While I’ve never spent any time in Sage Tyrtle’s physical proximity, I first “met” her a couple of years ago, when I was interviewing a pair of mutual friends for a behind the scenes segment on an audio drama we were all part of. They said, “Do you know Sage? You have to become one of her minions.” They also explained that she ran a podcast called QN, that was part quiz show, part audio drama, and as interesting and eclectic as the woman herself.
Two years later, I cornered Sage for a couple of Conversations over Coffee, and what you’re about to read is a blending of two interviews, one that was conducted by email, and one that we did over Skype.
I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy hearing her story.
Sage, I know you as the creator and primary voice of the QN podcast, but give our readers a capsule introduction to who you are and what you do?
I’m a storyteller. I draw from a rich well of experience – including living in a tent for two years, my schizophrenic lesbian mother, almost-killing people with my mind control (no, really) – to draw my audience in and enthrall them with true stories. My audiences forget they’re in a public place. It’s just me and you. And the story.
Help us get to know the woman behind the stories. Give us the chapter highlights in the Book of Sage.
I grew up in California. My dad spent his entire life trying to get to California, and I spent the first seventeen years of my life planning when I would leave. I’ve never been back. I left two days after I graduated from high school and I never went back.
When I was a teenager, I was in a car with my Uncle Doug, who was the kind of guy who would walk into a room and everybody would circle around him immediately, because he had the best stories. (I’ve loved telling stories my whole life, but up to this point, I was that person who, once I started into a story, it would run away.) So, I was in the car with my Uncle Doug and my aunt, and my cousins, and I was telling a story that I thought was interesting and fascinating, and half-way through, Doug stopped me and he said, “This is the worst story I’ve ever heard. I’m so bored I can barely even drive.”
And I realized I had an option: I could do what I wanted to do, which is crawl in a hole and die and never, ever tell another story, or I could ask him what I was doing wrong. And so he said, “Let me tell you this story in an interesting way.” And he did! And it was such a transformative moment for me because I saw – oh – you can have the best story in the world, and if you’re telling it badly, it doesn’t matter.
So that was sort of the beginning of accepting that storytelling is an art, even if you’re just talking about your drive home from work.
Then I went to university in Missouri, in the middle of the Bible belt, to be near my mom. I met Todd in 1991, on the Internet, back when it was run by hamsters and it was text-only, and it was all green text on a black background . We met on bitnet relay, which was…email addresses didn’t even have an extension…and there were like a hundred people on relay – just students and people who had somehow gotten hold of an email address, which was very hard. I lied to my professor and said that I was doing a project with a friend in Colorado just so I could get on the burgeoning internet.
So, Todd got the email address from a guy at a party who said, “Oh, you like that online thing. I have an email address I never use. You can have it.” It was like illegal drugs at that point, you had to lie and cheat and steal in order to be on the internet. After two months of talking, we decided we had to meet, so I flew from Missouri to Boston, to meet him in person. He was living in Vermont, and we spent four days together and at the end of the four days, I never went home. So we’ve been together ever since.
When I was twenty-seven, we had our son, and decided we both wanted to be home with him. So we lived in a yurt, in the woods, for two years. Then we lived for two years in a converted garage that was – in the year 2000 it was $190 a month. And it was a functioning house! It was tiny, but it was a functioning house with a yard, and everything.
Then in 2004 we became – we were those kind of people who said, “If the Republicans get any worse, we’re moving to Canada.” And we really did. So we’ve been here [Toronto ] ever since. Todd’s big interest is cycling and my big interest is storytelling .
Most people go through their entire lives having normal jobs, and they might sort of enjoy what they do, or at least not hate it, but you do something that you absolutely love. What led you to turn your knack for storytelling into a profession?
As an adult, I started telling stories on my podcast. I’ve had a strange life (but of course a skilled storyteller can make the most mundane of lives fascinating), and I knew my listeners would be interested. Because my stories were scripted, I was able to hone them, shaving away until only the most important parts remained.
But the huge break was going to the Toronto MothUP. The Moth is a radio show produced by NPR, featuring people telling true, personal stories. They organized a satellite program in cities all over the world, the idea being that they’d pick and choose from the storytellers and include those stories on their radio show. Because I had a podcast, I got excited about the idea of national recognition, but knew I was far too shy and nervous to actually get up on stage.
I went to the first show and watched the people who got up and told stories. By the time I was two minutes into my walk home, I was making crazy excited notes about the story I would tell at the next MothUP. I’d forgotten completely about the Moth radio program – I was craving the stage time, and the audience.
Do you consider yourself successful? What defines success for you?
