“There is no learning at the Story Collider,” says the show’s producer, Erin Barker, from the stage at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y community center. “That is the number one rule.”
The comment draws laughter from the modest crowd and her co-host, Ben Lillie, because the tales told at the Story Collider all relate to a subject that’s usually considered one of the most intellectual of all: science. But it’s not a burning desire for knowledge that brought audience member Mary Ann to this special New York Comic Con-sponsored edition of the live performance show, which takes place at various locations throughout the five boroughs at least monthly.
“It’s often quite funny,” says Mary Ann, someone who doesn’t typically read about science or listen to science podcasts. When asked if she would check the evening’s subject matter before attending an announced Story Collider event, Mary Ann says it doesn’t much matter. “I would just come,” she says.
Story Collider, a hybrid of stand-up comedy and old-fashioned, campfire storytelling, was created in 2010 by – believe it or not – a pair of physicists, Lillie and Brian Wecht.
“We were both doing comedy and storytelling, and also were scientists,” says Lillie. “People introduced us, and it was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do a show.’ It was literally that much thought.”
Since then, the Story Collider has put on almost a hundred shows, and not just in New York. Barker and Lillie have taken the performance to locations all over the country, including Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Miami. Wecht accepted a university position in London in 2011, and has been producing Story Collider programs there since the fall of 2012.
Barker replaced Wecht in the original New York troop, although she had been a fan since the beginning. That doesn’t mean she always thought her friend Lillie’s idea was a good one.
“I went to his show to support him because I felt really bad for him and his stupid show idea,” says Barker.
Ben Lillie and Erin Barker, from worldsciencefestival.com
But as the Story Collider website says, “everyone has a story about science—a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level.” And if a story is good enough to touch Barker, whose background is self-described as “un-science,” it’s a good candidate for the show.
“She’s our test audience,” Lillie says. “I’m the barometer of if something is understandable,” Barker adds.
Some of the more popular performances include one by writer Matt Mercier, who as a teenager fixed his flagging science grades by dating the daughter of a physics teacher. Tara Clancy recently regaled a crowd at the first annual STEM Fest with a story about the science behind the births of her and her wife’s children.
On this occasion, under the Comic Con banner, the acts were geared more toward sci-fi than hard science. Psychologist Ali Mattu spoke of how celebrating Star Trek, a series that he and his brother bonded over, helps his sibling live on after having committed suicide.
Ali Mattu, photo from patheos.com
Story Collider can get serious, and it isn’t just for people who don’t otherwise have an interest in science. Many professional scientists have given performances, too, including two MacArthur “Genius Grant” award winners, astrophysicists Margaret Geller and Sara Seager.
“There’s no other place they can do this; to tell their story,” says Lillie.
Lillie himself has given up professional science since starting the Story Collider, and while he still cares about the topic, he sees the live narratives as telling us more about ourselves than black holes or quarks.
“It’s the same reason you make art about anything – you want to explore what it means to be human,” says Lillie. “And science is such a huge part of our life; we need to be doing that.”
Check out storycollider.org for upcoming shows and an archive of over 200 podcasts. You can even submit a story idea and maybe get on stage yourself!