The storytelling magic of Out of the Loop: a look behind the curtain

Wondering how our show comes together—and what you might have missed? Our storytelling director Jane Neal has you covered.

Photography by Jamie Maldonado

For over a decade, I have been under the spell of nationally renowned storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgment, keeping them rolling in a steady stream on my podcasts. I say spell because to me, stories are magical. I’ve gotten involved with live storytelling here in Tyler over the last few years, first at Robert E. Lee High School and now citywide with The Tyler Loop, and I continue to be mesmerized.

This past weekend at Liberty Hall, I was delighted to present Out of the Loop: True Stories about Life in Tyler and East Texas. I want to walk you through a story of my own—a story about finding other people’s stories—and tell you more about how the magic comes together behind the red curtain.

The journey toward this past weekend’s show began in April of this year, the same month we debuted our first-ever smash-hit storytelling show in Tyler. Everywhere I went in Tyler, I started keeping my eyes and ears open for our next batch of prospective storytellers: in conversations with friends, at work, in line at the grocery store, gas station and coffee shop. I called friends at community organizations around town, asking for ideas. The emails and phone calls started coming in, and connections began to spark.

Here are some of the people who bravely stepped forward and told me they’d like to tell me their story.

Mike Guinn

A poet and entertainer named Mike Guinn, who has organized popular spoken word performances in East Texas, reached out to The Tyler Loop wanting to know more about our show. I knew Mike was a charismatic emcee with boundless stage presence, but could he craft a personal story?

Mike told me about growing up in Jacksonville and overcoming childhood traumas through an unexpected new hobby: pole vaulting. Mike’s words transported me to his world growing up. He recounted sitting on the couch with his brothers, watching Good Times over popcorn and Kool-Aid; soul food Saturdays at Aunt Melvin’s restaurant; and swimming in Lake Jacksonville.

He also talked about a serious accident that left him badly scarred and self-conscious. How did he get from there to earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, becoming a CPS investigator, and falling in love with poetry and spoken word? I kept wanting to hear more, and Mike’s performance at Liberty Hall brought the house down.

Jennifer Toon

Jennifer Toon’s story is about how her memories of East Texas’s peaceful woods and waters brought her comfort during the nearly two decades she spent incarcerated in Texas state prison.

In June, I reached out to Toon, who had gotten in touch with the Loop interested in writing about her experiences. In a flurry of emails, we talked about her life in prison, and I also learned that Toon has studied French philosophers, from Voltaire to Rousseau to Camus. Toon is a survivor. She is also poetic, introspective, and uncannily attentive to life’s beauty.

At one meetup at the library, during the intense August heat, she told me that she recently had become dehydrated at work and passed out. She ended up in the emergency room. True to form, Toon interpreted the experience with deep, thoughtful reflection. “I came out of that crisis realizing that I have my whole life ahead of me, and so much to be grateful for. I can do it.”

What I love about Toon’s story is its raw and hard-won honesty. It is a product of the culmination of years of difficulty, growth, and processing.

John Bucher

Over the summer, something bordering on the supernatural happened. I was taking a bike ride on a Saturday morning while listening to a podcast called Ologies, which is all about “professional obsessions.” The guest on that episode was a successful writer of novels, comics, and film named John Bucher, who lives in Hollywood. He spoke with knowledge and insight about everything from the Greek myth of Cassandra to unicorns to Star Wars.

Just as I was crossing Mud Creek, off Grande, I heard him say these words: “I will never forget sitting in that little movie theater in Tyler, Texas…” Whah? Impossible! I stopped, backed up the podcast, and began listening more intently. I raced through Rose Rudman, got home, Googled his name, and found an email address. I composed a hasty letter explaining that we had this show coming up. “Do you want to come?” I asked.

Fast forward to November, and John—who enthusiastically said yes—took the stage at Liberty Hall to share his story about how Tyler’s people and places, and especially an old video rental store called Movies and Sounds, prepared him for a great career in Hollywood. It was John’s first time returning to East Texas in nearly 20 years!

