It’ll be a decade in September since Secretly Y’All began drawing crowds to hear stories from residents willing to share their deepest secrets with a roomful of strangers.
As anyone who’s ever attended one of its bimonthly events knows, hearing stories told on a stage in a bar – originally Balliceaux, more recently the Hof – drew sizable crowds. At each event, the proceeds from the cover charge were donated to a local non-profit, adding a philanthropic bent to the evenings.
So what happens to a live storytelling event during a global pandemic?
A major focus of Secretly Y’All was bringing people physically together, something impossible right now. For longtime organizers Kathleen Brady and Colin King, the new reality felt defeating from the start. “But the input we were getting was that people still wanted a Secretly Y’All event, even if that meant it had to be virtual,” Brady says.
Both acknowledge that it was hard to get to motivated to schedule the first virtual event and execute it in April because so much of what they do is fueled by the energy of the people who are gathered, by the encouraging sounds of people listening and the silence as storytellers spoke.
“This format doesn’t offer those traditional forms of audience engagement that are important for connection, but it does offer new, albeit challenging, ways of connection,” King explains. “In this time of social distancing, what we saw was over 170 people who came to listen and respond through chats to folks telling real, often difficult and personal, narratives.” An April event raised $1,066 for Richmond Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.
“That support for Secretly Y’All and the Richmond community felt really rad,” Brady says. In the slide presentation before the broadcast, viewers were asked to post where they were watching, revealing viewers from all over Richmond as well as Oregon, the Roanoke area and Northern Virginia and Washington “That was cool. It felt really satisfying to broaden viewership without geographic barriers.”
April’s theme was, appropriately enough, Quarantined, which resulted in one storyteller sharing the experience of becoming ill with the coronavirus. But, as usual, the organizers had stressed they wanted folks to feel free to interpret the theme in myriad ways, so the stories ranged from a rough road trip break-up to being a person with lived experience who became an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness.
For the June event, the theme is Silver Linings. King says Secretly Y’All debated this theme a lot, not wanting people to think it was making light or ignoring the severity of the pandemic and what people are living through. Like the quarantine theme, the intent was to share stories that recount other difficult times in peoples’ lives and what they gleaned from the experience. Money raised will go to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a local chapter of the nationwide organization dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade. The project has also been involved in mutual aid distribution during the pandemic.
Secretly Y’All always tried to make live events as accommodating as possible by starting stories at 7:30, so guests could be home by 9:30 or 10 p.m. on weeknights.
“But the virtual event makes it that much more accessible since you don’t have to deal with bad weather, parking or finding a seat,” King says. A side benefit is that a live stream is more accessible and inclusive for those who’ve left Richmond or can’t make it out to regularly scheduled events. “We also want to be involved in conversations about how we create community and organize in new ways in a post- or ongoing-COVID world.”
Even when and if it is safe to continue live events, Secretly Y’All may still chose to livestream them. It’s convinced that more than ever, people need real and nuanced stories separate from the day-to-day numeric and repetitive narratives that dominate the 24-hour news cycle.
“There are real people being affected during this time and without that connection, we can be inward-facing instead of reaching out,” Brady says. “Personal stories can help make that bridge.”
Not to mention, it couldn’t be easier.
“You don’t technically have to be wearing pants if you’re watching from home, which we’re pretty sure are mandated if you attend at the VMFA or the Hof.”
Secretly Y’All presents Silver Linings on Monday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. on its Facebook page.