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Kevin Allison and the Personal Power of Story

by Eric Meltzer
creativity

Kevin Allison in action — photo by Jason Spiro.

Kevin Allison in action — photo by Jason Spiro.

Listening to RISK! is like eavesdropping on a bunch of eclectic, courageous storytellers hanging out in front of a fire, where the curves — and there are always curves — arrive unexpectedly, deliciously, and hard.

At its essence, RISK! is a live show and storytelling podcast. The brainchild of writer and performer Kevin Allison, the podcast features people, famous and not, telling the true stories “they never thought they’d dare to share in public.” It’s poignant and raw and inspirational, in a kind of an unholy church or Gestalt therapy way, ably led by narrators whose stories live in a space somewhere between the outer edge of The Moth and, well, there’s not much of a real boundary after that. It can be highly emotional, but like the best art, there is a chance for connection. To get the most out of RISK!, you have to give something, too.

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember Kevin from The State, a sketch comedy group and collective that had an influential run on MTV in the early 1990s and included comedy luminaries such as Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, and Robert Ben Garant. Kevin was good on The State, but he’s great on RISK!. Kevin is also the founder of The Story Studio in New York City, where he teaches storytelling to businesspeople, stage performers, and anyone interested in becoming a better storyteller.

We spoke on the telephone to discuss his creative practice.

What are you working on right now? I see the RISK! podcast, the RISK! live show, and The Story Studio. What else are you up to?

We’re thinking about how we might turn RISK! into a TV show. It’s very much in the nascent stages right now. We’re really just kind of exploring the possibility as something we might pitch around. Personally, I’ve had so much discouraging experience in the film and tv industry that I’m not putting too many eggs in that basket, at least emotionally. I’m saying “Okay, that’s a possibility!” and we’re exploring it, but I’m not expecting or depending on anything, you know what I mean?

How did you develop your ear for stories?

Kevin Allison — FacebookIt’s funny. I’ve often thought [it was] the fact that my father was such a storyteller and his mother was such a storyteller. My father was born in Faulkner country — rural Mississippi — and when he was young, he and his mother and brothers moved up to Cincinnati, Ohio, but a lot of that old-fashioned, long yarns that would usually end in some kind of a joke — for my grandmother, Pauline Allison, we would joke around in the family about the fact the she would take you on these long journeys and then it would end up being something wildly inappropriate for a respectable Southern woman to be ending the story on! It was always something a little bit filthy or something like that that would take everyone by surprise. So it’s kind of like there was what they’d call a shaggy dog kind of a joke. It was a typical thing that would happen on my father’s side of the the family a lot.

And another thing was the Catholic homily. I grew up very Catholic and was going to Mass all the time and, every now and then, there would be a priest or a guest eulogist or something like that who would get up and really move me and impress me with his or her storytelling. And I remember my Dad was also a huge fan of Martin Luther King and I remember watching his famous speech with my Dad and watching my Dad cry and all that.

Oh! And another thing was Charles Laughton. Charles made a record of personal stories in the 1950s or 1960s and they always play that record on various NPR radio stations around Christmas and Thanksgiving time and my Dad always said “Oh! We have to tune in for the Charles Laughton story.” So, in retrospect, I look back and I see I was really always such a big fan of this format. But it took me 39 years to realize, “Oh! I could do this for a living!”

A part of me, I guess, is grateful for that because so much starving time after The State, so much of my years in the belly of the whale…it’s tumultuous when you’re unsure where your career is going and you’re a starving artist and so you end up doing a lot of things that end up being good stories! Part of me feels like that was also a time when I was accumulating all the messy mistakes I’ve made that now make for good stories.

How do you practice? We can approach this from a couple of directions. For example, do you have daily patterns or routines?  

Maybe I can just talk about how, if I had a story to tell in a couple of weeks, how I’d start putting that together?

Let’s go with that.  If you had a story to tell in a couple of weeks, what would you do?

Well, I first try to focus on times I was emotionally wound up. When my brain is scanning periods of my life or incidents from my life that might make a good story, the things that always blip or grab my imagination are times when I was especially, crazy nervous or a time when I was completely befuddled or a time when I was completely mortified or ashamed of myself. So I’ve noticed that pattern, that the times when I was especially emotionally invested in something, is usually going to make for a good story.

And it’s always good to try as much as possible to zero in one main incident. For example, when I recently told the story about the time when I went to Peru when I seventeen years old, instead of trying to tell the story of the seven weeks I spent in Peru, I focused on one incident one day that particularly haunted me and the rest of the story is shaped around that. So it’s good to zero in on one especially dramatic moment that really still feels significant and consequential.

