By Brian Goins
Kristen Chapman Gibbons is passionate about storytelling — not just her own, but the stories of others and of the communities that make up Nashville.
That passion has grown from her experience telling her own stories on stage — 28 different stories at many different venues and with many different organizations — and from seeing the powerful effect it has on others who share on stage, and on the audiences.
The beginning of this path championing others began in her previous careers: 20 years as a counselor on college campuses.
“I found that I was always telling stories to connect to people, but I didn’t realize that that was what I was doing,” she said. “And then I was working in marketing, and I was doing a different version of the same thing: Trying to find ways to connect people’s experiences to their message.”
She made the storytelling connection about four years ago, she continued, when someone she had met online invited her to share one of her personal stories on stage. It was an experience she wouldn’t forget.
“It’s been really affirming for me to combine my own life experiences with ways to talk about the things in life that I feel we need to pay attention to. It was really powerful for me,” she said.
In 2015, she felt confident enough that she wanted to make space for stories that she felt like didn’t have a platform. She started a show called “True Stories Not Safe for Work,” a series that dared to tackle topics that she felt weren’t ones you would hear on NPR. That led to teaching storytelling workshops.
“I realized again in doing that work how powerful it was for other people,” she said. “It wasn’t just me that was experiencing the sense of agency by talking about my life.”
That epiphany, coupled with the results of the presidential election in 2016, lit a fire under her. She wanted to give not just people, but communities, a platform for storytelling. That led to her partnership with Tennessee Equality Project in which people told their coming out stories on stage at Lipstick Lounge.
“I’ve been a volunteer for Tennessee Equality Project for years. That is a community that I am intimately a part of and passionate about,” said Gibbons, who approached Chris Sanders at TEP about a collaboration. They wrote a proposal for funding, but when the funding fell through, Gibbons decided it was a project that needed to happen anyway.
“I decided that I was passionate about the Coming Out Stories project — and also because of the timing, National Coming Out Day is in October.I wanted to find a way to do a scaled down version of the proposal that we had concocted,” she said, adding that she turned to crowdfunding and her own funds to ensure the project would happen. The result is a series of podcasts, as well as a group of brave souls who told their stories on Lipstick’s stage.
But it’s important to her to provide a platform, and not to tell others’ stories for them.
“I want to make sure that I’m starting where I am, and not just running into other communities where I don’t have those relationships,” she continued. “That’s an important part of my work. I’m not running in to tell anybody else’s story.”
How does she get people to be so open in a public forum? For her personally, it was a gradual progression from poetry readings and comedy bits to a more vulnerable story. Her personal experience helps others see the benefit in being open on stage.
“My friend Michael Gray, who runs the Tenx9 storytelling event, challenged me about it. He said, ‘Look, I think you’re hiding from powerful things. I think you should try to tell one story that’s not funny at all,’” she said. “I did it, and it was excruciating. I teared up in front of everyone, which is always embarrassing. I just plowed through. What I found after that, though, is that he was exactly right.”
The floodgates were open for others to open up to her, and they shared love, acceptance and support. It’s something people who took the stage at Lipstick Lounge experienced, too.
“I’m very, very sensitive about the fact that you should push yourself a little but you shouldn’t push yourself too much. You’ll know when it’s time to tell a certain story, and you need to start with easy things,” she said.
“This is what was so impressive about the event at Lipstick Lounge. Five of the eight people had never done anything like that before, ever. I don’t think most people can conceive of what a challenge that is. They did it, and from their own feedback to me, they themselves felt more connected. More empowered. They received a positive benefit from doing that.”
MORE ABOUT KRISTEN CHAPMAN GIBBONS
Gibbons will be collaborating with Tennessee Equality Project and Metro Arts for a series called “Working It Out: Stories of the LGBTQ Community At Work.” From late January through March, there will be five community engagement events where Gibbons will be recording stories. In late March, there will be a showcase featuring nine storytellers at abrasiveMedia. This time, people who share their stories on stage will attend a workshop with Gibbons before the event and be paid for their participation. Gibbons will be accepting written story pitches, scheduling individual interviews and hosting these community engagement events from Jan. 15 through March 15. For more information on this series, follow Gibbons on Facebook.
Gibbons has been selected for Metro Arts Learning Lab program and will be leading a community storytelling program for teens this summer, with Conexion Americas and through the Mayor’s Opportunity Now program.
True Stories Let Loose will begin on Jan. 14. There will be a new podcast released every two weeks throughout January through March. Find her podcasts on Soundcloud by clicking here.
Keep track of Gibbons’ ongoing workshops and events by following her on Facebook or Instagram: