The Art of Storytelling with Ex Fabula

No professionals needed – just enthusiastic amateurs. That’s my kind of club. ExFabula has been organizing live storytelling events in Milwaukee since 2009. Founding member Megan McGee takes pride in helping people discover that they have a story to tell and showing them how to do it. There is only one rule – all five-minute stories must be true. And, each event has a theme that storytellers must stick to. “The themes aren’t a way to restrict people, they should just be starting off point,” explains Megan. “Eventually everyone connects with something.”

Andrew Larsen got involved last fall and has been telling stories at several of the monthly events. He clears his throat and his baritone voice booms sarcastically, “I like the hearing the sound of my own voice.”  By day, Andrew is a history teacher at Marquette and a passionate advocate for the art of storytelling. “History is really just a collection of stories,” he says, and he often uses storytelling to engage his students. “It’s fun telling stories,” he confesses, “Its is how people used to entertain each other years ago before technology. American culture has taught people to be really passive. Live storytelling allows the audience to take an active role in their entertainment.”

Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee
Andrew Larsen and Megan McGee

I met Andrew and Megan in the Pfister lobby to talk about their upcoming event and was able to coerce Andrew into sharing a story.  (See below) “There are a few key elements to a good story,” he explains, “The delivery certainly matters and it helps if its relatable.” Andrew’s poise, confidence and articulation definitely shine through when the spotlight is on him.

At each event the are scheduled storytellers and people who volunteer that night.  Funny stories always go over well,  but are not the only effective ones. “The story I liked the most was actually serious, it was about a very challenging conversation with my father,” admits Andrew.

Think you want try your hand at storytelling? The theme for the next ExFabula event on Tuesday, March 12  is “Green.”  The event will be at Club Giribaldi in Bayview and admission is $5 at the door. About half of the crowd are newcomers and half are regulars. Andrew plans on telling a story and assures that it’s a very supportive atmosphere. “Our audience appreciates people who are brave enough to tell their stories, Megan chimes in. “Every story inspires another.”

For more information on ExFabula or the event on March 12, click here.

See Andrew tell his story “Blind Date” that he told last month at an ExFabula event.


The Middle

This is the second of three posts where unsuspecting guests help to build a short story.

Pt 1. – The Beginning 
Pt 2. – The Middle (this one)
Pt 3. – The End

Michael /South Carolina/ Retired Medical Researcher

A fire you had to put out this week? Let’s see… a lot had to be done before we left … trying to remember … routine things … had to squeeze in a visit to my parents, make arrangements for the animals, store the tools and machinery…

Where do you go for peace? Anyplace I can be alone.  I like to walk in the woods, but you can be alone in the city, too, if you can get away from your distractions

Favorite relative? That’s not fair. I feel differently about them all. Both parents were only children. I do miss my grandparents.

Best gift or surprise you’ve given? I’m a horrible gift buyer. Not for lack of trying, but for trying too hard. I’m very self analytical.  You want to give a really good gift, but everything you look at doesn’t measure up.  Paralyzed by wanting the gift to be perfect. Agonize for weeks, until it’s the last minute and you’re at the drug store buying something awful.

A food you won’t eat? Tripe, headcheese, entrails, chitlins

A city you’re curious about? Berlin or cities in Argentina

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Game warden

Something you have that’s broken? My house has been broken forever.  It’s consumed our lives for 30 years.  It’s a 100-year-old wooden Victorian.

Describe your favorite boss/mentor. One of my high school teachers. Our friendship continued until he died. He was the first person to make me realize that the world was bigger than where you live.  Things can be provincial in a small town. He talked in thoughts and concepts, so I was able to grow up thinking beyond the limits of my peers, my town, and even myself. He made things accessible.  Music, for instance, was not reserved for those refined people.  He also showed me how not to take things too seriously.

What is preventing this character from having peace of mind? She wants history; she wants to know where she comes from.  People who don’t know their history don’t know who they are. Even a difficult history is a history.  A map has so much detail, but if you don’t know where you are on that map, it means nothing.


Okay! Here’s the middle:


Corinne turned on to Wicker Street but nothing happened.  All four pick-up trucks were at rest in front of the Crane’s house on the corner and the football game blinked through their curtain sheers with silhouettes of the Crane men, all brothers and sons.  Next door, the lopsided head on the Parkers’ snowman was sure to slide to the ground any day now. Windows of the first duplex were lit upstairs and dark downstairs.  The second duplex had its windows lit in the reverse way. Corinne lived at the end of the block. Usually a sense of calm eased over her when she drove this short block, but nothing stirred in her tonight.

She rented the attic loft of a 100-year-old Victorian, freshly painted in a palette of rose and teal.  It reminded her of a dollhouse now. The owners, Paulette and Doug were its congenial life-size doll owners. They’d owned the house for nearly eight years before finally fixing up the attic for a renter. Everything in the house was broken when they’d bought, they’d told her, and they constantly patching and replacing things. “This house will consume us for the next 30 years,” Doug had said.  Paulette had laughed, nodding beside him.  Doug taught composition at the local junior college, turning down opportunities to teach at the university and Paulette was a DNR permits manager who’d wanted to be a game warden when she grew up.  They were in their early forties, energetic, eclectic, the type of people who talked in concepts and ideas, defying the typical provincial limits of small town living and thinking. After nearly an hour sipping tea with them in their electric doll house anchoring the end of a dead end street, Corinne had canceled her viewing for a swank studio apartment on the east end of town.  She’d fallen head over heels for this rickety house its warm and lively owners.

Outside, there was usually a tarp or a ladder or a contractor.  Inside, there were towers of paint cans, swatches of fabric, power tools, bottles of wine, hand spun candy, homemade hog headcheese, every beat of music and laughter. There was always plenty of laughter in this old house that refused to crumble away.

Doug was grading papers in the dining room and Paulette was folded laundry in the next room, screaming at the football players on TV. Doug chuckled to himself, shaking his head at his wife’s antics.  When he noticed Corinne, he gave her a warm smile.

“How’d it go?” he asked, laying down his ink pen.

“Talking to Aunt Vanda is a like going to the oracle,” she said.  “I feel good, almost.”

Doug raised his eyebrows. “Almost?”

Corinne unbuttoned her coat and leaned against a chair back. “You know how some advice can sound great until you realize how hard it’s going to be?”

Doug smiled, leaning back in his seat.  “That’s how you know it’s good advice. What did she say?”

Corinne sat down, bunching her coat into her lap. She’d replayed Vanda’s words in her head for the entire drive from the Inn. She liked the sound of it every time, but it thickened a knot of terror inside her.

“She said I should go to Argentina.”

Doug snapped his head like he’d been smacked on both cheeks. “Argentina? What’s that about?”

“That’s the only thing I know about my birth parents,” Corinne said. “My birth certificate lists my father’s name as Unknown, but that he’s from Argentina.”

Over the course of many meals at this table, Corinne had shared her entire life history with Paulette and Doug.  Corinne rarely shared her tragic tale, that her mother’s family had driven two counties to deliver Corinne and then abandon her at the hospital, that her youth was filled with neglect anxiety and abuse as a foster child, that she was no longer able to ignore her history of anguish and pretend that only the future mattered. Her packaged answer had always been to say that her parents had been only children, and when they passed on she was all she had left. The spirit of this old house, however, insisted on her truth.

“So, you’re going to Argentina to find your father?” Doug asked.

“Oh, God, no,” Corinne said, pulling slim fingers through her short red curls.  “I could care less about him. My mother either.  Aunt Vanda’s idea was to just to go and explore.  Feel what it’s like.  See where I come from.”

Doug gave a slow nod and a slow smile.  “I kinda like that idea,” he said.  “I get the ‘great but scary’ part, too.  Are you thinking about it?”

“Well, I’ve never been anywhere,” Corinne said. “Why not go big and go international?”

They laughed and fell into an awkward silence.

“But?” Doug asked, spinning his ink pen atop a stack of ungraded papers.

