There are lots of ways to learn things in Brooklyn. Some involve craft classes, some involve skillshares, others involve riding the D train up and down from the Bronx for a few hours just to catch up on all those old New York Times Magazine stories that have been sitting on your Pocket app for months. The city is also well into a boom of storytelling shows, the kinds of intimate gatherings where a performer spins a tale on something learned from their own life experiences. New shows seem to pop up every week, but one of the longest running and most popular is How I Learned, which celebrates its seventh anniversary at Union Hall tonight. Ever since starting out on the Lower East Side seven years ago, the show has been one of of the most consistently entertaining in the city, with well-told stories by a mix of performers, from Eugene Mirman, the Broad City duo and Liz Winstead, to David Carr, WNYC’s Anna Sale and The Awl’s Choire Sicha.
The city and the scene have changed a lot in seven years, so founder and host Blaise Allysen Kearsley, who lives in Park Slope and teaches memoir writing and does other freelance work by day, talked to us about how the show found an audience and what it takes to keep a monthly show going for that long.
Seven years is a lifetime in the NYC performing scene. What was going on at the time that inspired you to start the show?
I had already been doing other people’s readings around town. I really enjoyed doing them but I wanted something else. I didn’t know what it was. My friend Sarah Brown, who started Cringe, found out that this bar on the Lower East Side [the original Happy Endings] was looking for a show producer, and she told them to contact me.
At the time, I was writing a personal essay about sex education: how I learned about sex. I had to pitch this venue an idea for a show very quickly, and I just thought “how I learned” would be a good overarching theme for a show.
What was the storytelling scene becoming a big thing already at that point?
When I started it I didn’t really know that much about storytelling. I didn’t really know that there was this whole storytelling scene in New York. My show really started out as a reading series but them by like the fourth or fifth month, I had performers say to me, “you should check out this person, you should have them on your show.” This person turned out to be a storyteller. I started booking storytellers as well as writers who prefer to read, and then I added stand-up comics.
But everyone has to tell a true personal story, regardless of what their background is, even the fiction writers. And I look for both established and emerging talent. Last month one of the performers was the editor of the Paris Review, Sadie Stein, who’d never done anything like that before. She knocked it out of the park.
What is it about the “how I learned” hook that makes the show resonate with audiences? Are people starved for life lessons from others?
It’s really the theme each month that attracts people to the show. I’ve done “how I learned about sex,” obviously, “how I learned to lie cheat or steal,” “how I learned it’s basically all my parents fault.” I try and get performers who draw a crowd. I try to make the themes funny for the most part. I also did “How I learned to say I’m sorry,” which was amazing. There were tears.
I think people are drawn to it because while they know it’ll be funny and entertaining it also suggests that the show offers themes and situations that are relatable to everyone, in one way or another.
Organizing a monthly show for seven years can be crazy making! How have you kept it going this long?
It’s amazing to me that it happened. I feel extremely grateful that it’s been so successful and that people come out and support the show. It’s unusual for something to last that long in New York. I got lucky too when I moved it to Brooklyn [in 2014], I had a large following in Manhattan.
It really feels every month like a full-time job. The show always feels like kind of a party to me, but also I like to drink so maybe that’s just me.
So seven years later the NYC storytelling and performing scene has exploded. There’s The Moth, Risk, Mortified, Awkward Sex and the City, the Story Collider and about 1,000 comedy shows every night of the week. How do you stick out?
It’s about getting an eclectic mix of people from different career backgrounds. But each one has to tell an actual story, no stand-up. Everyone brings a different style and approach to the table and that’s a huge part of what makes it so fun.
What are your favorite moments from over the years?
Having Broad City on my show was great, because they premiered a video that was a short, a mini story. It’s not usually a multi-media show. It was fun to have them present the video as a story.
The actor Taylor Negron did my show [in 2013]. I was really so excited to get him on the show. It was totally random: I saw on Facebook that we had a mutual friend. I just sent him a message, he wrote me back immediately. He wrote a story specifically for this show on “how I learned to let go.” He was so lovely and did a great job.
He and I actually became friends. Two and a half years later, he died. On so many levels that’s one of my fave things that’s happened with the show to become friends with him and share him with the How I Learned audience.
What’s some key advice you can pass on to anyone starting their own show today?
The first thing is to try to come up with something no one else is doing. So do your research. The second, but most important, is to do something you love.
How I Learned celebrates its seventh anniversary at Union Hall tonight at 7:30 with the theme “How I learned to get lucky.” The lineup includes Lauren Maul, Doogie Horner, Josh Homer, Ginny Leise and Alana Massey. Tickets are $10.
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