Each time Rilda Kissel tells the story about her mother and the nursing home, someone in the audience inevitably cries and everyone has a greater appreciation for the challenges associated with Alzheimer’s. A relative newcomer to storytelling, Rilda earned the audience choice award at Massmouth’s 2019 Big Mouth Off by sharing her vulnerability and skillfully weaving humor and hard topics together. Massmouth volunteer and fellow storyteller Angie Chatman interviewed Rilda about her experience. This is their exchange:
Angie: I was in the audience for the All Dressed Up live-taping of Stories from the Stage at WGBH where you shared about putting on a blazer and touring a nursing home for your mom. It’s a powerful story. I cried and a lot of people around me had tears in their eyes. It must be a very hard story to tell.
Rilda: Actually, I had practiced telling that story so many times that it was like pressing play on a recording and the words just came out. It’s the first story I shared with Massmouth.
Angie: You started telling stories by sharing one on television? That’s so brave.
Rilda. No. I started telling stories at work. I work for the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Five years ago, our dean proposed that we host a storytelling event as a tool for team-building and education. They called it Double Take. I shared a story about my Mom’s diagnosis. Then the University asked if they could post the story on the school’s Facebook page. This was in the fall and I was participating in the Walk for Alzheimer’s so I asked people to make a donation. The post raised over $5,000.
Angie: That’s great. So how did you get involved with Massmouth?
Rilda: The next time the call for submissions for Double Take went out, I volunteered to review the pitches and help coach some storytellers. I’m a writer and I know what makes a good story arc, what should be cut, etc. But telling a story is not the same as when it’s on paper; I knew I needed to improve my coaching skills. I found Massmouth on the internet and took a class.
Angie: So you didn't plan to compete in a slam or anything?
Rilda: Not really. I have a full-time job, a husband and two little kids, ages 4 and 7. My evenings are rarely free. But at the end of the Massmouth class everyone is encouraged to perform and although you don’t have to, I didn’t want to disappoint my classmates. [After the showcase] I competed at a slam at Trident Cafe and I won, and eventually advanced to the Big MouthOff championship. Later, Massmouth’s director called and said that my story fit the theme ‘All Dressed Up’ for Stories from the Stage. She asked if I would like to perform and I said yes.
Angie: So, you only planned to do one class. Now, you’ve done nearly every kind of Massmouth program! What’s next?
Rilda: Yes, it’s not what I expected, but I really want to stay involved. Storytelling is so powerful. After I left the stage at the WGBH studio, a woman in the audience grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “My mother has Alzheimers too. Thank you so much for sharing that story.”
Angie: That’s wonderful.
Rilda: Yes, but I know I have more than one story to tell! Funny, lighthearted ones, not just serious stuff. It’s good for me to be on stage because it makes me a better coach, teacher, writer...and person. I love being part of this storytelling subculture. It’s so diverse. I don’t think I would have ever met all these wonderful people otherwise. Storytelling has changed my life.
To learn more about Massmouth’s classes, events and Stories from the Stage program, visit www.massmouth.org.