Bates College professor Michael Sargent has a story to tell. A subculture of “tellers” has evolved around his Lewiston storytelling series, The Corner.
A storytelling scene grows in Lewiston at The Corner.
By Sara Ann Donnelly
[I]t’s unusual for Michael Sargent to tell a story without an ending in mind, but one recent evening he did just that. “This is the story of the Pledge of Allegiance incident,” he told a full house at the 22 Park Street theater in downtown Lewiston. Sargent is the organizer and founder of The Corner, a monthly storytelling series, and this was his last show before a much-needed break — after 20 performances, about 120 “tellers,” more than 200 stories, and what amounted to the birth of a storytelling scene in central Maine.
Sargent continued his story, describing how in first grade he had, ahem, put one hand over his crotch during the Pledge. “It was splendid,” he said as the audience giggled. “It was that joy you get from feeling like you’re going to get away with this really bad thing.”
Sargent had on light-blue jeans and a black t-shirt with an image of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper from TV’s The Wonder Years. (The theme that night was “A Little Help from My Friends,” the shirt a nod to the iconic Joe Cocker cover that opened that show.) I first met Sargent more than a decade ago at a birthday party for storyteller Cheryl Hamilton, who, along with local teller Vernon Cox, helped Sargent create The Corner back in 2013. Sargent’s hair has grayed since then, his stomach had rounded, and at first I thought he wasn’t as tall as I remembered him. But the more I hung out with Sargent that night, the taller he got. He is, in no uncertain terms, the master of this place. On his near relentless rounds, Sargent dipped into the kitchen to check on the snacks, opened the side door to welcome the first members of the audience, dashed to the back of the room to press play on the mix he’d made for intermission — and, of course, hopped on stage to confess that he had once been sent to the principal’s office for disrespecting the Pledge of Allegiance.
This is the house that Michael built: Shows at The Corner consist of ten tellers, each of whom gets exactly five minutes to tell a story on stage without notes or props or anything but their memory to guide them. The stories must relate to a theme — past themes include “Blush” and “Pride” — but otherwise, anything goes as long as it’s true. Before each show, Sargent curates half of the spots with local tellers and a teller or two from away (“I’m allergic to provincialism,” he said). The remaining tellers come from the audience — Sargent picks the names of the willing out of a fishbowl.
In some ways, Sargent is an unlikely prophet of the confessional tale. He’s introverted and a bit cagey — “I once had a dear friend tell me that I’m very good at keeping people at arm’s length,” he said. Detroit storyteller Shannon Cason, a headliner at The Corner a few months back, described Sargent as a nice guy with a tough edge. “If we had to move furniture, I could count on him,” Cason said in his podcast, Homemade Stories. “If we had to dig a ditch, he could hold his own too.”
A social psychology professor at Bates College, Sargent used to think storytelling was a bogus art form for bad comedians. But then he got hooked on The Moth Radio Hour and Snap Judgment, two National Public Radio storytelling shows. He wanted something like that in Lewiston. So he made it.
Good stories thrive on nakedness. As The Corner caught on, Sargent found himself opening up at the mic — telling stories about being raised by his grandparents in the South, about racism and screwing up and unconditional love. In the process, he’s made friends, some of them among New England’s most prominent storytellers — people from The Moth, Massmouth, and other series who have been guest tellers at The Corner. “Storytelling makes connections sneak up on me,” he said. “Suddenly I realize that I’m feeling a form of connection that was unexpected, in someone who I might never have even met before then. And it feels good.”
Later that night, Sargent and the show’s M.C., John Baughman, chatted with five of the tellers and a few volunteers at a back table at Marché, a swanky French bistro that, like The Corner, is one of Lewiston’s vanguard hangouts. Two tellers from Burlington sipped a purplish drink called the metropolis, made by a bartender of the hipster-lumberjack variety. “We asked for cosmos and he gave us this,” one of them said, shrugging.
On the walk to the restaurant, Sargent had mentioned that The Corner is the thing in his life that he is most proud of — a place where, he hopes, “creative, interesting, smart people” can find one another. Out back at Marché, surrounded by tellers and fans, Sargent himself seemed found, relaxed and happy in a scene of his own creation.
“How was the ending?” he asked the group. “I wasn’t really clear on how it was working.” Improvising, Sargent had closed his Pledge story by describing how the principal had given him a pass for his misbehavior because he was such a strong student, and how this made him realize “knowledge is power.”
“I thought it was very solid,” one of the tellers said. The others agreed.
“I have to say,” added Baughman, “I’ve watched your storytelling over a couple of years and you’re really sharpening.”
“Oh, good,” Sargent said. “Good.” He ordered a beer. The table buzzed with overlapping conversation. Local developer Peter Flanders arrived. “Peter!” Sargent cried. “Next time you’re in the fishbowl.” Peter rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replied. But Sargent persisted, boisterous as a team captain. “Next time, Peter, you’re in the fishbowl!”
On January 14, The Corner returns to its original location, She Doesn’t Like Guthries café, 115 Middle St., Lewiston. 7 p.m. No door charge, but arrive early — shows tend to fill up.