Q&A With Story Sessions’ Jill Howe and Rachael Smith

Story Sessions at City Winery
Story Sessions at City Winery

Like the Poetry Slam of the ’90s and early aughts, storytelling is having its live lit moment in the sun in recent years. Popularized by shows such as The Moth in New York City, contemporary storytelling is the reading or performance of personal narratives in front of a live audience.

Chicago has no shortage of regular storytelling events, but each fall an audience gathers around a cozy firepit on the North Shore for Story Sessions‘ Annual Campfire and the duo hosts dozens of events each year, including three upcoming shows at the Filet of Solo, a show on February 7th (celebrating Valentine’s Day with the theme “Love Is…”) with live music by James Neary at 11 a.m. and with stories starting at noon.

I sat down with Jill Howe and Rachael Smith, the founders and hosts of Story Sessions, to get the scoop on their shows and what makes their events tick.

How did you two meet?

We met at a show where we were both performing. It was one of the first times either of us had told a story on stage. We basically met in “story kindergarten”.

How did Story Sessions get started?

We had always talked about ideas for shows. The next step was finding the right venue. Fortunately for us, a bar with a cozy back room opened across from my house. As soon as we could meet with the management, we proposed the idea for a show, making up the plan as we went along. Luckily the bar agreed and our series began in April 2013.

How did the Campfire show get its start?

In 2012, Jill and her friend/comedian Monte Lamonte, created a storytelling show series at the Evanston Art Center. I had the pleasure of attending and performing at one of her campfire shows. It was such a fun event that we recreated an even bigger version for Story Sessions at the Little House of Glencoe in 2014.

Tell me about the history/origin of the show.

The show originated from our desire to create a safe space for storytellers to share their work. It’s a kind, supportive atmosphere where new and experienced writers and performers can connect with like-minded people.

Tell me about the format of the show.

We kick off the performance with live music to give the audience the opportunity to get seated, order food and visit with each other before the show. Six featured performers share 10-minute stories. In between stories, we collect audience submissions to our writing prompts and we read them anonymously on stage. We also feature an illustrator, Betsy Frymire, who draws the stories live. Drawings are available for viewing after the show and on our website.

What do you want your audience to be left with after a show?

We want our audience to feel inspired by what they have heard and encouraged to share their own stories with others. We love spreading that gooey feeling you get when you connect to someone through their story.

Is there a quality that gets brought to the show that differs from other shows because you are both women or is that just misogynistic crap on my part? I know, it’s like asking a female musician, “What’s it like to be a female musician?” when really it’s just like being a musician. But I maintain in my own mind/judgment that things run by women have different qualities than things run by men. Maybe I’m an essentialist jerk.

Shows are a reflection of the people involved and the energy they bring. We don’t see it as a battle of the sexes. The black-and-white differences with shows come more from format. You get a different energy from competitive storytelling for instance or from open mics. Location also offers a big difference as you get a different experience at a bar vs a theater vs a music space vs a café.

What sets Story Sessions apart from other storytelling events in Chicago?

If you were filling out a show matrix for Story Sessions, you could check off the boxes: live music, story illustration, expert photography, audience writing prompts, great food and wine, thoughtful programming, quality production and comprehensive marketing complete with pre- and post show materials. It’s a “tightly run story ship” and we’re proud of it!

How do you come up with your theme ideas?

We reflect on our own stories and find themes that excite us and might inspire others.

How do you find performers to read at your events?

We get story submissions and also meet people through our workshops, other shows and through writing events.

What are the upcoming themes?

Collide, On the Edge, Love Is…

Is there anything else you’d like the world to know about Story Sessions, that wasn’t already covered?

We also create Story Sessions Retreats that offer everything from great food, thoughtful workshops on story craft and even energy work, if that’s your thing. Here’s a quote from a new storyteller who attended our last retreat:

“Jill and Rachel’s retreats are a feast for nascent and experienced storytellers alike. Unlike other retreats — of which there are, of course, tons — these ladies provide an atmosphere that is as nurturing as it is rigorous. As someone similarly invested in fostering women’s voices and the stories that need to be told, I was inspired by their commitment to the craft and their sense of what it means to nourish writers, body and soul.”
–Deborah Siegel, PhD, author of two books, TEDx speaker, and Coach-in-Chief at Girl Meets Voice Inc.


Fillet of Solo is at Lifeline Theater from January 15-31, 2016 and Story Sessions’ shows are at 7pm on Saturdays, January 16, 23 and 31 at 7p.m. The next Story Sessions show is themed “Love Is…” and takes place at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., on Sunday, February 7 at 11am. Tickets are available for $12 on the City Winery website.

This article updated and reprinted from Gapers Block.

JT Newman
JT Newman

JT Newman (she/they) is a food and cultural reviewer, home chef and media maven who has been writing for a variety of Chicago publications for more than 25 years. They were one of the founders of Third Coast Review in 2015 and were a regular contributor to Gaper’s Block, Nightspots and Windy City Times. Their work has been published in the Chicago Not-For-Tourists Guide, A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago, and Windy City Queer. They host a weekly queer food podcast, Lez Eat, available on Apple and Spotify, among others.