For all the bragging rights (and one trophy): The winners of this year’s Valley Voices story slams head to a final competition

Ruthy Woodring of Northampton delivers her tale of an unusual friendship at a Valley Voices Story Slam held earlier this year at The Drake in Amherst.

Ruthy Woodring of Northampton delivers her tale of an unusual friendship at a Valley Voices Story Slam held earlier this year at The Drake in Amherst. Image courtesy NEPM

Julia Mitchell is a  finalist for the Best of Valley Voices Story Slam.

Julia Mitchell is a finalist for the Best of Valley Voices Story Slam. Image courtesy Julia Mitchell/NEMP

Last year’s finalists for the Best of Valley Voices Story Slam are seen at the Academy of Music. The popular event is now in its ninth season.

Last year’s finalists for the Best of Valley Voices Story Slam are seen at the Academy of Music. The popular event is now in its ninth season. Photo by Joyce Skowyra/NEPM

Josh Simpson and his wife, Cady Coleman, at their home in Shelburne Falls. Simpson became part of the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam with a tale about the odd way in which he and Coleman met.

Josh Simpson and his wife, Cady Coleman, at their home in Shelburne Falls. Simpson became part of the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam with a tale about the odd way in which he and Coleman met. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Josh Simpson and his wife, Cady Coleman, sit outside their Shelburne Falls home. Simpson, a finalist for the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown, and 11 other competitors will tell their tales at Northampton’s Academy of Music on April 13.

Josh Simpson and his wife, Cady Coleman, sit outside their Shelburne Falls home. Simpson, a finalist for the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown, and 11 other competitors will tell their tales at Northampton’s Academy of Music on April 13. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Amy Heflin, seen here by Northampton’s Academy of Music, is one of 12 finalists for the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown.

Amy Heflin, seen here by Northampton’s Academy of Music, is one of 12 finalists for the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Amy Heflin, seen here by Northampton’s Academy of Music, is one of 12 finalists bidding to win the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown. The contest takes place April 13 at the Academy.

Amy Heflin, seen here by Northampton’s Academy of Music, is one of 12 finalists bidding to win the 2024 Valley Voices Story Slam crown. The contest takes place April 13 at the Academy. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2024 3:33 PM

Modified: 04-09-2024 8:49 AM


The assignment is pretty straightforward: tell a concise story about your life, in no more than five minutes, that reflects a certain theme.

The challenge is in telling that story with enough heart, spirit, verve, humor or whatever else you can conjure to make an emotional connection with the audience.

The quest to do that has made the annual Valley Voices Story Slam series, a co-production of New England Public Media and Northampton’s Academy of Music, a popular event — especially the final competition between the winners of four previous smaller slams.

This year the “Best of” slam takes place April 13 at the Academy, where 12 finalists will duke it out — well, talk it out — for first, second and third place slots that are chosen by audience members.

It’s not theater or performance art, but it’s more than just reciting lines. As Debra J’Anthony, the Academy’s executive director, sees it, a successful story is based in part on how people “deliver their lines and craft their phrases, how they use pauses and tone.”

On a broader level, she adds, good storytelling depends on “the ability to relate to an audience, like you’re sharing a story at the dinner table … you’re trying to create a kind of intimacy and make [the audience] part of the story.”

Now in its ninth season, Valley Voices has attracted many applicants over the years, and the 2023-2024 season has been typical. There were four initial slams held last fall and earlier this year — in smaller venues in Amherst, Greenfield, Easthampton, and Springfield — and about 35 people on average applied to be part of each, J’Anthony said.

You register by calling a NEPM phone line, providing your name and contact information, and reciting the first line of a story you would tell that corresponds to a selected theme or title for a particular slam. The titles for two of the preliminary slams for this year, for instance, were “Road Trip!” and “Missed Connections.”

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Ten people were chosen to compete in each of the four smaller slams, and from each of those, audiences voted for three finalists to go to the final slam on April 13.

One of those finalists, Josh Simpson, is better known — actually, he’s really well known — for his glass-blown art, which he’s sold all over the world.

But after hearing a radio ad for the “Missed Connections” slam, Simpson, of Shelburne Falls, decided he’d take a shot at participating, though he’d never taken part in a story slam or attended one.

