A small audience at the InsideOut Gallery in Traverse City sits in the dark. They are at tables and on lounge furniture, drinks in hand. Some lean back, a leg crossed. Others sit on the edge of seats, chins mounted on fists, eyes fixed to the stage that holds everyone’s attention in the room. Someone is telling a story.
The Weathered Beard Series provides storytelling, one of our oldest human traditions in a world that has become a social network, yet exhaustively unconnected. Organized by Neal Steeno and Ben Zork, Weathered Beard invites everyone (with or without facial hair), to share a significant moment in their life – from the good to the bad.
The next event takes place at the InsideOut Gallery on Monday, July 30, at 7 p.m.
IT STARTS WITH A BEARD
This live storytelling event evolved from a narrower, yet harrowing project which asked men with beards one thing: Why?
“You can find out a lot about someone’s life, a story that may be joyful or traumatic just from the opening question, ‘why did you grow the beard?’” said Steeno.
“Most stories end up having little to do with the beard,” Zork added. “It’s not throwing your facial hair over a cliff and using it to help a group of children ascend safely.”
What started as a way to photograph bearded subjects and include a snippet of their story, has evolved into the reverse – the beard becomes merely an excuse, an opening line, to approach someone and ask what their story is.
“I think anyone willing to grow a really fabulous beard these days could be an interesting person,” said Zork, before quickly adding, “but I don’t want to generalize.”
“ONCE UPON A TIME…”
The idea came when Steeno was finishing work on California’s Pacific Crest Trail. He found himself in a small town called Happy Camp. The Yooper native knew he’d be in this area awhile— known for its homeless population panning for gold—so he decided to make friends. He stumbled upon an interesting looking traveler.
“He was leaning against this wall and his beard… it was like he was right out of an L.L. Bean catalogue. He was just this old, burly looking guy. I walked up to him and said, ‘You have an incredible beard, my friend,’” recalled Steeno, a 27-yearold with his own ‘sweater scarf,’ a morerefined, trimmed beard.
What started with a casual comment turned into a story, how the man had once been a pitcher for Stanford, was a geologist working under Reagan, and how he eventually ended up in Happy Camp, living there for the past two decades due to a back injury while digging for gold, unable to pay his medical bills.
It was the inspiration behind the project, one that would capture characters of men with beards—from long and unruly to short and curly—by photograph, a small synopsis of their stories below the image.
“But that small snippet didn’t do the stories justice,” said Zork, a language arts teacher living in Kalkaska who jumped on board after the pair’s discussion over coffee.
The photographs turned into radio podcasts, some reaching 20 minutes in length. Named The Long & Short, the podcast series remains true to the prerequisite that subjects must don facial hair, while the Weathered Beard live storytelling has since opened to include women, along with clean-shaven men.
Interviews have included Matt Myers of the M22 brand, an active 32-year-old who was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor and his journey to have it removed; Tim Keenan, a Vietnam veteran who dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder by means of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail; Whitey Morgan, a honky-tonk blues musician; Ron Larson, a former patient at the Traverse City State Hospital, among others.
While some stories address a specific moment in time, others talk about a particular journey. At moments they are funny and in the next breath, heartbreaking. They are stories of humanity.
“Before stories, we had oral traditions.
It’s a proponent of who we are at the very core,” explained Zork. “A well-told story has a lot of universal truths to it and those truths are things that every human being has the ability to empathize and sympathize with.”
Storytelling is a revitalized movement, with organizations and groups popping up all over the country since the 1970s, including the National Storytelling Network.
“Our ultimate goal is to set the tone for a Midwestern storytelling series,” said Steeno. “We’ve been thinking of ways to integrate radio and film and just make it come full circle so everyone gets swallowed by amazing storytelling.”
The third edition of the Weathered Beard Live Storytelling Series will take place at the InsideOut Gallery, located in the Warehouse District of Traverse City, on Monday, July 30 at 7 p.m. The event is free, but donations are welcome. For those interested in sharing their story, contact Ben or Neal at weatheredbeard@gmail. com. Listen to the Long & Short podcast series at weatheredbeard.tumblr.com.