Storytellers in focus: Keith Mellnick
Keith Mellnick is a freelance photographer who splits his time between expat and DC living. In between trips abroad, Keith cut his performance chops at several SpeakeasyDC shows and has performed in our Top Shelf series two years in a row. This December he will be performing his first solo show I'm Not Crazy about his Peace Corps experience in Kazakhstan.
What brought you to SpeakeasyDC?
Well I went into the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan for two years and that's kind of led me to international development which led me to DC in 2000. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to perform in some way but was very shy about it. In 2010 I was dating this woman who thought I'd be good at storytelling. She saw that SpeakeasyDC had a class and so I was like “Yeah! Sure, if you think it's a good idea, then I think it's a good idea!” We broke up like a week later...but I took the class and it was great! The class was the difference between actually doing storytelling and not doing storytelling. I never would have just gotten up and felt comfortable speaking in front of an audience because I'm too shy about it. Taking the class forces you to actually do it and then the class itself is great. I think that's how I ended up in it because in high school I think maybe I wanted to try standup or something, but you know it takes a lot of balls that I'm not sure I had hahaha.
What was taking the Storytelling 101 course like?
I started with the regular five week 101 class. That length gives you a lot of time to put into it and the fear of making an ass of myself further motivated me to put more effort into it. If you've got a week between classes you could spend a couple of hours on it or you could spend every free moment you have on it. The latter was kind of how I was doing it. It was cool because I had been to one SpeakeasyDC event like a year before the class, so it's easy to forget that I really didn't know what storytelling was. Now I feel like it's obvious to everyone like what it is, but at the time I'm not sure I really knew. The class explained it to you in a way that's not condescending. It kind of gives you the difference between storytelling and standup, teaches you the skills and talks about what you want to get out of it. Coming out of that class made all the difference between having some vague impression and having a clear idea about storytelling, not just what it was but how to do it and what it's about.
Tell us about your experience as a live storyteller?
I've performed half a dozen stories. I did my first story in February of 2011 and it went on to Top Shelf which was a lot of fun. I moved back to the States in 2013 and did a few stories and ended up in Top Shelf again last year. SpeakeasyDC had a couple of events at places like Patagonia that were fundraisers and it was kinda neat to play different venues and see how they were all different. There were a few first-timers at the 9:30 Club that first Top Shelf show and we all felt like we bombed, but afterwards we found out we really didn't. It's such a different room because it's made to muffle sound versus Town which is like a comedy club. Sound echoes there and you feel like everybody loves you and it's a very friendly crowd too, so it's just a very different feel depending on the venue. This past year there's been too many personal things with my family and stuff. I did one story this year and I can feel it, I feel like I haven't been out there and I miss it a lot and I'm really glad to be doing this solo show.
How are you preparing for the solo show?
So I've wanted to put my experience doing Peace Corps in Kazakhstan into context for a long time. I saw Anne Thomas and John Donovan do their solo shows last year and I thought both of them had great performances, so I talked to Stephanie about doing one of my own. I feel like Inga has been much more diligent about getting ready for rehearsals because when we are together she has a lot more to say. We've been together during this period where we're trying to figure our stories out, and it's kinda fun to watch how someone else does that and what conclusions they're drawing. Each of these stories, as much as we want them to be universal truths, vulnerabilities or relatable experiences are in fact much more about where Inga and I are in 2014. If we told it 5 years ago or 5 years from now it would be a very different story. What we choose from it would be very different and what the message is and the sensibility about how we look at life right now would also change. It's been a really interesting process getting to know each other in that way. We are getting used to putting that vulnerability out there a little bit and recognizing that we are sharing very personal stories with someone who we don't necessarily know that well, similar to the experience of being onstage.
What are your plans after the solo show?
I'm very interested to see what happens with the solo show. I could see turning it into something more, possibly something bigger for Fringe, but I really have no idea. If it doesn't go great I can go back to telling stories, hopefully. I do want to do more 8 minute stories. I'm not going to lie, as of January of last year I really was hoping to do a third Top Shelf performance in a row. I really wanted it because I love that experience telling a story in front of a big crowd, but I think all of the nominations this year are really great and definitely deserve the spotlight. I'd like to really try writing, it's a very different medium, especially because I think I'm good on stage, but there are some interesting similarities in process of pulling stories together that I'd be interested in exploring. Since I do work as a photographer and I have so many photographic travel stories that I'm interested in telling, I'd also like to incorporate some of the actual photos into a multimedia show.
Any advice for aspiring storytellers?
I would say if someone's hoping to get into it, you've gotta find some way to just do it. For me that was the class. Force yourself to do it because the hard parts and the parts that you hate pay back in spades. If you can figure out whatever it takes to identify a story then all of the sudden it adds more to those experiences you find worth telling. You should also listen to stories. I would watch the SpeakeasyDC stories on YouTube or listen to The Moth and figure out afterwards “Why do I like this?” more than if it's just funny. I watch both the stories I like and the ones I hate repeatedly and think “Why does this story get under my skin so much?" Try to think about why this story was told, what is the narrative of the story and what actually happened. There's usually, or generally, a kind of conflict that the story is trying to figure out and that is usually a powerful indicator of what the story is about. I really recommend watching as many stories as possible and think about these questions.