Many traditional stories have been told by the warm light of a fireplace, invoking nostalgia that is passed down through generations. However, the story of more than 40 people dressed like Pee Wee Herman and touring North Beach in celebration of Paul Reubens’ Day is not usually one of them. Unless you attend a Fireside Storytelling performance, that is.
On April 7, Jellyfish Art Gallery in downtown San Francisco hosted a storytelling event as part of a series of monthly performances known as Fireside Storytelling. The theme of this month’s soiree, in celebration of the recent April Fool’s Day, was named “Pranks and Other Nefarious Shenanigans.”
Six of the most involved pranksters and tricksters in the area were called to tell a ten-minute, non-scripted story revolving around the theme. Those unfamiliar with the origins of pranking soon learned through the interactive stories.
“A prank is a joke that you do for a live audience,” said storyteller Michael Burstein. “It interacts with them rather than just a storyteller up here telling a joke or two.”
San Francisco has become a magnet for jesters tricks. One trick Burstein helped organize involved the placement of several candy-apple red swings onto a BART train.
Actors pretended to have had no prior knowledge and convinced others to swing. Soon, complete strangers were experiencing the joy of swinging on BART.
A man known as ‘Chicken John’ perpetrated another shenanigan in the city. Chicken John convinced a group of participants to stand in front of Safeway with silver platters and samples of raw squid. Sure enough, even without any Safeway branding, passersby would grab a sample and promptly spit it out.
However, Burstein said there is a delicate balance in a ploy in which prankster must be dedicated to making the prank run smoothly and involve the public. It is the people who make the hoax worthwhile, he said.
“There’s a difference between wearing a costume and being uncool, and bringing the interaction to the people and having fun,” Burstein said.
During the event, a seemingly fanatical old man made his way through the audience passing out UFO warning pamphlets in a bright-pink-Flamingo shirt, belly-high slacks and a burgundy Fez hat. Michael Mikel, also known as “The Danger Ranger,” is actually a historical figure in the San Francisco shenanigans scene.
In 1986, Mikel was one of the founding organizers of the Cacophony Society, a group dedicated to mixing up mainstream society with pranks and other madness.
“I’ve always been interested in the odd, strange, and unusual and just a sort of social engineering that changes people’s minds,” Mikel said. “We live in a commercial society and what cacophony and shenanigans do is break us out of that consumer mindset so that we can make our own lives.”
The management team was glad to see a group of more than 70 people, past seating capacity, with interest in storytelling and hoped this meant good things for the future.
“We want to keep the art of storytelling alive,” said Will Chase, one of the organizers of the event. “All of the mainstream media passed off as entertainment is pre-packaged and awful.”
Fireside attempts to create a connection with the audience that movies and TV cannot reach.
“They’re personal stories that everyone in the audience can relate to,” said event organizer Tim Pratt. “There is nothing at all like hearing an original story from the person who originally experienced it.”
Both newcomers and seasoned attendees found a lot of interest in the setup.
“I thought it was highly entertaining,” said Barbara Fried, a member at her fifth Fireside event. “There were interactive and amusing stories with a purpose of joy.”
For the month of May the theme will be ‘sex.’ After attending just one Fireside event, anyone, including students, may contact a member of the Fireside management team to become a storyteller at one of the events.
Chase and Pratt said they were inspired to create Fireside Storytelling when they saw a subpar storytelling event two years ago.
“We like to tell stories, and we thought ‘well we can do this just as good, if not better’, and that’s honestly how it started,” Pratt said.
With groups like the Cacophony Society, Improv Everywhere and the Urban Pranksters Network in San Francisco, there are many free opportunities for anyone with a penchant for the absurd and a desire for amusing interaction with the community.
“The easiest way of getting involved is honestly just to do it,” Burstein said. “It takes a little bit of perseverance, but if you have a good idea for an event then people will come.”