing tale proves Lovejoy’s frequent enjoinder to new storytellers—“Everyone has a story.”
To learn more about the Extempo Storytelling series, visit extempovt.com. Carl Etnier plays an Extempo story each week on his radio show “Relocalizing Vermont” on WGDR. Join Extempo July 12, 8 pm, at Mingle in Barre.