Published on January 14th, 2013 | by Jessica Mickey0
Take a RISK! with Kevin Allison
There seems to be a movement in mainstream American comedy. Though there will always be room for colorful sketch, jokey one-liners, and laugh-tracked sitcoms, the rise of shows such as Louie and NPR’s This American Life exhibit a recent trend in entertainment. We don’t just want to laugh. We want to be moved. We want to connect. We want to hear a story.
You may remember Cincinnati, Ohio-born Kevin Allison as the cherub-faced red-headed guy from MTV’s (and briefly, CBS’s) ’90s sketch-comedy show The State, which starred the NYU-bred troupe of the same name. After the group disbanded, many of the members went on to seek out regular television and movie gigs in Los Angeles; Allison, however, went on to find his voice and passion, eventually landing him right into the NYC hotbed of live storytelling.
This weekend, as part of the Charleston Comedy Festival, Allison will set up shop at Footlight Theatre and present RISK!, an evening of engaging storytelling featuring fellow State member Michael Ian Black and visiting artists, as well as some local faces.
Metronome caught up with Allison to discuss his involvement in the art form, his compelling podcast of the same name, and what exactly the ginger raconteur has in store for the good people of Charleston.
Metronome: What inspired you to get into storytelling?
Kevin Allison: When I was growing up, my mom used to say things like, “Kevin, stop having so much facial expression and enunciating your words so much. It’s too much!” Meanwhile, I was trying to hide the fact I was gay. Like a lot of kids who felt different, I became a comedian. Sketch comedy was a comfortable fit for a while ‘cause you play one ridiculously cartoonish character after another. But after my sketch comedy group, The State, broke up, I started having to go up onstage solo, But I thought, wait, I can’t be getting on stage as just myself now! I’m too corny, too bizarre, too Midwestern, too gay, too vulgar, too nice even. So, for 13 years, I went onstage solo, trying to be other people, big kooky characters, and it got me nowhere. I was penniless and miserable.
Then in 2008, I did yet another show of character monologues. The show was called F*** Up, ‘cause all the characters were failures — like I felt. But it still wasn’t connecting with people. The ultimate performance of it, Michael Ian Black from The State had been there. I said, “What’d you think?” And he said, “Kevin. I think everyone in that room wanted the same thing. For you to drop the act and speak as yourself.” I said, “But that’s so risky. I’m so scared of it.” And he said, “Yeah. Well that kind of risk is where anything of any worth comes from.” The next week, back in New York, I told a story onstage at the UCB Theatre as myself. And you know what? I was too corny, too bizarre, too Midwestern, too gay, too vulgar, too nice even. But they loved it. I could hear in their voices; I could see it in their eyes. We were connecting. Because I’d dropped the act and started talking to the audience as myself. The week after that, I started RISK!
Metronome: What were the steps you took to get involved with it?
Kevin Allison: I learned that there’s two ways to get better at storytelling. Do it a lot in workshops, so that you get feedback from peers who know and care about how this stuff is done. And do it a lot on stages, so that you get feedback from audiences. So, I started my school, The Story Studio, for the first purpose. And RISK! for the second.
Metronome: Did you take to storytelling like a fish to water or were there some bumps along the way?
Kevin Allison: It’s an extremely nuanced art form. Some nights, you lay things out in the wrong order, or overlook a key question to answer, or attempt to make a joke where one might not fit, or speak from a mood or vibe that doesn’t quite work for the audience. So, just as in stand-up, some nights you cringe afterward and want to hide under a rock. The key is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Try that story again. And then again. Try it shorter. Or longer. Dig deeper into the emotion of it. Or lighten it up in places. Just understand that part of the job is falling on your face at times. If you don’t beat yourself up too much afterward and get back up there ASAP, you’ll find you’re getting more and more comfortable just being your best and your most authentic self up there.
Metronome: What came first — the RISK! stage show or podcast?
Kevin Allison: The stage show came first but we always intended for there to be a podcast, so we were recording those first shows. I knew that if I made a podcast of it, it would give me a weekly deadline to adhere to, and I’d keep getting things done. We started from a budget of $0, so building this business has been a massive and slow-going journey.
Metronome: You’re extremely honest and naked, for lack of a better term, in your stories — are you ever hesitant to hold back?