“But,” Corinne said with a sigh.  “I don’t know if a South American adventure will make me feel less alone.  I’ve survived 27 years, and now all of a sudden I want roots? I don’t understand why it’s consuming so much of me.  I tried walking in the woods to clear the distracting thought, but nothing works! I’d hate to blow my savings just to come home with a bag of crappy souvenirs and no more peace of mind.”

“Peace of mind is a process, girlie,” sang Paulette as she passed the dining room with the laundry basket.

Doug held up his hands, gesturing toward Paulette and her passing wisdom.

“As usual, my better half has said it best,” he said.  “No, you probably won’t come back with all of your questions answered and all your heartaches cured. But you’ll get to see, first hand, the culture and land that made the generations of people who made you.  That’s still going to be powerful.”

Corinne had her legs outstretched, absently knocking her feet together while she listened to Doug describe a memorable trip his family took  to Berlin in high school. He came home swelled with an unexpected pride for a heritage he’d never paid much attention to.

“I didn’t know you were German,” Corinne said.

Doug smiled.  “But I know that I am,” he said with a wink.

“Get one of the natives to help you buy our gifts,” Paulette said, her voice floating past them again on her way back to the football game on TV. “You know how you get paralyzed by trying to find something perfect. I don’t want crappy South American souvenirs, as you put it.  Ask for directions and help with your shopping!”

Corinne folded herself with laughter. She loved that she could add the chime of her voice to the merriment of this house.  She loved that Aunt Vanda’s idea had taken root. Corinne would have a lot to do before she could leave.  But, for sure now, she would leave.



Read Parts 1 & 3 here:

Pt 1. – The Beginning 
Pt 2. – The Middle (this one)
Pt 3. – The End

Nights Like This

You have reached your bewitching hour.  While most people will unwind inside the cushioned margins of prime time, you won’t shrug away the day until it’s ready to expire. You are not governed by office hours or bedtimes. You will review and research and design and sort and package and analyze and schmooze until your limbs and attention vehemently protest.  When you can no longer deny your hunger, fatigue, neck cramps or that blister on your left heel, then you will stop.

You will stop long after your neighbor has put away the gardening tools and your kids’ soccer coach has read a chapter of the newest best seller. Long after the dog has been walked one last time, your ambition will watch the hour hand gracefully sweep across the meridian of a new day.

It is typically this late hour that helps grind your gears to a slow coast. It’s true what your relatives say about you. That you never truly stop.  That slowing down is enough for you.  You can still catch your breath at a crawling 100 mph.

Your work day has ended, but you can’t surrender easily to sleep. You make your way to the bar, welcoming its foreign familiarity. You’re in another hotel. Another city. Another lush penthouse lounge with votive candles flickering all about. You have never stayed here before, but you like it, you say to the woman at the bar. You’re in town from Chicago. Business. Banking. She buys your first drink. Hands you a card. She’s a writer. Or a reporter. Something for the hotel. You thank her for the drink and hope she’s not going to talk your ear off. She smiles. You both watch the rain.

Her best friend always gets sleepy when it rains like this, she says.  She says she likes to look at the rain or watch a movies. You’re inspired in other ways by the rain, but you don’t say so. You save that humor for people who know your edges. You don’t know this woman. In fact, you’re not sure why she’s talking to you.  She’s clearly sizing you up for something. You pick up her card and read it. Narrator.

You ask her why a hotel would have an arts residency program. She asks you how often you travel.  She tells you she’s been writing since she was a kid.  You tell her you never planned on banking, just knew you would be in business. You ask her what other things she writes. She asks what makes you good at your job.

You tell her that you’re good in front of clients.  You tell her that you work your ass off.  You tell her that you’re persistent and patient and you’re always prepared.  You tell her about taking clients to dinner. Fishing. To ball games. You tell her how the rookies only see the glamour of it all. You tell her that you’d rather give the box seats away sometimes.  You tell her that you’re not socializing; you’re working.  Always working.