While in Tyler, John had three food items on his checklist: Posados Café, Blue Bell ice cream and Whataburger. I had the privilege of helping fulfill two of them. We are so grateful that John made this big journey back to East Texas to share his words about the power of storytelling.

Josh Silva

Josh, a senior at Tyler Lee High School, told a story that’s a passionate plea for the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It was inspired by the short but beautiful life of his sister Alyssa, to whom he dedicated his performance.

Whenever I met Josh for rehearsal at school or Starbucks, he often had just a few minutes to spare. The first semester of his senior year, he juggled AP classes, SAT exams, college applications, and band. I was grateful he carved out time to be a storyteller.

While I know a good story when I hear it, I can’t always predict which storytellers will have major stage presence. It turns out Josh does, in spades. He knows how to tell an impactful, tug-on-your-heartstrings story. My favorite line from his story is, “Inclusion is getting asked to dance. And in Tyler, we are dancing.”

Maria Fajardo

Maria’s story took us to her hometown of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and to the memory of her first-ever Thanksgiving in Laneville, Texas many years ago.

When she first moved to Texas, Maria was enrolled in school at two grades lower than her age. There were no ESL classes. But Maria was a quick learner. She caught up to her grade within a year and went on to graduate as salutatorian from Laneville High School.

Maria glowed when she talked about her parents. She reveled in her mother’s ability to adapt to life in the United States and develop new skills. She beamed at her father’s risk-taking courage to move to a new country. Her story—packed with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet tea, pies and a jar of jalapenos—surely left everyone hungry and ready for the holidays ahead.

Karina Caywood

Karina’s story is a tale of empowerment, going from dependency and isolation to becoming an entrepreneur in charge of her finances and life decisions.

I met Karina over the phone just two days before our September table read. Her husband, Bowen, recommended her to me after I met him at a Women’s League of Voters event. Within minutes, I knew I had found a natural storyteller. She unfolded stories about her life in Ecuador and Venezuela, and her experience of moving to the United States.

One part of her story has always struck me: a scene where she is at home alone, the shades drawn, with only the TV for company. That isolation and loneliness is far too common, and resonates particularly with those removed from their home culture and language. Later in her story, Karina talks about taking a chance encounter and using it to become an entrepreneur, gaining new skills, newfound independence, and a new sense of belonging here in East Texas.

Shruti Patil

Shruti took us 9,000 miles east of Tyler, to her hometown of Hyderabad, India. Her story details how Tyler became her second home, thanks to friends-turned-family.

Like Maria’s story, Shruti has valued the holidays, rituals, and outings spent with her stateside family through East Texas staples, including Kiepersol vineyards, the Rose Festival, China King, and Tyler State Park.

Friday night after the show, my daughter, Rachel, found me with her friends in tow. Her friend Sara smiled shyly and said, “I am from Hyderabad, the same city as Shruti!” We immediately found Shruti in the lobby to share the news with her. This is something I love about Out of the Loop. I can never predict the connections the audience will make.

La’Tashiana Wade Washington

La’Tashiana’s story was shaped by three consecutive tragedies. She lost her mother, her infant son, and the father of her baby in the span of three short years.

When we met, I already knew parts of La’Tashiana’s story, thanks to Empowering Mothers: Improving Birth Outcomes, a marvelous series from the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Like Shruti and Maria, Tasha emphasized the importance of family support through traumatic experiences or difficult times—whether biological family or chosen. During Saturday’s show, Tasha leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m not ready to leave my Out of the Loop family.” On the spot, the two of us decided we would plan a reunion.

Tasha didn’t just communicate her personal experience of grief powerfully and clearly. She also allowed the events of her life to throw our community’s needs into stark relief. Tasha is responsible for opening my eyes to health concerns in Northeast Texas, particularly for Black Americans and especially Black women. Thanks to Tasha, I have learned startling statistics about infant mortality, heart disease, kidney disease, smoking rates, and a shortage of professional mental-health care in Northeast Texas. Tasha’s bold statement, “This is something that needs to change in East Texas,” gives me chills every time I hear it.

