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What’s bringing standing-room-only crowds to a night of storytelling at Balliceaux? People who tell it like it is.

click to enlarge A crowd at Balliceaux listens to a storyteller during the popular bimonthly event, Secretly Y’all, Tell Me a Story — where organizers ask that the stories be true.

Ash Daniel

A crowd at Balliceaux listens to a storyteller during the popular bimonthly event, Secretly Y’all, Tell Me a Story — where organizers ask that the stories be true.

He was one of the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four black girls in 1963.

And she was dating his nephew.

After the tragic murders, the bomber's mother heard the man say incriminating things and saw the dynamite, testifying against him and triggering years of death threats.

It was a story we all knew from history books, but on this night at Balliceaux we heard it from an insider's perspective.

Telling stories is at the heart of Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story, a bimonthly event that attracts storytellers of every kind. As godfather of American storytelling Mark Twain said: "I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself."

Begun in Charlottesville, the event moved to Richmond in September 2010 when Balliceaux owner Lainie Gratz decided that storytelling was something she wanted to play host to. The Charlottesville group soon broke up, and two of the organizers, Kathleen Brady and Colin King, moved it here, adding a community focus by donating door proceeds to a different nonprofit each time. It's grown steadily: Regulars know to arrive by 7 p.m. for the 7:30 shows or risk standing.

The planning starts with the selection of a theme, generally a broad enough phrase for myriad interpretations. Those have included wreckage, down with Dixie, the honey hole, revolutionaries, heartbreak hotel and most recently, sports diaries. Then the search is on for six storytellers who can share a tale based on the theme.

"Colin does a good job of reaching out to the community to get new storytellers," Brady says. He contacts people who might have expertise in the arena of the topic, such as a sports announcer for the sports diaries session.

Before intermission, the stories are vetted for their IQ (interesting quotient) and theme-appropriateness, and those six form the first act of the evening. Post-intermission, anyone can put his or her name in the hat for a chance to share. These often are the most jaw-dropping moments.

Once it was a girl's story of a string of killings in the neighborhood when she was in high school and the friend who turned out to be the murderer. Another time, a guy explained the tragic story of why he'd chosen to change his name. One hilarious story involved an infant being tossed up into a porthole on a cruise ship after missing the boat's departure.

"I don't feel like we're a rated event," King says. "We don't discourage people from telling stories of any kind as long as they're true." That laissez-faire philosophy was called into question when they did the honey hole theme, which featured explicit talk about sex. It was the only event in which attendees approached King and Brady to complain that they shouldn't have allowed a story. "If it happens, it happens and if people are willing to talk about it, that's fine," King says. "That's the beauty of the event."

Brady wants people to understand that Secretly Y'All isn't a comedy event or even a performance, at least in the strictest sense.

"We had a few events in a row that were really funny and when it's funny, that's great," she says. "But our point is to tell real stories that are poignant in whatever way possible. They might make you groan or think or be sad. The people listening are super-supportive so storytellers don't have to battle for an audience's attention. In four years, we've never once had to ask someone to turn off their cell phone or to be quiet." S

Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story next happens at 7:30 p.m., July 14, at Balliceaux, 203 N. Lombardy St. For information visit secretlyall.com.

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