Kevin Allison: Absolutely. I suffer from social anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues, so I’m sometimes a little hesitant to let people see just how hard on myself I can be and just how worried I often am about things like the continuing existence of this very venture. I’m also a pretty spiritual person, and I know it’s not hip to talk about my relationship with God, so I’ve only just begun to broach that topic in my stories. And finally, some of the stories I could tell that are probably most intimate would include some of my loved ones, but I’m hesitant to share them for fear of hurting them.
One of the things I think RISK! shows is that becoming more and more yourself in an unashamed and open way is a never-ending process. And we all have complexes that never entirely go away, so I’m bound to be covering some of the same themes in my stories five years from now as I am in the ones I’m working on now.
Kevin Allison: A select few of my family members have heard some of my more X-rated stories, but by and large, the answer is no. It’s really my mother and father who would likely find some of those stories about experimental, taboo-busting sexual adventures to be unnerving. Issues like BDSM and polyamory are completely foreign to them. They don’t know how to go about downloading and listening to podcasts, but I’ve warned them many times that the podcast is not appropriate for kids and is too risqué to air on public radio.
On the other hand, my parents also know that I’m a thoughtful, compassionate, and well-intentioned person. They know that people write in to me on an almost weekly basis now saying things like, “This podcast saved my life. I don’t feel like such a freak anymore. I’ve heard how people have been through even more brutal experiences than I have. And I find it life-affirming that there’s a place in the podcast realm where people can be so thoroughly honest.” So they’re proud about that.
Metronome: Have any of the stories you’ve ever told come back to bite you in the ass?
Kevin Allison: It’s funny. I’ve talked in stories about how my nine-year relationship with my ex-husband was an open one. That open relationship experience felt like the right fit for me. And so, ever since, I’ve more or less talked about myself in my stories as being an open relationship kind of guy. But I’ve learned, people don’t want to know that about you in the early stages of dating. Even though something like 50 percent of gay male relationships are open ones, no one wants that subject broached until you’ve been seriously dating them for months. So, when I date guys these days, and they end up finding out I’ve been out of the closet on my podcast about being more or less the non-monogamous sort, it kills the vibe for them, even if they’re secretly the same way. So, yeah, long story short, there’s no area in life where a guy known for no-holds-barred honesty is going to run into more problems than in the realm of dating.
Metronome: Some stories shared on RISK! are not exactly funny, but heart-wrenchingly moving. The ones that first come to mind are those of Becca and Nancy Sullivan. When you first set out to do the show and podcast, was it assumed that it would be more comedy-focused until you came across people telling these kind of stories?
Kevin Allison: No, that was actually part of the vision all along. When I first started telling true stories on stage, part of what made it such a profound relief for me was that I discovered I did not have to get a laugh every 10 seconds the way stand-ups say you should. As much as I love the work of so many of my stand-up comic friends, I personally find that format limiting. I always wanted to touch on a variety of emotions and a variety of types of life experience in my work, and I finally found that true storytelling is an obvious place to be able to do that.
That said, it really was the fans of the podcast who took the philosophy of the show and ran with it. You see, we have lots of polished professional comedians, actors, writers, and other public speakers who do the show. But we also feature the stories of the podcast’s fans who have written in and said, “Hey, I’d really like to share about how I was molested when I was five,” or “I want to tell the story of how I had a drug-induced breakdown and tried to kill my mother.” Frankly, those are my very favorite stories on the show. The ones that get as emotionally raw as they should be. People think that the difference between RISK! and NPR shows is that we use dirty words. But it’s also that we go into emotional territory where they would fear to tread.
Metronome: Charleston is still fairly new to this new wave of storytelling [we were visited by the Unchained Tour a few months ago and there is an occasional storytelling series at a local bar]. What can someone expect if they come to see RISK! as part of the Charleston Comedy Festival?
Kevin Allison: It’s bound to be an evening of laughter, tears, and suspenseful little scenarios you get lost in for a while. The stories are always entertaining, even if occasionally, one is tragic or shocking. But what makes it all so engaging is that the people onstage are speaking so candidly as themselves. And although we always have a couple practiced storytellers like myself or Michael Ian Black on the bill, you get to hear stories from your own community also. And that always seems to light up a crowd — the idea that some of the stories are coming from folks who live in the same neighborhood.
Metronome: Who, other than Michael Ian Black, will be sharing stories?