Tasneem Raja

Tasneem captivated the crowd with a five-part story that detailed her interest and investment in becoming a foster parent. The undertaking brought up personal questions about family, the special needs of foster children, and factors that land children in foster care in the first place. Ultimately, connecting with people in the world of fostering in Tyler brought her to a deeper understanding of the issues, and helped launch her into a new, upcoming chapter of life in California.

It was a little surreal to hear Tasneem—my co-worker, mentor and friend—switch hats and tell a personal and vulnerable story onstage. Her story was also shot through with important information about the state of foster care in Smith County. I came away wanting to know more. What is the correlation between opioid abuse and foster children? What is the correlation between poverty, race and foster children? What is the process to become a foster parent? How are children impacted by their experience in foster care? How do these experiences have lasting impacts on Smith County residents’ quality of life?

After the show, my daughter Rachel, remarked, “It was strange to see Tasneem as a storyteller, sharing such personal information.” She paused and added, “I wish all of our leaders would have the guts to do that.”

But Tasneem is not every leader. She is a visionary, modeling to Tyler and East Texas new ways of thinking, new questions to ask, and new ways to be in relationship with your neighbors and community.

Musical Performances

Stories are a language of their own, and so is music. The John Tyler High School Choir, led by Nancy Caraway, along with the band Gypsum & The Travelers, reached into our hearts and uplifted the audience, cast, and crew. The choir’s opening song, John Lennon’s Imagine, set an emotional, heartfelt tone. A Loop fan in the audience emailed me, “I was in tears by the end of the opening song.”

And the indie-punk band Gypsum had us breaking out in an impromptu dance party backstage with their original number, Tailor, featuring a contagious, joyful violin solo by the band’s leader, Jewel Kirkendoll.

Throughout the show, the languages of stories and music melded, thanks to guitarist Josh Brock. Josh provided just the right notes to elevate the content of the stories.

Our Tyler and East Texas Audience

Out of the Loop is a dialogue. Storytellers need an audience. While our cast and crew could have run a flawless program, the show depends on the attendance and reaction of our East Texas friends and neighbors in the seats. Their presence—bodily, mental and emotional—matters. Backstage, I often found myself standing on tiptoe, listening for oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

I reveled in the wild applause that erupted when Mike mentioned that Auntie Melvin, the Jacksonville soul-food restaurant owner, turns 105 years old this year. Every time I heard a groan of shock or a sigh of delight, I knew that the magic had happened: a connection was made. East Texas spoke to and heard from each other.

My daughter, Rachel, shared her theory of a receptive audience with me: “I think the people who like the show the most are the ones who hear themselves in the stories. It’s for people who have felt unheard and unseen. When they see their lives in a story, it’s like validation.”

And true to our small-world East Texas community, the connections continued backstage and in the lobby. Tasha, the storyteller, and Conner, a member of the band Gypsum, discovered they attended John Tyler High School during the same years. Nancy Caraway, the choir director, accepted the offer to perform because Dreak Scott, a storyteller from our first show in April, was her student many years ago. Shruti and I are both in Leadership Tyler Class of 33, and we both hold jobs with City of Tyler. Jennifer Toon and Mike Guinn reminisced about catching crawfish as kids. And my favorite discovery after Saturday night’s show: a member of the audience, who is also friends with my husband, once dated John Bucher’s uncle!

It has been a delight to hear heartfelt responses from audience members in the days following the show. One of my favorites is a tweet from U.T. Tyler student Zoe McGhee. “Out of the Loop was a wildly inspiring, expressive and raw event that beautifully bridged real gaps in the Tyler community,” she wrote. “You’re killin’ it, @thetylerloop, seriously.”

I spent a short hour after Friday night’s show with a dear, former teaching colleague from Robert E. Lee High School, as well as a former student, who just graduated to become a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. “When Shruti described Tyler, I said to myself, ‘Wow, maybe Tyler really is special! Maybe I need to start opening my eyes to that!,’” they said. Their impressions had me walking on air as I made my way to Fair Plaza parking garage, feeling exhilarated and exhausted.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.