Professor brings storytelling to life
With all the stories being shared about Alaska on national networks, most Alaskans see beyond the shallow exterior of these Hollywood acts; however, their stories often go untold to the larger community and people hungry for true adventure stories from the 49th state.
Rob Prince, associate professor and filmmaker at UAF, is trying to change that with his show, Dark Winter Nights, dedicated to providing a stage for Alaskan storytellers to tell real Alaskan stories.
Making Alaska home
Originally from Michigan, Prince was offered a job with UAF in 2005. He took the job in part because it sounded like an “adventure” and with their one-year-old daughter in tow, he and his wife decided it was now or never.
“We thought, if we’re going to do something crazy, now would be the time because it’s not likely we’re going to want to do this later. And so we thought we’d come up for five years, like a lot of people do and have our little adventure and then move on,” Prince said.
Initially, it was only three years before heading south for a brief time.
“We had to go back down to the lower 48 and deal with a situation there, and then I just missed it so bad that we came back.”
Prince acknowledges the pull Alaska seems to have on out-of-staters like themselves.
“My favorite analogy is it’s like that beautiful person that you date who treats you terribly, but you also have never met anyone like them, so you just can’t break up with them,” Prince said.
He continued, “That’s kind of like the mean ex-girlfriend but who is also super pretty and you felt great when you were with them but at the same time they could be so cruel to you. That’s sort of what it is, it’s so not like anywhere else. And there’s all kinds of adventure up here, but it comes at a heck of a price.”
Amanda Byrd, one storyteller for the show, shares this love for Alaska as well. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she said she appreciates the down-to-earth nature of Alaskans.
“One of the things I love about Alaska is you can be pushing a cart in Fred Meyers, you can be riding your bicycle, you can be running, you can be paddling down the river with somebody next to you who is dressing like you, like, whatever,” Byrd said.
“And you don’t know that they are a multi-millionaire and they own the fanciest house on top of the hill because they don’t flaunt it. They’re like, ‘no, I wear my Carhartts. I like Carhartts.’ That’s what I like. People are real.”
Given the combination of the incredible setting that Alaska provides along with the down-to-earth, adventure-seeking types the state attracts, there are many stories to be told.
Along with these factors, Prince said Fairbanks is an ideal place to share a storytelling event.
“I feel like the stuff that I’ve done up here with the storytelling program would have just been more noise in the Lower 48. I mean, who knows? There’s a lot more clutter you’ve got to breakthrough down there. And up here, when I came up with the idea to do it, it wasn’t an innovative new idea,” Prince said.
“They’ve been doing this everywhere. They have one in Anchorage; they have one in Juneau and some other smaller ones. And it’s already the Moth, it’s already this American life, Snap Judgment,” said Prince.
“I just happened to be the first one who put it together,” he continued, “but anybody could’ve put it together, and it probably would have been successful because it’s already proven to be so successful. But here I’m more or less the only one,” Prince said.
Originally, Dark Winter Nights started at Pioneer Park in April 2014. After an overflow crowd at the Civic Center that November, they moved to Hering Auditorium, which seats 1284 people, the following spring.
Prince said, “It had been my dream to get there. I was like, ‘Someday we’ll get to Hering if the gods shine down on us, you know, if everything comes together,’ and so it was pretty exciting to get there so fast.”
For the show, seven storytellers are pre-selected with one chosen randomly from the audience. For as many stories as Alaskans have, they aren’t readily sharing them, according to Prince.
Prince said, “We really have to reach out. We do not have enough people submitting stories. I think that in part might be kind of an Alaskan thing that we’re not big into tooting our own horns up here. You don’t come up here because you want to show everybody else how great you are you know, we’re all kind of like very even playing field.”
For Sean McGee, a storyteller at Saturday’s event, Prince managed to convince him to share a story. As a former police officer, McGee has countless stories, but one story really caught Prince’s attention.
“He’s been working on me [to tell a story] for almost three years,” McGee said.
“For quite some time I wasn’t sure if we could talk about the incident that, you know, there are all kinds of rules about what we can say and everything, so he kept on me, pestering me,” McGee said.
McGee checked in with the troopers and got the okay to tell the story, which he shared Saturday evening.
For Byrd, her start began at the previous show, where she was selected as the random storyteller. When asked by Prince if she might have more stories to share, she named a couple before landing on the winner– a story about a research turned rescue mission out on the Gulf of Alaska. She also shared her story Saturday evening.
Coming back to storytelling
Often seen as an ancient art, storytelling has seen a resurgence in recent years.
“We kind of forgot storytelling, or we just reinterpreted it,” Prince said.
With storytelling shows gaining popularity around the country, Prince speculates on the roots of its current momentum.
“I used to subscribe to flying magazines and there’d be like all the articles about here’s the FAA and here’s how you learn to do this and do that. And then in the last page before the end it would be some story of ‘How I Survived…’ this thing,” Prince said.
“I would always want to read that part. And you look at radio programs and such that were on the air. They might have one small part that was a little human interest story you know, and TV will have had that in TV news, so like end with a nice little human interest story,” Prince continued.
“I think that at some point in the nineties particularly with This American Life, they figured out that that little part, people really liked that a lot and if you made a show that was just that that would be particularly interesting combined with innovative way that they told the story.”
Along with storytelling resurfacing in communities, it is also playing an important role in business and journalism.
“It’s become the tagline for this department, Communication and Journalism, ‘Tell great stories,'” Prince said, “So yeah, it’s definitely become very popular.”
There is value that comes from these stories both for individuals and the community as a whole. Jessie Robertson, a researcher at UAF and storyteller for Dark Winter Nights, is currently in partnership with StoryCorps (a nationwide organization aiming to share and preserve stories) to record stories within the scientific community, as a way of making science more accessible and relatable to a wider audience.
“I think [storytelling] makes people more relatable. […] We’re really in this stage of politics and everything where everyone seems pretty disconnected, that and social media, like we’re actually not as connected as we think we are. So I think people like to just kind of go and actually hear somebody be vulnerable, funny and tell something ridiculous as a way of connecting people,” said Robertson.
Prince credits a few specific inspirations for the show including podcasts like “Snap Judgment” and “This American Life.”
“This American Life [has been an inspiration] just in terms of how they’ve revolutionized radio storytelling in a way that made them so interesting. So we’re constantly trying to find stories that match that model.”
“I’m very much inspired by Gallagher,” Prince continued, “who is like an eighties comic who would smash watermelons on stage, but he also had just bizarre props and stuff. That’s my dream to make this a real fascinating show.”
Getting Dark Winter Nights into the Hering Auditorium was originally Prince’s ultimate goal and while last weekend’s show drew over 600 people, Prince is aiming for his next target.
“Now, [getting into Hering is] not enough. Now it’s ‘some day we will sell out’ and that’s taking its time. I’m hoping next November we might actually pull it off.”
Last weekend’s show drew an estimated 600 guests
The next live event will be held Saturday, November 17, 2018 at the Hering Auditorium. Along with the live shows, Dark Winter Nights is broadcast the last Saturday of the month (September through May) on KUAC-FM 89.9 at 7 p.m. and is available on iTunes podcasts or at darkwinternights.com.