The chaos theory of creative storytelling

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A modern storytelling event in Dublin’s Odessa Club is quite deliberately an evening of organised mayhem

THE ROOM, which a moment before had been as highly decibelled as any full bar of an Irish evening, goes suddenly silent as a young woman steps up to the mike. It’s the evening’s final storyteller, and the 60 or so people attending Chaos Thaoghaire are suddenly all ears.

All night they’ve been hearing stories about haunted bathrooms, alien abductions and exorcisms, interspersed with games and music, and some creative writing of their own. They’ve also been amassing points and cash – in the form of the Monopoly-ish Chaos Thaoghaire Bucks – and competing in teams to win the coveted Chaos Thaoghaire belt.

So what is Chaos Thaoghaire (pronounced like the Laoghaire in Dún Laoghaire) and why are so many people climbing over furniture to get their hands on the belt?

“It’s as if the Golden Girls were running a bingo night in a mental asylum where everybody had the wrong medication,” says Jane Ruffino, an archaeologist turned journalist who began this monthly evening of stories and games with her friend, Aimee Curran, two months ago, partly as an outlet for her creative energy.

“We were both kind of frustrated with things,” says Ruffino, who works in Dublin as a freelance journalist and blogger. “When you really are interested in stories and when you’re really interested in people, you can’t let the media market determine what stories you concentrate on. The ones that are interesting to you aren’t necessarily the ones that people want you to print.”

Her love of stories and Curran’s talent at devising new and creative games have found a happy home together in Chaos Thaoghaire, which is held in Dublin’s Odessa Club, where participants pay €5 for an evening of creativity, competition and guaranteed chaos.

“There are all sorts of ways in which I could theorise as to why the games and stories work together, but actually it’s because they’re both fun,” says Ruffino. “We thought storytelling alone would be too much performance. People like to interact.”

Each event is given a theme, and for each one Ruffino and Curran appoint a different curator, who selects the evening’s storytellers. “The curator is somebody who’s maybe in the arts or something, who might have some form of name recognition, but we encourage them to pick storytellers who don’t,” says Ruffino. “Everybody has a friend who’s absolutely brilliant at holding court down the pub. Good storytelling is not limited to people who do it for a living.” What’s important is that the stories are based on real events, though Chaos Thaoghaire does grant some poetic licence. “We encourage people to add embellishments, but we hope that they’d be rooted in reality,” says Ruffino.

IT’S A WAY OFmaking sure Chaos Thaoghaire is doing something different. “We don’t want people to come in and tell an old myth or folk tale – there are so many storytelling nights where that happens. We want to be a part of the oral history of the grand event of the 21st century,” Ruffino says, with conscious drama. “It sounds like a big title, but it’s actually just people talking about their lives.”

It’s a concept inspired in part by New York storytelling club The Moth, in part by Chicago public radio show This American Life, and in no small part by The Golden Girls. Such influences may be down to the fact that both founders are American, Ruffino hailing from Boston and Curran from California.

“I would listen to The Moth and say: ‘This to me sounds like a really good night out in a pub .’ This to me is like hanging around with friends who will tell you a story that goes on for 15 minutes, and you will listen because it’s good,” says Ruffino, who saw this as a reason to believe that an event similar to the New York club night had potential in an Irish context.

The big difference – apart from the existence of a Chaos Thaoghaire national anthem, by composer Colin Morris, which is played at every event, and the fictitious Chaos Thaoghaire dictator, whose image adorns proceedings – is the gaming element, with each evening offering new takes on old games that usually involve creativity and a way with words. Teams are encouraged to compete, to amass as many Chaos Bucks as they can, and, above all, to cheat.

“We allow cheating because it’s funny, but also because we make the games as Google-proof as possible,” Ruffino says. “Most quiz nights are now all about people Googling under the table on their iPhones, and they’re no fun. If people can figure out how to cheat at our games, it’s probably going to be creative, and Chaos Thaoghaire is all about being creative.”

But being caught cheating does bring penalties, such as having to high-five everyone in your path in order to cross the room, or calling a family member to vouch for your character in front of the assembled. If it all sounds a bit chaotic, just bear in mind the name of the event.

“We wanted to create an atmosphere of people feeling they went too far,” says Ruffino. “It’s the only way you get something new and exciting.”

For Ruffino, Chaos Thaoghaire is also a chance to tap into a particular moment in Irish life. “There’s so much happening and so much change, everybody has a story to tell. A lot of people are telling stories in ways they haven’t been in the last decade or so. A lot more people are talking about something other than money, and if you give people an opportunity to tell a story, or talk about their lives, they will.”

Despite the amount of work that goes into each monthly gathering, not to mention plans for future site-specific events and regular podcasts, Ruffino and Curran are committed. “It gives us the freedom to do things we can’t do in our other lives,” says Ruffino, though she admits that the true motivation is disarmingly simple. “The main reason is that it makes us laugh.”

The next Chaos Thaoghaire event is at the Odessa Club in Dublin on Dec 15. See chaosthaoghaire.com or e-mail chaosdublin@gmail.com

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