My first stab at a story is always with audio equipment, not a pen and paper or typing on a keyboard. The reason I do that is because this is ultimately oral storytelling, so it’s really good to get in the habit of starting to think about how your voice works or how your voice will be communicating the story, instead of being in that kind of mental space of prose writing, the prose syntax that we were all so conditioned to use in grade school and high school and college. There’s just ways that we are used to proving theses in essays that are not as effective when you’re speaking.

Kevin AllisonSo I always start with the spoken word, recording something, recording myself improvising the story. Then I listen back as an audience member. I try to step back from my own self for a minute and listen as an audience member and notice “Oh! Okay. I’m kind of boring myself in this little stretch that’s about sixty seconds here.” And then there will be a part where I’ll say, “Oh! I’ve made myself laugh there!” And in taking notes of what did and didn’t work for me as a listener, I’ll start to then transcribe the parts I like. I start working with pen and paper and everything to tweak a script, but because the script started as spoken word, I’m now in that [spoken word] frame of mind and I can continue working as a writer with that syntax.

Once I have a script, I’ll record it again, just reading it as a performance, and it will continue to evolve. I always encourage my storytelling students on this essential point: these things are never finished. You get up in front of an audience and suddenly the energy in the room, the way that people are laughing, or the confused look on someone’s face or just noticing that you had people one moment and you lost them another moment, will jigger your memory in different ways or  cause you to understand that they need a little bit more of an introduction to this idea. So I always encourage people to remember that you cannot have memorized it so thoroughly that you’re simply reciting it. You have to have memorized it so that you want to know “I make this point and then I get to that point and then I go into this little scene,” but you also have to have a part of your brain that is receptive to the listening in the room. There’s just naturally going to be some improvised moments to make it more of a conversation.

And that’s the tricky part for myself, personally. I just come from this background at The State, the sketch comedy group I worked in, we were such writers. We looked to Monty Python as the ultimate sketch comedy group and there stuff was so very written. They were so brilliant with their scripts and they stuck to them. And so we used to do that too. There was very little improv that happened in The State so I just got into that habit. And I’m still in that habit and I still have to remind myself all of the time to leave some leeway for improvising because you don’t want to just sound like you’re reciting to the audience.

Sheila [Kenny, Kevin’s publicist] wrote to me and said something interesting: “Kevin admits that in order to be a better storyteller, he tries to live a more ‘story-worthy’ life, i.e. taking chances, rising to the challenge, being more emotionally available and willing to fail and being willing to admit it. He hears from his listeners that they do the same.” How do we live a more story-worthy life?

I think that one of the things that is important to do — by the way, the first thing that I would say is I also am person who has a tendency to beat himself up and that’s also good for stories too. To be able to admit all of the ways you’ve been wrong and challenge yourself and ask yourself tough questions in your stories. That always works for me because that’s a large part of who I am. That said, to notice those parts in your life where you have inkling to want to do something, but you also experience a lot of fear and hesitation around that thing. Because for me, just getting up on stage for so many years was a thing where I had a lot of stage fright that I dealt with in the years after The State broke up. And also a lot of social anxiety about being around other creative performers.

So to notice those things that you are fearful about and to deliberately put yourself in situations where you’re going to have to try and face that again…you know, the most stereotypical example of that that people pull out from the history of RISK! is the time my friend Jefferson said “I’m going to the this kink camp in a couple of weeks. You should come along.” And I said, “Oh, I know I tell a lot of sexual stories, but I really don’t know anything about bondage and discipline and sadomasochism and all that.” And he said, “Kevin, take a risk.” So it was as if the show was talking to me and I went off and tried it and loved it.

There are things every day, there will never not be things that I can think of where I’m like, “gosh, I should be doing that, but I’m kind of fearful about it.” I think everyone out there can think of several things right off of the bat that it might be a good idea to try simply because they are fearful of it.

What distracts you from doing work?

Here’s the thing. As a creative person, I am one of those kind of eccentric, creative types who spends a lot time in his universe. My fantasy life has always been super, super rich so I am…when I was a kid, people would jokingly call me ‘Space Cadet.’ There’s so many things that do distract us and I can get very, very distracted. Just from administrative work of the podcast and The Story Studio, from everything on Facebook and that sort of thing, just little articles, songs to listen to, you know, just a never-ending stream of things to check out.

And I also am another one of those creative people who has struggled with how to be getting enough work done while still doing all that partying sort of thing that is also very much a part of the creative lifestyle. The marijuana and alcohol, especially, are things that I have to really keep a constant eye on to not be doing too much of that because it is my tendency to do too much of that. And sex sometimes is the same, like too much time spent arranging sexual encounters or engaging in them!

For me, it’s always a matter of trying to find balance and, when I talk about the part of myself that beats myself up, there’s a part of me that has a hard time accepting and just getting my head around the whole idea that you always have to be striving to get better balance. I think it’s impossible to attain perfect balance as far as your spiritual life, your work, your financial life, your physical health. To have all of those things perfectly balanced, I think, is completely impossible. But you still have to strive for it and be accepting of the fact that “I’m not maintaining perfect balance, but I’m doing pretty well in these areas.” You have to pat yourself on the back for the times where you’ve really got a good groove going in some areas of your life and not sabotage yourself.

