For Sean Daniels, one of the co-curators of Boudin, a storytelling and theater project organized by Southern Repertory Theatre and WWOZ-FM, few phrases are as sacred as "Me too."
"Whenever we hear the stories of other people, we have amazing amounts of empathy and excitement for them," says Daniels, artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. He conceived of the New Orleans music-oriented project 18 months ago with Southern Rep Artistic Director Aimee Hayes. Daniels, Hayes and actor and lighting designer Matt Callahan are curating stories that result from asking locals a single question: "How has New Orleans music saved your soul?"
A team of story collectors (the Boudin "Story Krewe," which includes Claire Bangser of NOLAbeings, Jon Greene, Marie Lovejoy and Greg Speck) have been gathering stories using a variety of platforms — audio voice recordings, voicemails, emails, written stories, photography and film — and with the best of them Hayes, Daniels and Callahan will create a play, which will run from April 15 to May 17. The production is timed to coincide with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a sponsor of the project. The play's location has yet to be decided.
Some of the stories represented onstage will be longer and more intricate and wind their way through the entire 90-minute production, interrupted by small snippets of other shorter, less dramatic narratives, Daniels says.
"We found this one gentleman who had an amazing stutter problem before he discovered Louis Prima," he says. "And once he discovered Louis Prima and he learned that he didn't have to follow all the rules and he could, in his brain, sing the words before he would speak them, he was able to conquer this stut- tering problem. ... That might be one of the things that runs all the way through.
"At the same time ... somebody had this funny story about a time they got drunk in a tent with Keith Richards (guitarist for The Rolling Stones). We'll combine some of these bigger stories that we follow all the way through with some of the episodes along the way."
After the cast acts out each story, a live band will play the song or the music of the artist who inspired it. Daniels says the same band will perform each night, though Boudin also will invite local guest musicians onstage to join in.
A project of Boudin's magnitude is about the process as much as the product, Daniels says. That's why the show will accept story submissions until the play's opening night and already has started producing film, audio and written versions of stories on its website (www.boudinmusicproject.com).
The stories already posted on Boudin's website are a lot like the sausage for which the project is named: dotted with a little bit of everything and wrapped in a tight package. In one, a man in a cranberry blazer sits on a porch and says that even though he's tone-deaf, zydeco music lifts his spirits. A Treme woman says she still feels Uncle Lionel Batiste's presence everywhere, although he died in 2012. A man named Matthew writes: "New Orleans stuffs you with soul like it stuffs a fish: slathers sticky chunks of it all over you and lets it sink in."
There is still time to submit a story or request to be interviewed and have your story filmed or recorded. Organizers say they want to hear from people of all walks of life.
"Everybody knows the person who has that great story, so if you're just out with them and you're like, 'Just take two minutes and tell me that story' and send it in, that will work," Daniels says.
"If you have a story and you want to share it, we'll come to you and take it down. You don't have to type it out yourself. ... You can do it on your phone. ... It's all about collecting what the stories are and making it as easy as possible for people."
Daniels has done similar storytelling- turned-theater pieces in the past, and he was inspired when Hayes told him she wanted to put together a show saluting New Orleans spirit and music and celebrating the culture it creates. At first the two wondered whether they could find enough stories to put together a play, but within seconds of starting the project, Daniels says, it became clear "there were about three shows' worth of material."
As for how they chose the question to inspire contributions, Daniels says the team wanted to find something that made people think about the impact of music in a deeper way.
"I think music is actually a very spiritual experience," he says. "You're kind of transcended to somewhere else when you're listening to it, especially when you're doing it in a sort of group setting, when everyone is singing along together and everyone's a little bit larger than themselves. ... To have a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, you kind of need more self-reflection and something a little more compelling about those times when music has really lifted you up."
Boudin also is generating visual art to help tell stories. At the 2014 Treme Creole Gumbo Festival in November, the Story Krewe set up a chalkboard and let passersby write simple, one-sentence responses to its question.
The art of first-person storytelling is riding a wave of popularity both nationally and locally. Serial, a spinoff of WBEZ in Chicago's This American Life public radio program, launched a few months ago telling a serialized true-crime story over the course of 12 episodes. It became the most downloaded podcast in history and inspired a Saturday Night Live parody. In New Orleans, events like the now-defunct Shipwrecked, WWNO-FM's The Moth and its younger, less formal sibling, Bring Your Own, draw hundreds of people to listen to their peers tell true stories from their own lives.
"For some reason at this time, maybe everybody is trying to feel a little more connected to each other," Daniels says. "All of us want to feel like we are con- nected to something bigger than ourselves and not just kind of going through our lives in a small way."
That empathy, that "me too" moment, is something Daniels believes the stories collected by Boudin have the power to achieve.
"The thing about the stories we're collecting is that they're all slightly extraordinary in their own way, but I feel like everybody that listens to them is going to be like, 'That's not my story and that's not my father, but I have an exact story like that,' so that you can tap into it a little bit ... and you get excited," he says.
"With any good piece of theater, you're able to find yourself onstage and say, 'Oh, I've been there and I have made that same horrible mistake I'm watching you make right now.' Or, 'I wish I had done what you did.'"