Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
“It’s a symbiotic relationship between storyteller and audience. We’re all similar.”
Meet Michael Kingsbury. Michael is a storyteller (as well as husband, father, vocational rehab counselor and comedian, who has performed all over Vermont), and he loves hearing other people’s stories.
When people share their stories and “you hear a different perspective, you can learn to be OK with your own transgressions,” Michael explains. “You can’t hide from anybody, including yourself, by telling the truth.” (And bonus! Telling stories also helps your self-esteem.)
It is his story, his truth, that marks an appropriate beginning to a new series I am lining up for this column. Over the next months, I will share stories; everyday people’s everyday stories.
“As long as we share our stories,” Christina Baldwin writes in her book, “Storycatcher,” “as long as our stories reveal our strengths and vulnerabilities to each other, we reinvigorate our understanding and tolerance for the little quirks of personality that in other circumstances would drive us apart. When we live in a family, a community, a country where we know each other’s true stories, we remember our capacity to lean in and love each other into wholeness.”
My hope is that these glimpses into our neighbors’ lives, where we are getting to “know each other’s true stories,” will inspire and guide understanding and acceptance, both of others and self. But above all, I hope it will remind us we all have common ground, regardless of our differences. Gender, politics, economic-social background, skills, sexual orientation, career choice, race, place of birth, religion (or lack of), disability, or any other random thing determined by birth or choice that may cause someone to set another in a box labeled “Other” can actually be a place to start intersecting new Circles of Community.
“Where do you want to start?” I ask Michael.
“Once upon a time…” he starts to say, then laughs, “Actually, I hate that ‘once upon a time’ stuff.”
It was once upon a time in an elementary school in Montpelier that Michael began working on what he now says defines him and the way he looks at life: comedy and storytelling. He and some friends would put on “terrible” skits during recess, where, he says, “I was always the punchline. I was the one suddenly jumping out from behind the wall.”
Despite the poor quality of the acts, Michael says, “We went on tour… to the other playground.”
However, he was a very shy kid, and as he got older he didn’t often “allow that [comedic] part to come out.” But when a friend said he was good at comedy and that he should pursue it, despite his tendency to hyperventilate in front of a crowd, he finally began to consider it.
Graduating from Montpelier High School, Michael went on to attend various colleges, attempting at first a long-distant relationship with his girlfriend, Debra, whom he had met in high school at an All-State Music Festival. Looking back, Michael says that this time during his 20s when he was bouncing around, including a stretch of living back home in Montpelier, were “dark times.” Unsure of what to do with his life and missing Debra, he says he hadn’t at that time used his sense of humor to get through it. But, he can see now, many of the funny or touching stories he uses in his comedy or storytelling have come out of those difficult years.
Eventually moving to Minnesota to be with Debra — who he has now been married to for 20 years — he attained his BA in corrections and human services from Metropolitan State University. The couple then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Michael went through three years of improvisational comedy training with a satellite conservatory program of the famous Chicago comedy theater school, Second City.
In 2004, wanting to start a family in their home state, the Kingsburys moved back to Vermont. Landing in Rutland, Michael’s comedy was put on hold while he established his career and worked on his master’s degree. Graduating from College of St. Joseph in 2009 with a counseling psychology degree, he now works for the State of Vermont.
Building a life that evolved around the needs of their autistic son, it wasn’t until 2010, when he saw an article about the Marble Valley Players’ improv group, The Lost Marbles, that Michael reentered the world of comedy. Finding it to be a release from the particularly difficult time he was experiencing, he performed in three shows over the next four years. After starting a group with some friends which didn’t work out, he turned to stage acting, premiering in Actors’ Repertory Theatre’s (ART) 2012 production of “The Dining Room.”
But it was ART’s 2014 production of “Theatersportz” that Michael says was the start of a dream he had been hoping to realize for a while: Rutland’s own homegrown comedy scene. But he was still at heart the shy boy he once was, and he found it difficult to advocate for his ideas.
However, after a standing-room-only show at the Coffee Exchange in December 2014, thanks to a connection made by fellow actor, Judy Tompkins, he realized they were “onto something.” By October 2016, becoming more and more confident with each one, he had successfully scheduled and hosted 14 stand-up comedy shows at the coffee shop. He continues to perform in other shows, including at Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington and Word X in Pittsfield, Mass where he was a finalist last year. Currently, he is hosting a series in Killington.
“You can sit and wait for something to happen, but you need to step out and make it happen,” Michael says. He realized, he explains, that he had spent many years wishing for this to happen but not doing anything about it. “If you want something, you have a responsibility to help make it happen. You have to rely on people, but you can’t wait on them.
“I’ve learned I’m my own barrier, and if I want to do something I have to visualize it, then do it.”
Breaking through another barrier, Michael took a slight turn into the world of storytelling. Telling his first tale at The Lamp Shop in Burlington in January of last year, he brought home the idea of storytelling events to Bridget Scott at Speakeasy Café. The Rumpus, as they called it, was a slam-dunk. A year later, Michael can spiel off the locations of the 14 extremely popular events he has organized around the larger Rutland area.
And now Michael has stepped up his game once again. He has found he also loves writing, a close cousin of storytelling, but a surprise to Michael, given his aversion to reading and writing in school and the fact that he was a “terrible” speller. A story about a random act of kindness by a stranger on a particularly difficult plane ride with his son has been published in the latest edition of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.
Written almost seven years after the event, the story, Michael says, reflects how relating our life experiences is necessary. Although, he explains, “you need a few years away from the event to write [or tell] a strong story, because the emotional anguish is still strong,” the art of comedy and storytelling, “comes out of struggle. You can see the light in a difficult time. That’s why it’s relatable.”
And this relatability is the crux of Michael’s belief in the power of storytelling. “I believe people want to hear about struggle, but they also want to hear how they overcame. Deep down, we all want to see goodness happen, we get tired of dismay. People are a lot kinder than we might think. Hearing these tales gets us somewhere, to an emotional resolve, and we find we are all similar.”
Check it out
Michael’s story, “The Cool Guy on the Plane,” is featured in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Random Acts of Kindness: 101 Stories of Compassion and Paying It Forward,” which can be found locally at Bookmobile and Phoenix Books.
Joanna Tebbs Young is a transformative writing facilitator and freelance writer living in Rutland. Contact her at email@example.com, wisdomwithinink.com, or on Twitter at @jtebbsyoung.