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I have another tendency, which I think is very, very common among creative types, and that is after I’ve accomplished something impressive, to expect that now the lottery is going to happen for me. There are some of the long form stories that I’ve done on the show, like “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp” or “Beyond Kink Camp” or those stories that are about 90 minutes long, so they are really Herculean projects for me, and then I put them out there, and I just got a very, very gradual response from people. A part of me expects “oh my gosh, now I put all of this effort forth, now here comes all the fame and fortune!” And that’s not how it works. It’s always, “nope, you get up the next day and you have to keep plugging away,” you know what I mean? You can take a night to celebrate, but the next day, you gotta get right back up and plan your next story and you just gotta keep chucking along.

I remember this happened to me when I was taking an acting class at NYU. The teacher gave me a challenging role. She wanted me to play this violent, homophobic guy. So it was a very straight, macho guy who’s very homophobic and screams and yells a lot. She knew she was stretching me out and trying to get me to play the opposite of me. And I did really well and the class was extremely impressed. And then at the end of the course, she said “you know, that was the first thing you did in class. Everyone was so wowed by how well you did. And then, you kinda checked out. You never did anything as impressive as that in the class. And this is something that artists do. They accomplish something and then they kind of rest on their laurels or sabotage themselves by not just continuing to do it all the time.” And that’s exactly why I started the podcast. I said, “this has got to be a podcast because I have to have a deadline because I have to have something in place, something systematic in place to remind me to never stop doing this.” Just keep putting it out there no matter what. That’s another thing that I really recommend to artists: somehow, give yourself deadlines. Have people in your life that are going to check in with you and make sure you did do your writing and that sort of thing so that you’re keeping consistent with it no matter what.

Perhaps when you make it to perfect balance, you just pass away.

Yeah, there’s something kind of depressing that Bob Dylan once said, which is that if you’re an artist and you’re not worrying about something, you’re probably done! Now he probably said that when he was younger…maybe nowadays he’d probably say, “eh, whatever!”

What’s in it for you?

Well, that is an interesting question. The very first thing is that when I was 39 and I started RISK!, I finally realized that I had been avoiding what I’m best at for way too long. I had been focused so much on the survival jobs, because I am one of those creative people who does not have a real, natural knack for managing money and building a strong foundation organizationally and all that sort of thing. As far as RISK! goes, the people who work behind the scenes and help me out have been absolutely, completely, and totally invaluable. They loved the show and they loved me and they believed in it. At 39, there was a part of me who believed that, look, whether I am poor on the day I die or whether I am wealthy, I don’t know and I can’t control that. I can’t completely predict that. It seems like the only way anything is ever going to work is that I start, at least, to do what I love. It seems like I’ve been poor avoiding doing what I love, and I might be doing what I love as well, but at least I’ll have that going for me. So finding any way you can to step off of the survival job treadmill and somehow find your way to make doing what you love at least be a way that you can get by, is the first thing that I needed to do.

8718_170201042036_6502504_nBut you know what surprised me about RISK!, what I wasn’t quite expecting, was that when I first started telling stories, I thought it was, more or less, “Here I am! Aren’t I so entertaining? Aren’t I so charming? Don’t you get a kick out of my personality?” And a lot people who get into storytelling feel that way at first. But then what comes back at you, especially with RISK!, just the nature of the show where people are revealing or baring so much of their souls whether it’s funny or horrifying or tear jerking, the people respond to us via email or at the show and they say “Oh my god. This really altered my life. I changed jobs after I heard a certain episode” or “I decided not to commit suicide after I started listening for a few months” or “I repaired my relationship to my mother after a certain episode.” People come back to you and say that kind of stuff and it began to occur to me, “Oh my god, it’s not about me!” It’s about what the stories become out there in the world for the listeners and that is a very humbling thing to realize. There are days when I feel like I don’t have the spiritual and emotional depth to appreciate the way that the show has touched some people’s lives. And that is worth more than any amount of money that we could ever end up making.

I spent about a decade or so being so jealous and resentful of my friends in the industry who went on to become multimillionaires in Hollywood. But now I’m at a place where I’m not a multimillionaire, but I’m doing what I love and I’m hearing people respond in this way that is so profound that I don’t know I’d be hearing that kind of reaction if I was working on any tv show in Hollywood today. If I was just cast as a sitcom character on another show that’s imitating Friends, I don’t know that I would be hearing such amazing things from people. That’s another thing that keeps me going, to hear how it’s affecting people.

You can download the free RISK! podcast from iTunes here.

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Eric Meltzer

Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.