I don’t really care about money. I mean it’s nice that there’s money that comes in with the workshop, but on the large scale of things there’s hardly any money at all. To me, being a professional storyteller, which is what I call myself, has nothing to do with money or how many people are in the audience. It has to do with the investment in time and very hard work I put into making every story amazing.
I’ve been in front of a room of 300 people and told a story, and I’ve been in a room with three people and told a story and I found both of those experiences equally satisfying because the audiences in both cases were enthralled by what I was saying. All I want from a story is for the audience to care about the people in it – because they’re real people, right?
You mentioned your mother before, and I know at least a couple of your stories have featured her. Talk a little about that?
When I talk about my mom, and make people care, it feels like a gift for her. She’s dead, obviously, but it feels like… here was this amazing woman that nobody knew about, and I get to tell people about her and say, hey, you know, she didn’t follow the lines, she didn’t color in the lines, but she was a phenomenal human being. You don’t discard people because they don’t fit into the right 1950′s boxes.
I’ve heard you talk about telling stories to trees. Do you really do that? How do you craft a story?
I don’t know what it is or what it’s like until I hear it coming out of my mouth.
There are writers who sit down to write and they say, ‘yeah I don’t know who’s writing really, but I sit down to write and then an hour later beautiful things are there.’ For me, it’s similar. Nobody’s ever home when I’m working on a story, but if they were they’d see me say something and then be delighted because I don’t know where it came from but it was a great line!
So, I literally stand in my living room, I look out at the trees and I tell the trees, and – this is part of what I love about being in the city – we’re in a house that is in the middle of a neighborhood where people are walking or biking all the time. You can go a week and never see the same person twice. It’s a really, really thriving, wonderful neighborhood, so yeah, I’m telling the trees, but I’m also telling that random old Italian guy with a butcher’s outfit on who’s walking by my house. So, I tell the story over and over and over again.
When I do my workshops I talk about how you think about everything you say as a beautiful, precious, adorable kitten – the kind of kittens that could curl up in your – and all twenty of them are beautiful and sweet and lovely, but you have to give away thirteen of them. You have to, because you only get seven minutes on stage. So a lot of what I’m doing is figuring out, okay, what are the seven kittens that I cannot live without? So the notes for my story are what’s important, what to leave in, and that’s what I write down.
We interviewed your partner, Todd Tyrtle, last winter. Obviously all relationships have a bit of give and take. Is he generally supportive of your creative aspirations?
I’m very lucky in that Todd has always been very invested in supporting whatever it is I want to do. From the very beginning when we were very first together and I was meant to be writing all day ( but was really watching All My Children and One Life to Live on a big ancient television set – a console television set that had to sit on the floor – but…) from the very beginning he was really invested in helping me realize my creative dreams.
Finding balance when both people in a relationship work and have hobbies they’re passionate about can be tricky. How do you and Todd divvy things up?
Todd and I have always been in agreement that household chores should be split right down the middle, 50/50. For example: he does thecooking (often with our son’s help), and I do the dishes. For the chores neither of us want to do, we play our favourite card game. The loser has to do the chore. The winner reads to the loser from whatever book
we’re currently reading together.
son has just as many chores as the two of us have.
I’ll never be the kind of mother who bakes cookies (that’s my partner’s job), but I’ll be the one who is happy to play improv word games until we’ve all got the hiccups from laughing too much.
I never viewed family or parenthood as a restriction on my life. If I had, I would still be happily single.
What advice would you give to other women – whether they come to your storytelling workshop or not – who are considering a career path like yours?
YOU tell the audience how to feel about you, not the other way around. Stand on stage like there are lightning bolts going up through your feet.
Stay for the entire show. You can always learn from other storytellers. If a storyteller’s gig fills you with envy, you’ll learn the MOST by going to that one.
Work hard. Treat every performance – no matter what, no matter where – like the precious opportunity it is.
I know you’re incredibly busy. Aside from your workshop, what are you involved in, these days?
I’ve been writing and producing my podcast, QN, since 2005. I have an enormous passion for audio drama – currently I’m adapting the graphic novel “Therefore, Repent” as a feature-length show – and have built up a group of talented volunteers who contribute in various ways to the podcast.
I got involved with the Toronto long-form improv community about two years ago, and went from someone too shy to smile at a stranger on the subway to performing with two improv teams weekly. My storytelling informs what I do on stage for improv, and vice versa. Creating characters, an atmosphere, a relationship, out of thin air with another person is tremendously satisfying.
I also produce a monthly show called “True Stories, Made Up Plays.” Hand-picked storytellers tell true stories, then improv troupes play with their experiences. The process of putting together a show, creating eye-catching posters (they are all in comic book style, with the people who are actually in the show, I draw them all myself), and hosting is such a thrill. The audience is big enough now that I’ve just gotten a regular slot at a local venue.
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