Matt Goldberg. Photo by Sabrina Reeves
For ages upon ages, storytelling was how civilizations retained culture, customs, folklore and knowledge. Before writing systems were formally established, and before literacy was widespread, oral tradition helped civilizations preserve ideas and values so that they could impart that collected knowledge to future generations.
In a very real way, stories have always helped us understand who we are.
The last person who needs this explained to him is Matt Goldberg. He’s the guy who created Confabulation, Montreal’s all-true storytelling show whose ninth season kicks off Sept. 8 at Phi Centre.
Goldberg, who teaches English Literature and Storytelling at Vanier College, is a veteran of the city’s performing arts scene. Sketch and improv fans know him as a member of Uncalled For, older Fringe Festival attendees may remember him as Rufus, and people who did English degrees at McGill in the early aughts might recall him as the smartest guy in the room whom you couldn’t hate because he was so nice.
I recently chatted with Goldberg about Confabulation’s upcoming season, its past and the idea that there are no new stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Jaffer: Are there any new stories? If so, what are they?
Matt Goldberg: There is a democratization of storytelling happening right now, and I’m sorry for saying the word “democratization.” When I look at the Moth, when I look at the Flame out west or the Rain City Chronicles — these shows exist because if the form of the story is one we’ve heard before, the individual experience is not. We don’t have [enough] places to share in this way. Yes, people tweet and people post on Facebook, but it’s not the same thing. When I read someone’s post on social media, I don’t see the person, I see it as way more performative. I know that sounds weird because I do a live event where people perform their stories, but the thing we strive for at Confabulation is to strip back that performance and really authentically try to share the experience.
DJ: Share what experience?
MG: A personal experience. A personal narrative that is important for that person, and that resonates with that audience.
DJ: I read something recently that claimed we retain information better when we read it on paper rather than on a screen. I wonder if there’s an analog to an oral storytelling show like Confabulation.
MG: I think there is an emotional, personal moment that we create with our audience. I don’t think you need to be the greatest storyteller to tell a great story. I think one of the great things about Confabulation is that we give people of all skill levels a chance, we workshop with them and help get it to where it needs to be. Even if you don’t remember all the details of a great story, you remember the feeling of hearing a story.
We had a storyteller talk about an experience of being kidnapped, and I hate to go to that most sensational place but I remember how I felt listening to that story more than I remember any word or any detail; I remember that experience, that sensation. We do this family event every December, and just the journeys that families take to get here, to get to Montreal, to tell this story on one night, that is something I retain: an emotional connection. That’s one of the things I want with Confabulation; it’s not about representing a definitive truth about the world, but [rather] a personal truth about the world, and to remember that people who tell these stories matter. People’s experiences matter.
DJ: Entire civilizations are created, maintained, sustained and remembered based on oral storytelling traditions. So, apart from it being an art form for us bougie motherfuckers in 2018, storytelling is, in a very real way, how we know who we are. Oral storytelling traditions always predate books and other texts, and moreover, are very inclusive; when people talk about someone being illiterate, they’re not saying they can’t tell a story. They’re just talking about reading and writing.
MG: And yet sometimes I need to defend storytelling as an art form despite existing forever.
MG: Because we all had that one dude in our English class who winged it for his oral. And we were all like, “okay, I guess you’re going to pass this assignment because you did something.” There is this reluctance to think of storytelling as an art form.
DJ: From whom?
MG: I worry it sounds too much like it’s going to be this flaky experience. But it isn’t. It is this thing that people put this effort and energy into.
DJ: Okay, so, here’s the obvious question: what makes a great storyteller?
MG: For me, what makes a great storyteller are a few things. Honesty and the ability to be honest not just with one’s experience but also with one’s self; being able to reflect on what an experience says about you or how an experience has shaped you. Effort is an equally big part — the willingness to put work into a story to make it meaningful. And the third thing, I think, is that ability to derive a meaning from a story. There’s a reason to tell a story beyond, just, “I thought it would make me sound funny today to tell this story.”
DJ: But surely that’s a good enough reason to tell a story. Maybe not at Confabulation, but surely that’s a good enough reason.
MG: Of course. We were talking about what makes a great story for me. I love funny stories, and a lot of our stories are really funny, but even the funny stories [at Confabulation] go beyond that. They’re not just popcorn; they say something about the human experience whether or not we make that clear. I don’t love stories that end, “I guess the moral of this story is…” because I’m not five. I don’t need somebody to tell me the moral of the story. But I love it when the author, when the speaker, knows, or has questions that are in their head about what the story is for. And you can see that, you can feel that. ■
Confabulation Montreal presents “Awakenings” at Phi Centre (407 rue Saint-Pierre) on Saturday, Sept. 8., 8 p.m., $15–$18. More information at confabulation.ca.