Erin Petersen

Exploring Milwaukee with Ex Fabula

By - May 27th, 2011 04:00 am
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Leah Delaney watches on during an Ex Fabula event. Photo by Brian Jacobson

I met first Leah Delaney in the fall of 2009 when I was freelancing for this up-and-coming daily site and she was working to form a small, traveling storytelling group in Milwaukee.

My, how things have changed since then.

In just under two years, Ex Fabula (a collaboration with Megan McGee, Amy Allen Schleicher, Matt Sabljak, Adam Weise and Delaney) has grown by leaps and bounds, garnering a faithful following that’s known to pack any venue from corner taverns to grand ballrooms. It all began with a fairly simple idea: to bring real-life stories from real-life Milwaukeeans to the stage. From the inaugural (and jam-flippin-packed) event at Art Bar, it was clear that Ex Fabula had scratched an itch for Milwaukee.

Tom Crawford at Ex Fabula’s “Busted”. Photo by Kat Berger.

With their end-of-season All Stars event at Turner Hall next Thursday, Ex-Fabula will embark on an entirely new project aimed at giving voice to many colorful neighborhoods of Milwaukee.

“The Terminal Milwaukee project is a seven-event storytelling series where we’re going to different diverse neighborhoods in Milwaukee,” says Delaney. In each area, Ex Fabula will invite members of the community to join and share their stories from that particular neighbhorhood. “Each event will feature the ‘Terminal Milwaukeean’, Tom Crawford.”

While the story of how WMSE’s Station Manager first ventured into storytelling via Ex Fabula is slightly nebulous, one thing is clear: when Tom tells a story, people listen. Whether it’s a yarn about working as a longshoreman on Jones Island, or a tale of one particularly terrifying grade school teacher, Crawford’s personal narratives are at once humorous and visceral.

“There are many reasons why this is [project] a good thing to do, one being that Tom Crawford is an amazing storyteller…people are just glued to him,” says Delaney.

While the official kick-off for Terminal Milwaukee takes place next Thursday at Turner Hall, the first event in the series happens at Club Garibaldi in late July. Other venues include Satin Wave, a barber shop on 64th and Fond du Lac (“Tom’s father was a barber,” Delaney tells me), a coffee shop in Sherman Park, Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall , an intimate live broadcast from WMSE studios, all culminating with a grand finale at Alverno Presents next April. And what a finale it will be — Delaney tells me that Crawford will invite all of his favorite Milwaukee bands to perform that night.

Each of these places holds some special significance in the ongoing life story of Tom Crawford, and also in the cultural landscape of Milwaukee. “There’s a lot of history in some of these places,” says Delaney. “Following Tom as he goes through different neighborhoods where he grew up is not only a great way to hear his stories, but also those from community members that often go unheard.”

She says that the group is currently working with neighborhood associations and businesses to make connections with area residents so that people from the community can also share their stores. Local historian John Gurda will also participate, opening each event with small vignettes into the history of each venue and its surrounding community.

“I think certain generations get attached to ‘hip’ areas of town and never quite venture out beyond them,” Delaney says, amid anecdotes about the affable owner of Satin Wave, or the regular meetings of the Garibaldi Society.

“I also think Milwaukee has this habit of really underselling itself… but you know what? This place is wonderful. And the only way to spread that mentality is to bring awareness to the community, and what better way than through storytelling?”

The nearly year-long series was made possible by a recent grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Ideas for the Terminal Milwaukee started to take shape in late December and, recognizing the scope of the project, the group immediately got to work applying for grants (they are also in the process of obtaining 501(c)3 status). Ex Fabula members Amy Schleicher and Megan McGee crafted the proposal for WHC, and the group recieved the full $10,000 award for their project.

“The Wisconsin Humanities Project coincides with exactly what we want to do…it’s a perfect marriage for what they want and what we have to offer Milwaukee. It seemed like an obvious choice,” says Delaney.

A portion of that funding allowed Ex Fabula to hire High Frequency Media, a talented duo of local filmmakers, to film each event. After the finale, that footage will be used to created a documentary of sorts. “What we do with that [footage] remains to be seen.” Delaney says.

Find out for yourself at Ex Fabula All Stars: Secrets and Lies on Thursday, June 2 at Turner Hall Ballroom. The Terminal Milwaukeean himself will be there in the flesh. For more information, click here.

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