You tell her that some deals take years to close.  She asks the common mistake that rookies might make.  You tell her they don’t know when to walk away. She asks what made you join this new company.  You tell her about the better offer.  She asks about life balance. You can hear the air quotes in her voice. You say that no one really has balance, we’re all making the best with what we’ve got. She tells you about taking her laptop to the beach. You say working and vacation don’t have to be mutually exclusive terms.  It’s your life and your time, you say. She agrees, but says her body started to disagree and she had to pay better attention to that life balance thing.  Air quotes again.  You nod and sip your drink. You silently toast your strong body.

She asks if you plan to repair sailboats or invest in a winery or open a little bed and breakfast one day.  You tell her how you want your investment properties to cover the mortgage on a second home one day.  You don’t tell her how close “one day” is.  She doesn’t ask.

Instead, she asks about Chicago. You tell her it’s home. You say you don’t mind the snow. She calls the city her favorite suburb. You buy the next round. Gin and tonic. Whiskey neat. You hadn’t expected to talk with her this long. She smiles again and is quiet. You feel the weight of the day begin to press into your shoulders.  You’re talking about barbecue.  The joint on the west side with the great sauce until the new owners took over.  Shameful, you say.

The drinks and the rain and the late hour have begun to converge into their nightly spell. You catch a yawn with your closed fist. You see her eyes slip out of focus for a second as she listens to you. Sleep has finally come to greet you both.

You order one more. She signs her check and wishes you luck on some throw away comment you’ve already forgotten. You tell her to be careful driving home in the rain. You watch her leave. You turn back to your drink and the tumult outside the window. You imagine this would be a gorgeous view on a clear night. You imagine what tomorrow will bring.

The Pfister Hotel seeks next “Narrator in Residence”

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, which is owned and managed by Marcus® Hotels & Resorts, is in search of its next writer in residence, known as the Pfister Narrator. The chosen candidate will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, speaking with visitors and guests and sharing their stories through a blog on the hotel’s website.

“The Pfister Narrator program has served as a great way to honor our guests and their experiences at the hotel and beyond,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “The exposure and success of the program is continually growing.”

The person chosen next for the position will be the hotel’s fourth narrator, and will replace current narrator, Ed Makowski. He has been blogging from the hotel since November 2011; his stories can be found at

“During my time at the Pfister, this unique narrator position has given me a space to expand and develop my writing and story gathering skills,” says Makowski. “All at once the hotel has been a comfortable living room and big artistic playground. I’ve been a traveler among travelers. It will be exciting to meet the next writer to take on this fantastic position.”

The new Pfister Narrator will work a minimum of 10 hours per week over the course of a six-month period and will publish a minimum of two blog posts per week. In return he or she will receive his or her choice of a $1,000 monthly stipend, scholarship for continuing education or donation to a charity of his or her choice in his or her honor, in addition to complimentary parking and meals within the hotel’s cafeteria. The Narrator’s blog posts will later be published in a narrator book series. The first narrator Julie Ferris’ book is currently available in the hotel’s gift shop.

To be considered, applicants will need to submit an application form, current resume, 2-3 writing samples of recent work, a cover letter and two professional letters of recommendation to Six finalists will be asked to write two sample blog entries and participate in a video interview. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2012. The Pfister Narrator will take his or her post the week of May 1, 2012, and will remain the hotel’s storyteller through October 2012. A review panel will evaluate the applications and ultimately choose the Pfister Narrator. More information and the application form can be found at

Since 2009, the hotel has been a member of the Alliance of Artist Communities,, an international association of artists’ communities and residencies featuring a diverse field of more than 1,000 programs worldwide.



Still Accepting Submissions for 30 Paintings in 30 Days

Shelby is fast at work on her first of the “30 Paintings in 30 Days.”Shelby is still looking to her fans for visual inspiration. Her approach is to paint the figure in an urban landscape but she needs some extra photos to choose from.

Send your photos to, but first, Shelby has some criteria she would like you to follow.

Example of an ideal submission

The theme here is “People in Urban Landscapes.” So please try and follow the following criteria.

