New Orleans is a city full of stories. Native or transplant, New Orleanians love to talk about their city, their experiences, their past, and their present. Creative duo Sophie Johnson and James Hamilton have created a forum for these stories to be told.
Shipwrecked! is a monthly storytelling showcase headquartered at the New Movement Theater in Marigny. Tucked away on Burgundy, I might have walked right by if had it not been for the line snaking the block. They’ve been at it for almost a year now and pack the house every time, with audience members sitting on the floor and standing in back to witness this unique performance.
While it is by definition a storytelling showcase, that title doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s a podcast, concert, snack break, comedy show, and group therapy session all in one.
Shipwrecked! is the brainchild of Sophie Johnson and James Hamilton, born in a coffee shop after Mardi Gras last year. Serendipitously, they each arrived at the idea separately and came together in collaboration. They approached New Movement Theater, referred to by Sophie as “a center for acts of passion,” where they were encouraged to run with the idea. It has blossomed from that simple concept to a full blown interactive production.
After hearing them talk about it, it’s easy to see why an exclamation point is in the title. Their enthusiasm for the project is infectious.
“We want you to feel like you just got invited to the best dinner party you’ve ever been invited to,” said Sophie. March’s show provided Bundt cake and rum punch for showtime snacking, with Minutehead providing live music.
They’re serious about making the audience feel like family, which was made clear when Sophie announced that she’d made gluten-free cookies specifically for a regular audience member who had an allergy. Even if you’re turned away, you get a cookie and a sticker.
“The show needs to be cool enough that my sister would enjoy it and safe enough that my mom would like it,” said James.
Though it does have a casual, homey feel, Shipwrecked! is a polished production, not a slam. All stories are workshopped and rehearsed into refined monologues. The storytellers are remarkably vulnerable. Their stories: refreshingly honest. They work to get varied voices, from slam poets to lawyers.
“In a world where we’re apparently on display, you find that this is hard for people. You find that it is freeing for people. You find that it is different and unique,” said Sophie.
Each show has a different theme inspired by the month. March’s was “Give it a Try.” The stories were about new experiences, but more than that, they were about universal human experiences: loss, growing up, complicated family relationships, bravery, embarrassment, questioning. While every story doesn’t have a happy ending, they each caused an uproar of laughter at least once, even it was followed by tears. Their goal is to make the audience feel joy and belonging, whether that’s from a hysterical bird imitation or the recognition that someone else has felt the pain you have.
The stories have resonated with audiences and create reciprocity.
“The goal is to make it a safe place to tell stories. A show is almost completely based on trust. We have to earn the trust of the audience each show. In order to do that, we have to be very deliberate,” said James. “We want to make it a fully cultivated experience from the moment you walk in the door.”
Every decision, from the placement of the food to the extra minute of music they give the audience to recover after a heart-wrenching story, is deliberate.
As Shipwrecked! grows, the goal is to maintain the integrity of the show while being able to include more people. “Storytelling is inherently an inclusive form of art,” says James. They plan to put on storytelling workshops where anyone can sign up and tell their story in a safe, supportive space.
They are working to become a fixture of New Orleans.
“We do this with the deepest gratitude to New Orleans. We are at the mercy of this incredibly place,” said Sophie.
“It is uniquely voiced through New Orleans,” added James. The city is responding, with a growing audience and widening listenership.
Sophie summed up Shipwrecked! as such: “It’s a celebration of what we have in common as human beings: that we all have stories to tell.”
This sentiment comes through clearly in every component of Shipwrecked! It’s a celebration of common human experiences, and a welcoming environment in which to share them.
Anna Shults is associate editor of NolaVie.