Kevin Allison: Well, the hilarious Adam Newman will be. He’s been on the podcast a couple times and he’s just a naturally lovable guy. Other than that, it will be local folks, so we’re still culling through stories to see who we want to have on!
Metronome: Have you ever visited Charleston before?
Kevin Allison: Ha! I’ve been to Charleston every summer since 1980 when my family fell in love with Edisto Beach nearby. And there’s a traditional visit to Hyman’s for seafood. It’s just a beautiful city in so many ways. My father is from Mississippi, and both he and my Grandma Allison were always the greatest storytellers. And he was always giving me books like Uncle Remus and Huckleberry Finn, so I associate the South with wonderful storytelling. I’ve always thought that Charleston and Savannah would be ideal places to do storytelling shows.
Metronome: It seems that you’ve really taken on teaching the art of storytelling with the Story Studio since the podcast started. How do you inspire your more-shy students to come out of their shells?
Kevin Allison: You know, sometimes it’s just a matter of pushing them. The Story Studio does a lot of corporate workshops for entire staffs of companies. Recently, I did one for Sunglass Hut, and everyone had prepared stories about Chanel or Prada sunglasses. At a certain point, I stopped everything and said, “Look. Stop telling me stories about glasses! Tell me a story about your beloved grandmother who used to wear sunglasses. And don’t hold back, bring it.” Well, by the end of the day, everyone was laughing and crying. It was an overwhelming display of emotion in that room. So, yeah, sometimes it’s just a matter of pushing people.
Metronome: What do you enjoy more — storytelling live on stage, working on the podcast, or teaching?
Kevin Allison: It’s funny you should ask that. Teaching is the place where I feel most rewarded. Because it’s an honor to have people sharing their life experiences with me and trusting that I will help them shape those memories into something even more meaningful. It takes me out of myself to be helping people, and that always feels fulfilling. I also love working on my long-form radio-style stories for the podcast. See, we include a lot of stories on the podcast that are not told at the live shows but are recorded much more intimately at my home and with music and sound design added. It’s like theater for the mind. And in storytelling, we say “long form” to mean basically anything over 20 minutes. But those stories are especially rewarding because I have to ask more questions and dig deeper into myself. It’s almost like going to the therapist, except that it feels more creatively satisfying. Those stories like “Beyond Kink Camp” and “Kevin Goes to P-Town” are the works of my own that I’m proudest of.
Metronome: What advice do you have for anyone interested in getting involved with storytelling?
Kevin Allison: Well first of all, there’s a ton of ways to get started through the Story Studio. There’s our “Storytelling for Business” video course that you can do in your own time at your laptop at home. There’s our online workshops for anyone with webcams or one-on-one coaching with me over Skype or Google Hangouts. And we often travel out of New York with in-person workshops as well. Other than that, start a story slam in your local cafe! I train people how to do that too! You can always find us at TheStoryStudio.org.
Metronome: It seems like whenever you try something new, you’re constantly trying to find your breakthrough moment, where you just stop being scared about what other people think and judging yourself and go for it. Have you had your breakthrough yet?
Kevin Allison: When we first started the podcast, people started writing in with comments — on iTunes, YouTube, our e-mail addresses, and so forth. About 96 percent of the comments were super positive, but every couple weeks, someone would write in and say something like, “I love the show, but I can’t stand Kevin Allison. He’s too gay and weird and annoying.” At first, those comments hurt me deeply. Essentially, they were saying all the things I was afraid people might say. The things that kept me from being myself onstage for those 12 years after The State broke up. Then we did an episode called “Try,” where I addressed the issue head-on. I spoke directly to the podcast audience and more or less said, “Look. I’m leading by example. This podcast exists because I finally stopped letting those critical voices in my head stop keeping me from just being myself.” So if some people don’t like me, fine. You can’t please everyone.
Here’s the thing. That episode felt like a breakthrough, but it was a while back. Recently, our download numbers have jumped, and we have a ton of new listeners. We have new people saying, “Kevin’s too weird and annoying,” so, can I say I’m totally over it now and I don’t worry what people think? No. It’s an ongoing process. We have to learn the same lessons a little bit more every year, I think.
RISK! featuring Michael Ian Black takes place at the Footlight Theatre (20 Queen Street) at 8 p.m. on Fri. Jan. 18 and 8 p.m. on Sat. Jan. 19. Tickets are available for $20. Visit charlestoncomedyfestival.com and risk-show.com for more information.
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