1. People focused yet in an urban setting – Being figurative, the people are the subject but they will not be painted in any detail with no telling identifiers. (ie people walking down the street, people talking at an intersection, or people enjoy coffee on a cafe patio

2. Urban Landscape – Looking at Shelby’s previous work, you can see the talent she has in painting urban architecture. So see if you photo can include some buildings or city skyline in the background.  Ideally it would be best if it were kept regional to Milwaukee.

3. Please do not submit photos of posed people in front of landmarks or backgrounds.  The people aren’t the direct focus, they are just part of a whole.

4. Please remember to include your name and email in the submission, so if Shelby chooses one of your images, we can get you your keepsake image.

So send in your pictures to and help provide some inspiration to Shelby and as a thank you, if she selects one of your photos to paint, she’ll also provide a digital print that you can have as a keepsake.

Good luck everyone, we can’t wait to see the submissions.

The Inner Circle

So, drugstore I got to meet her: my replacement. There are so many lessons in life out there waiting for you and only a few you’re fortunate enough to catch. I am lucky enough to have started a project and to have the opportunity to hand it off. I’m not the CEO of some big company (yet), not an entrepreneur (yet) and not any of the other typically tenured folks in high ranking positions who perform very public changings of the guards. I’m no Tony Soprano, sitting at the head of the table, handing out orders.

But I was (am! Still am!) the first Pfister Narrator and I truly cannot decide which part has of the entire role has yielded the best life lessons. Right now, I’m realizing how completely unprepared  I was  for the process of watching other writers talk about writing and process and how they’d do it differently. I read other writers all the time, but I don’t often have breakfast with them.

Stacie Williams cannot be contained. After she was chosen, one of the persons who coordinated the interviews leaned in close in the hall and said knowingly, “Oh, you’ll like her, Julie.”

And I do.

 Even when sitting, listening, she’s the most active listener you’ll meet, though not in that disconnected Aunt Susie “mmhmm…mmhmmm..” kind of way. She buzzes and receives every word.

I felt like we were planning world domination when the hotel manager, PR director and Stacie and I huddled in a corner of the newly remodeled café. Our table seemed very VIP and in a very non-narrator, non feng shui move, my last-to-arrive status had me with my back to the room. So this is what the end feels like—my back to the room. In all my watching, and listening and talking at the Pfister, I’ve never seated myself with my back to the room.

Repeat after me: Change is good. Change is good. Change is good.

What offered the most comfort is, each time I opened my mouth to speak, Stacie had my words. I suspect Joe Kurth, our hotel manager, was really having déjà vu when she asked, in nearly the exact same phrasing, the same questions I did when I started. It wasn’t just asking about the rules or the limits. The morning was full of questions about possibilities. I wanted to point out the things I’d learned—stop by this corner on Tuesdays to see so and so. Make sure to eat the oatmeal. Ride the elevator in the opposite direction than you intend so you can ride it longer and chat with more people. Then, I realized, as I watched Stacie’s eyes constantly watching, her body positioned to see the entire café: she was already working; she’s already slipped right into the job.

Suddenly I felt like I was at Tony Soprano’s table, but instead of handing out orders, our inner circle of news, policies, information and process was much more ordinary. There aren’t a lot of rules. There’s one big general framework that we’ve been following and hopefully, been wrapping you—the blog readers—into. You create the stories, the feeling, the character. You have drinks here, you get married here, you stumble in after an amazing night on the town and wind down in the lobby here and you meet with clients right here on our couches. The best part of my role is realizing that the inner circle at the Pfister is you.

The Search for the Next Pfister Narrator

With Julie’s time as the current narrator coming to a close, it’s time to select her replacement.

With over twenty wonderful applications submitted this time around, it was a difficult decision for our esteemed panel.

After several hours of deliberation, the six finalists were chosen.

Thank you to everyone who entered and congratulations to the six finalists.

