Stories from the Stage showcases storytellers from all around the world, each with a special story to tell. Before they make their way up to the stage, co-hosts Theresa Okokon and Wes Hazard sit down to get to know each teller beyond the performance – but how much do we know about them? In a digital exclusive, Okokon and Hazard pull back the proverbial curtain to give us insight into their connection to storytelling and how hosting the show plays a role in each of their lives.
“I like to tell stories that are me learning a lesson about something or learning something about myself, because I like to hear stories like that,” said Okokon, a Wisconsin native who writes and coaches storytellers in between her 9-5 in Boston. Her memoir, “The Okokon Family Orchestra,” is due out in 2025.
Hazard, a Massachusetts local-turned-Brooklynite whose first love is stand-up comedy, agreed: “The biggest joy with storytelling is the expanded range of emotion. It allows me to more deeply explore myself as I think others might see me. I find it very freeing.”
What first drew you to storytelling? And Stories from the Stage?
Theresa Okokon: Storytelling has become central in my life. I was raised by two immigrants: My dad is from Nigeria and my mom is from Ghana. Telling a story is how my dad taught a lesson, and that has become part of who I am. It’s how I understand the world, how I learn and remember things. I like to make meaning of things, and storytelling and writing makes it feel like things matter.
[Stories from the Stage] is really human. That's my favorite thing about it. Some of the people on the show are storytellers – this is what they do. And then a lot of people who come on the show have never done this before and literally would never do it again. That's human, and it's a beautiful experience to witness someone being truly human in front of you. It gets you to, at least for a moment, care about something that has nothing to do with you.
Wes Hazard: Watching the show exposes you to the lives of others that you would never otherwise encounter. We are living in an extraordinarily divided time, politically, within this country. I strongly feel that no matter where you're coming from, no matter who you voted for, that if you put a couple of people in a room and you don't allow them to talk about the news of the day, just talk about your childhood and where you’re coming from, they will find interest in each other. If you were to watch the show, you will hear a story from a person that you would never have a drink with, that you would never just talk to on the street. Use that opportunity to find out about people.
What goes into how you tell your own stories?
WH: When I'm first doing a story, I'm forced to sit down and go over the mental notes. Maybe reach out and call my mom, like, “Hey, do you remember this?” That's where I find something about myself that perhaps I didn’t know. And it’s got to be funny. I have no place in my life for anything lacking humor. Even the most heavy, sad, mournful things – there's always something funny in there. Everything is funny on the cosmic level.
TO: After some time, everything becomes funny; we can look back on it and find some humor in the moment. Something that I learned pretty early on in storytelling was that an audience will find humor in your story even if you don't. I can remember many experiences where people would laugh when I was telling a story, and I was like, “That wasn't meant to be funny.” I don't think that I tell funny stories; I think I tell sad stories. Sometimes it's just more comfortable to deal with sadness with humor.
There are stories that people ask you to tell all the time, and I can do it like a robot, but I need to remember that there are people in the audience who have never heard it before. I need to tell it with the energy of it being the first time, which requires a bit of performance and to listen to the story myself so that I can get past the rote of knowing what the words are. I want it to feel like something.
WH: I think Sting talked about that: If you go to a Police concert and they don't play “Roxanne,” there will be a riot. He says, “I've played this thousands of times over several decades. I have to. But what I do is, every single night, I try to find something new in it for me.” Maybe I'll try taking that lesson.
TO: Sometimes that something in the story reminds you of something that's going on in your life now. In your head or in your heart, you're thinking about that thing, but you're able to be present with the story that you're telling. It’s your Roxanne.
What is your favorite moment during a production day?
TO: After the interviews are done, there's this 30-minute break where all of the tellers are in the green room, and they have this nervous and excited energy. I step into that and break the nerves a little bit by getting people to pronounce their names for me and make sure that I have their bio correct. It’s sort of the calm before the storm – I really like that moment.
WH: We get a chance to preview the stories ahead of time, and I'll encounter a teller with an amazing story and a great soul, but who – just from not having been on stage very frequently – is nervous. It's always a great pleasure to tell them, “You're amazing. We're lucky to have you. You're going to crush it.”
Any advice for first-time and/or future storytellers?
WH: Find the thing that you are the most scared of sharing, the thing that would horrify you to tell in front of your mom or coworkers – that's going to be the most interesting thing. You have to expose yourself to other humans in whatever flavor that works for you, because that will expose you to the different ways that people express themselves. I'm a bit of an introvert, so I read a lot of memoirs and watch a lot of documentaries to get human stories. You'll find good techniques.
You have to be a good listener and be aware and active. Anytime you find yourself in an emotionally-heightened state, when you’re super angry, sad, whatever, pay attention to that. Maybe jot a note down, “This is how I'm feeling right now,” and come back to it. You need to be very observant, not only of other people, but of yourself.
TO: You don't have to tell everything. That's a reminder to myself. You get to decide what story you tell and which parts of that story you're going to tell, because every thought that you have about that experience can't go in the story. I would also say to believe that your story matters, believe that you are interesting and that you have something that's worth saying and that other people want to hear. That's the biggest hurdle. And wear something that you feel comfortable and not fidgety in.
WH: I also think a really good tip for a lot of people, especially newcomers, is to ask yourself how you’re the villain. Because you are not a saint. Nobody is. We all mess up, we all do selfish things. Every single one of us. That's the spice of life. That's often a helpful jump off point: What is the most embarrassing thing that I did here? And own that and explore.
Interested in telling a story yourself? Visit our submissions page to find out how to get on stage!
What is the best part of hosting Stories from the Stage?
TO: I want to say that my favorite part is that I get to hear all kinds of stories, but I think it's more that I get to see people doing a thing. Sometimes we have storytellers that have told stories a bunch of times, and they're getting to do the thing that they love, and sometimes we have first-time storytellers who are experiencing this new thing for the first time. Our job here as hosts is to bear witness to somebody either experiencing a new joy or practicing the joy that they have in their life. It's like ordinary, everyday life in a really special way. That’s an honor.
WH: I'm a professional entertainer. I’ve spent my entire adult life in theaters and bars and at shows, so it's common for me to hear storytelling and comedy. But Stories from the Stage is a platform for people who have had amazing experiences and deep insights, but who would not generally have gone to a venue – they come here. We've met people who've designed Mars rovers and been in the Olympics. I get access to a much more raw, personal and unique kind of story, which I'm very thankful for.
Hear more from this interview in a special digital short, now streaming on our new Stories from the Stage YouTube channel:
Watch Theresa and Wes every Monday on Stories from the Stage.
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