Burning Man Storytelling Moves From the Fringes to the Main Stage

Check out more stories about the 2017 Global Leadership Conference.

I am in the Bedroom on a hot, humid summer afternoon in Washington, D.C. Although the city being built on a swamp is just an urban legend, it is days like this that make me question if it might actually be true. The windows are closed, and there are about sixty of us in a room around 800 square feet in floor space. And Ten Principles )'( — the new show I am hosting at the Capital Fringe Festival — is about to begin.

The Bedroom is a makeshift theatre space on the second floor of a building that is vacant for the other 11 months of the year as it waits to be reincarnated by a willing developer. It’s 2014, and I’m nervous because I had only just gone to Burning Man for the first time not even a year before, and I already wanted to give something back. I also wanted a chance for the community to celebrate our stories on stage. And in the mix, I had a desire for stories to be shared that might provide a glimpse of the personally transformative possibilities of Burning Man, something to combat the typically sensationalist media coverage, which constitutes the bulk of what many Washingtonians may think they know about the event.

Would they love it? Would they hate it? Would they find some kernel of a single story that would resonate with them? Would they find themselves completely disconnected from any of the stories shared on stage? These were questions I had not just about the non-Burners in the crowd, but the Burners as well.

But the show must go on, and I introduce myself and begin to tell the story about my names, from the full name I was born with to the one I was gifted at Playa Name Help. One by one, I would introduce each Burner to the stage, to share their story. One by one, each teller would receive their applause from the crowd. And one by one, the reviews would share their own experience of the show, from the general:

“Throughout Ten Principles, you do believe in the [event]’s collective power to bring people together to build a city and culture in the middle of a dessert if only to burn it down eight days later.”

Richard Barry, DC Theatre Scene

To the personal:

10 Principles )'( is so powerful and incomparable that I find myself wondering if I could also find home in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.”

— Vanessa Terzaghi, DC Metro Theater Arts

We would go on to sell out our final two performances at the festival, which was completely amazing. Many of the participants in the show were first-timers to the stage. And many in the audience came because they were curious to know and hear more about That Thing in the Desert. Even better than the applause would be the conversations audience and cast would have after the show, at the festival’s main tent and bar, because that’s the real power of art and storytelling in building community. Just listening to the questions and the other stories the show had inspired both audience and cast to share… well, it felt amazing. I would go on to produce a new iteration of the show each year at Capital Fringe. In addition to the annual production, I have also begun presenting quarterly one-night storytelling events, as well as teaching workshops at regional festivals.

Want some more Burning Man stories right the heck now? Check out Tales from the Playa.

At the 2017 Global Leadership Conference, storytelling came up multiple times in different forms. It popped up in a couple plenary sessions, from an in-depth look into the second annual Catharsis on the Mall to a sneak peek live reading from a book by Burning Man Storytelling Fellow and Black Rock City Superintendent Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet. One breakout session brought up storytelling as a way of “Measuring Impact Across the Network”, looking at how we capture not only necessary data but great stories, too.

I’m seeing Burning Man blossom as a storytelling culture, and I am ever-curious about how else storytelling has manifested itself in our global community. I’m hoping to connect with those who might fit into one of the two following categories: The first would be others are already doing storytelling, on playa or off. The second would be those who would like to do more storytelling in some form in their own community.

The Story Portal immediately comes to mind as an example of the former, especially poignant for me since I heard about it and then finally came across it during my first Burn. I’d like to see who’s doing what around the world and create a Burner storytelling network. It could be a resource for Burners interested in knowing and doing more with storytelling in their own region.

Want to be a part of it? Let me know in the comments.

Top photo: Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet reading at the 2017 GLC (Photo by Chuck Revell)

About the author: JR "Nexus" Russ


Nexus (he/him/his) was born and raised in the traditional territory of the Pamunkey and the Piscataway, part of which many of us now call Washington, DC. He is a queer cisgender man, who practices ethical non-monogamy. He received his B.A. in dance from the University of Maryland, College Park, and went on to American University for his M.A. in Arts Management. He is devoted to the District’s creative community, including volunteering as a board member on local performing arts organizations. He is passionate about building community through the arts, and unpacking issues around diversity and equity. One way in which this has manifested has been an ongoing storytelling project, providing DC Burners opportunities to tell true stories on stage throughout Washington. Beginning in 2014, this project now has a year round presence with seasonal performances and workshops at local and regional events. Nexus is particularly dedicated to naming whiteness and dismantling white supremacy in all his endeavors. He currently also volunteers with Burning Man as one of the five Regional Contacts for Washington, DC.

15 Comments on “Burning Man Storytelling Moves From the Fringes to the Main Stage

  • Pollinator says:

    Burning Man is a culture, and how is culture transmitted from generation to generation? Through our storytelling as humans..

    I am all in support of encouraging more outlets, experiments and gatherings where we share our stories. As a burner who is 35 years old now, I would personally love to hear more stories from those that been going since the 90’s (if they are willing, maybe some don’t warrant a repeat ha)

    Burning Man is over 30 now…Some of our “elders” are passing more than ever it seems, and so let’s honor our culture and pass these stories to the generations to come… Thanks

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    • Nexus says:

      Thank you for sharing, Pollinator! I’ve gotta say, hearing more stories from our elders is definitely a theme that continues coming up consistently. In my own work on a nonprofit board of a storytelling organization in the District, having had our office and workshop space move into a new neighborhood that has both residents that have been there for decades and some that have only been there for a few years (particularly because of new development), local representatives have brought up not just this desire, but a need to hear and preserve our elders’ stories. I will certainly endeavor to do more of this with the Burner storytelling project as well.

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  • As a Cause-Focused Storyteller and Burner who seeks to use the power of story to break stereotypes and build bridges and who’s performed in Fringe and festivals wold wide including as the 1st American in Iran, I’m super enthused to be part of the network and a resource for others too. Let’s keep this coversation going!♡

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  • Newbie says:

    Yes to sharing stories about the human condition. Yes to supporting those who are discovering there is another way. Sign me up!

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  • don howard says:

    do you post art from other artists. i cannot afford to take mine anywhere [ disability does not cover main expenses ] i have a couple of large sculptures that have been in major magazine articles

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  • Rex says:

    Hi Nexus

    Storytelling is the heart of the Accuracy Third podcast (as featured right here in the Journal, thanks Jon!) We feel as you do, that only personal narratives can fully convey what this unique experience we create for ourselves in the desert is like. I’d love to chat about how we might collaborate to get our stories shared.

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  • Sassy says:

    Love this idea. I would love to learn more. :)

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  • Nexus says:

    Hey everyone! So three things I wanted to share:

    1) If you’re curious, here’s a playlist of stories DC Burners shared at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival.

    2) If you’re on Facebook and want to connect/discuss/network in any capacity, join this group: fb.com/groups/BurnerStorytellingNetwork

    3) If you’d like to contact me, email me at a.way.of.life.0@gmail.com.

    Oh yes, and if you’re going to be on Playa this year, stop by Center Camp for a storytelling show with me and other Burners from DC on Wednesday, from 2 to 2:45!

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