– Nancy Camden
– Judy Garty
– Lacy Kutz
– Annette Mertens
– Ellen Warren
– Stacie Williams

For an inside look at the Pfister Narrator selection process, visit Judith Ann’s feature on ThirdCoast Digest.

The Pfister Hotel Announces Search for Next In-House Journalist/Storyteller

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee is helping another talented local writer develop his or her passion for writing, while enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The hotel has announced the search for its second-ever in-house storyteller, known as the Pfister Narrator. He or she will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, interviewing visitors and guests and sharing their stories through a blog on the Pfister’s Web site.

“The Pfister has displayed its dedication to the arts for many years,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “The addition of the narrator program is an extension of that commitment, which also is exhibited in our expansive collection of Victorian art, as well as our celebrated artist-in-residence program.”

The person chosen for the position will be replacing current narrator, Julie Ferris. She has been blogging from the hotel since November 2010. Her stories can be found at

The idea of having the opportunity to share the tales and experiences of people as they wondered and wandered through Milwaukee’s historic Pfister Hotel appealed to me in many ways,” explains Ferris. “The idea of capturing in words the experiences of people breathes life into not simply the hotel, but the city as well.”

The Pfister Narrator will work a minimum of 10 hours per week over the course of a six-month period and will publish a minimum of two blog posts per week. In return he or she will receive his or her choice of a $1,000 monthly stipend, scholarship for continuing education or donation to a charity of his or her choice in his or her honor, in addition to complimentary parking and meals within the hotel’s cafeteria.

To be considered, applicants will need to submit an application form, current resume, 2-3 writing samples of recent work, a 200-word proposal, cover letter and two professional references to Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2011. The Pfister Narrator will take his or her post May 1, 2011, and will remain the hotel’s storyteller through October 2011.

A review panel will evaluate the applications and ultimately choose the Pfister Narrator. More information and the application form can be found at

Not So Lonesome at the Pfister

* Note: At the Pfister, we typically do not disclose the identity of entertainers who stay at the hotel. In this case, we’ve received express permission to do so.

There are many memories I have of my dad that keep me close to him.  Lonesome Dove, the character-driven cowboy novel I read at my dad’s direction, is one of my favorites. We were in love with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall’s perfect portrayals of the lead wranglers we’d befriended.

I thought of dad Thursday night in the Lobby Bar at the Pfister where I watched the crowd wind up for the weekend. The infamous Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) walked through. He embodied the same calm, calculating pace of his characters. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to me—he breathed life into a character that linked a teenage girl to her father at a time in life when daughters and fathers lose touch.

He ended up on a couch next to me and this man, who to me symbolizes so much, proceeded to discuss where to find a great steak (and to the Pfister’s credit, noted that Mason Street Grill was a top pick). I was mesmerized with this larger than life character living as a regular man—a patron waiting for his table.

More impressive was how we, the Milwaukee community, sitting in the lobby having our drinks, respected this legend. No one caused a stir. Many recognized Mr. Duvall, but most seemed to recognize him as a fellow client of the hotel, they were in good company and that was enough.

When I later told friends about the encounter, everyone had a connection to the actor. A best friend even explained the funeral of a grandfather buried with the Lonesome Dove VHS.

I am thankful for the night’s education. I learned that there is a character to the Pfister and when you join the crowd, you become a part of making that character real. It’s a classy character, one who observes but doesn’t disturb. It’s a character who knows its value and merely nods politely to its parts.

My adventures with Mr. Duvall and his group also confirmed for me that everyone has an impact. The retelling of the tale affected so many close to me that it reminded me how important we are to one another—and we often underestimate that. You can never fully realize how much meaning you have as you pass through and I am fortunate to have been there to capture it.

Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator

The Pfister Hotel is proud to introduce Julie Ferris as our first-ever Pfister Narrator. Julie is a wonderful talent and we are glad to have her capture some of the wonderful stories that take place within our hotel each day. So if you see Julie in the lobby, search please say hi and start up a conversation. Julie will be posting her stories on the Pfister blog twice-per-week over the next six-months. Check back often and see what exciting and unique experiences she shares with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.

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Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.