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‘You look at your life differently’ – Chicago Tribune

A crowd gathers around the stage at one of downtown Naperville’s many bars. The atmosphere is buzzing as the anticipation grows among the performers.

But this is no ordinary performance. There will be no singing, music or joke telling this Thursday evening. Instead, the audience will be treated to a range of unique stories, linked together by a topic, separated by the individuals who are telling them.

The People Tree has been encouraging people to share their tales since 2016. Now that the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, they’re back in business again, producing nine shows a year at Empire Burgers + Brew.

It’s the brainchild of Naperville marketer Rachna Prasad, who was inspired by a love of community connection and the long-running NPR program, “The Moth,” which runs a live storytelling competition.

She explains the events that led to the group’s first informal meeting.

“I was volunteering here with a nonprofit in India,” said Prasad, to an enthusiastic storyteller herself. “The villagers wanted a well and we gave them money. We found out that the women would walk 12 kilometers and back to the well every day. It was time away from the men and their children. They wanted to walk to connect with other women.”

On Mother’s Day, 2015, a tragedy pushed Prasad to reach out to women she barely knew in her Naperville subdivision.

“A woman in my neighborhood committed suicide and I felt the need to be with other women, so I sent an email to some women I didn’t know so well inviting them to come and tell stories,” she said. “Throughout time women have gathered to quilt, bake, to be a part of book clubs. We know we need this help for our hearts and our souls.”

When the group grew larger, they started meeting at the martini bar Two-Nine above Potter’s Place on Jefferson Avenue. The name The People Tree came from two things dear to Prasad’s heart – her local neighborhood, which has many streets named for trees, and a link to India.

“In India we use a banyan tree as a place to meet,” she said. “It has a huge canopy with no vegetation underneath. In villages people sit underneath them to gather and tell stories.”

The organization doesn’t just provide a place for people to share their stories, it provides mentoring.

“It’s not theater but a monologue, it’s intimate,” Prasad said. Storytellers aren’t allowed to preach or sell anything, and all stories have to show some level of growth, she said.

Lisa Hillman, a member of The People Tree, tells a story during a program at Empire Burgers + Brew in downtown Naperville.  The process of proposing a story idea to performing it onstage can take as long as three months, members say.

“I truly believe it’s a gift between people, people want to be seen,” she said. “It’s a gift to share and have someone else hear what you have to say.

“We offer one-on-one mentoring, amplifying suggestions. There’s also special peer-to-peer mentoring. We’re all in the same boat. You’ll be learning from five or six storytellers. Working together builds a micro community.”

There are several ways storytellers can be added to the program. Anyone wanting to try out can complete an online application on The People Tree’s website. Producer Erica Katz says that’s just the beginning.

“We start with mentoring,” she said. “Each applicant is given to a team member. They’ll help them to either write more or bring it down to about seven minutes. That seems to be the sweet spot to keep listeners engaged. It’s like ‘Sesame Street’ for adults.”

Mentoring sessions will encompass two workshops, but the first thing potential storytellers have to do is to see a show, which shows them exactly what’s expected of them.

“You get input from us and fellow tellers,” Katz said. “One of the single most important things is connection. Think of something to say and what message you want to give. It sounds grandiose but it’s very simple. Everyone has something to share.

“On average (the process from application to stage) takes three months. Stories have to be personal. We teach people that anecdotes are different to stories and that’s how we can help you prepare.”

Along with fellow producers Claire Dee and Simi Krishnan, the team hopes their next chapter will be turning The People Tree into a nonprofit. This will allow them to take their program to other groups, like teens and the elderly, who cannot necessarily attend performances.

“My daughter has already helped begin a group called Sprout for teens,” Katz said. “They wanted their voices heard so one of my dreams is to help them grow.”

Telling a story is very empowering, she said.

“We’re all on the same page,” Katz said. “We’re people who want to talk to each other. It’s really wonderful to be part of it, it’s about raising each other up.”

Prasad says there are unexpected benefits too.

“You look at your life differently,” she said. “It’s an enriching skill to have you see the stories of your life. Your brain stores memories it thinks are important, but when you talk about it they get filed differently. Many people love it and do it again, it’s our conduit for community building.”

The next People Tree event will be “Memories,” which is scheduled for 7:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 19, at Empire Burgers + Brew, 48 W. Chicago Ave. For tickets and more information, go to www.thepeopletree.org.

Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007.

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