“That phrase really stuck out to me because I met my wife through a wrong phone call,” Simpson said. “The whole trajectory of my life changed because of that … I thought it was a story people might enjoy.”

As Simpson related, his first interactions with the woman he would end up marrying, the former astronaut Cady Coleman (she was in the Air Force when they met), included a series of comical but ultimately charming misunderstandings, through which the couple eventually came together.

When Simpson came to The Drake in Amherst in January to tell the tale, though, he said it was pretty nerve wracking, “a completely alien feeling. I mean, my whole career is woven around being a glass blower.”

Yet he held his nerve and did well enough to advance to the finals; his wife, who was in the audience, helped give some confidence, he notes.

Ruthy Woodring of Northampton was also at The Drake that night, spinning a tale about an unusual friendship she has with a guy named Waldo. Woodring, some might remember, is one of the founders of Pedal People, the Florence trash hauling and transport collective that does all its work by bicycle.

As Woodring said at the beginning of her story, Waldo “drives a truck for USA Waste. I ride a bike for Pedal People. So we spend our days going around in circles, collecting everything that western Massachusetts and Northampton throws away.”

Like Simpson, Woodring hadn’t been in a story slam before. But after hearing an ad for registering for the “Missed Connections” slam, she says, the opening line about the trash hauler friends “just popped into my head.”

Woodring has some background in storytelling: She runs a weekly show on Valley Free Radio in Florence on which she relates various tales “from the streets and paths of Northampton.” But all of that, she notes, takes place in a studio with radio equipment, not a packed public venue.

At The Drake, she said, “I was so nervous,” even though she’d been rehearsing her story at home, using a large floor lamp as a mic. But it turned out fine in the end, she added: “It’s such an honor to share my experience and have people listening — I’m humbled.”

Across the Texas plains

J’Anthony says anyone who wins first place in the “Best of” Valley Voices slam is not eligible to enter any of the competitions in the following year. Otherwise, people can keep applying to take part in the events, and some people have appeared in multiple slams. (Though she says newcomers are always encouraged to apply: “We want to have as diverse a group as we can.”)

In fact, Julia Mitchell of Longmeadow, another finalist, also made the “Best of” Valley story slam last year; a native of Alabama, she says there’s a long tradition of storytelling in the South, a way “to spend time on those hot summer nights when you go out on the porch after dinner to try and catch a breeze.”

“I’ve got some crazy relatives that make for good stories,” she said with a laugh, though she noted that her story this year, which she told at The Marigold Theater in Easthampton, is about her own embarrassing encounter with a celebrity.

But, Mitchell noted, the real appeal of storytelling is in finding a way to emphasize with others, and have the audience empathize with the storyteller: “You want to find those bonds, that common humanity.”

Another first-timer this year is Amy Heflin, a Northampton-based Realtor who heard an ad for the “Road Trip!” slam and thought of an overnight drive she’d made years back, all alone across miles of Texas prairie, in what turned out into “a kind of bizarre experience.”

“I told my mom the story and she said ‘You should do something with that,’” said Heflin. “So I put it on the shelf, put it on a pin, and when I heard that ad, I thought ‘Now’s the time.’”

Heflin, who presented her story at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, says she didn’t feel that nervous in front of the crowd — she’s done some public singing in the past — but since she had friends in the audience, including one from out of state, “I wanted it to be good.”

Also, she said with a laugh, “I guess I didn’t read the fine print. I didn’t know about the finals.”

The finalists recently met at the Academy with story slam staff for an orientation about the building and its stage to get a sense of what it might be like to be in front of as many as 800 people.

“It could be a challenge,” said Heflin, who said perhaps the spotlights will make it difficult to see much of the crowd. “But I’m excited to hear all the other stories.”

The finalists can tell different stories if they choose, though Simpson, for one, said he was pretty sure he’d go with the one about the wrong telephone call that changed his life. “It’s also partly about me refusing to get an answering machine in those days because I thought they were so impersonal,” he said.

The Best of Valley Voices Slam takes place April 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music. Tickets are available at aomtheatre.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com