by Weenta Girmay

Online radio program What What Why brings together stories of Pittsburgh’s young and old, exploring where the two populations’ desires, interests and voices meet. Creator Margaret Krauss sat down with us for an interview recently to discuss her inspiration for the show and even offer a little advice for other aspiring storytellers.

What inspired you to start the online radio program What What Why?

I had written a piece for the (co-working space) The Beauty Shoppe almost a year ago about Pittsburgh’s Banjo Night. Their hypothesis was that you have this large group of older people and this large group of younger people and this space in between where there isn’t that much going on. That just got me thinking about the demographics in Pittsburgh and what that might mean on a day-to-day basis for interactions and social fabric and cultural capital. The idea sort of fermented and then my grandma passed away.

All of it together made me realize that the older people in Pittsburgh were kind of like books that I’d never read and I could if I wanted to. There’s all these things to learn but first I had to ask, “Hey, what do you know that I don’t know?”

Society seems to say to older people, “We don’t need you, you don’t have anything to contribute anymore,” and based on the older people that I had met in my life, I thought: that can’t be true.

So you’re interested in bridging that gap between those two age groups?

I don’t know that I am bridging it, so I guess a more humble semantic change would be “exploring that gap.” Is it real? Is it something that you can say exists, and if so, what is it, and why?

Is that where the title What What Why came from?

Yeah, it’s kind of the way I think about stories when I’m by myself. For me it’s kind of a narrowing process: What is this story, what is it really, and why is it that way?

What inspires each episode?

I’m looking for specific meeting points in society where older and younger have something to share with one another.

Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover

Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover

How do you bring those young and older voices together?

I think some of bringing older and younger voices together is just to demonstrate to listeners that the two groups are not that different in terms of what they care about. Core things. Like being interested in the world around them, or their family, or their friends, or being nervous about what they’re doing.

[One of my subjects] Claudia Kraft worked in a lab, like lots of PhD students do, with rats. Lots of rats. And it smelled like a zoo. Several people have written to me to say they found that so funny. So while her experience of the world is necessarily different, people can identify with that feeling of doing work you don’t want to do so you can get somewhere you want to go.

What’s been your favorite episode of the show so far?

“The Raging Grannies.” For me that episode epitomizes why trying to pigeonhole older people is sort of farcical because these ladies are very unique, they’re just like us, they’re just older. They’re out protesting and being scrappy. I think it’s important to realize why people are never really what we think they might be or should be.

You have a series of storytelling workshops you’ve created. What’s on the workshop agenda?

The idea is the first week to tell a story on this theme “Coming of Age.” We’re going to brainstorm some story kernel ideas, hear a story, talk about the structure. For the next week, we’ll have participants choose a story kernel and then tease that into the beginnings of a story, and then so on and so forth for weeks three and four, until we end up with 5-7 minute finished stories.

If you use a space at the Carnegie Library, which I’m doing, the event has to be open to the public. I conceived the workshop as a four-week workshop that’s cumulative. I have repeat offenders, people that know they want to come every Wednesday for four weeks, but I might also get drop-ins, in which case that should be interesting.

I found a video of the story you told at SpeakeasyDC. You seemed like you knew exactly what you were going to say. It made me wonder: How much of storytelling is in the rehearsal and how much of it is off-the-cuff?

I think there’s value in both models. I’m partial to at least a somewhat rehearsed story. If the storyteller has thought about what something means then it’s imbued with a lot more depth, even if it’s not a serious story. For instance, the story you saw me tell is very rehearsed. The language was somewhat different than the story I had written down, but for the most part, I know exactly where I’m going. I think you could argue that’s good, that’s most performance. We don’t go to see movies that are unedited. But it’s probably lacking that raw connectivity you get from improv. I would love to get to the point where I’m so rehearsed that I can make it feel like it’s impromptu, but that really, it’s uber over-rehearsed.

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover

Telling your story to a group of strangers is a scary thing. What are people most afraid of?

I think it is scary. It’s nerve-wracking because first of all those stories can be super personal, and second of all, it’s just standing in front of a group of people you don’t know and telling them anything, really.

I think it’s also scary to be human. You have to tell people what you’re about or what you’re not about. Or if you don’t, you have to figure out why you didn’t. It’s just a slightly more formalized version of something that we do all the time. By investing in the process, you kind of take control. You’re being more conscious about the things that you do as a human every day.

People who are interested in this workshop, it’s a barrier that they’re willing to jump over because the return is so much greater than the fear.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for would-be storytellers?

This is going to sound really trite, but honesty. Trying to figure out what it is you are really saying. I think it’s easier to listen to other people and tell what they’re really saying but to tell a story, a good story, requires that you be honest first with yourself. That weird pull is what the story is. When you go in there, I think you figure out what’s going on.

It’s possible to tell a good story that isn’t that meaningful, it’s very easy. The thing Lee Gutkind (past professor at Pitt, founder of the literary magazine “Creative Nonfiction”) said to me over and over and over again is, “the story you tell determines the information you provide.” It didn’t really make sense to me, but now, I would phrase that as: one event could be any number of stories. Part of storytelling could be construed as make-believe because you’re citing what the meaning is of this one event, and it could mean so many different things. You have to try to figure out what it actually means to you, where you are. Not what you think people will think you’re really cool for thinking and not the part, not what seems the most convenient or pat. If you go to the part that makes you uncomfortable, that’s probably true.

You can hear these and other stories at a live storytelling performance hosted by What What Why on Wednesday, July 23 from 7 – 9 pm at The Beauty Shoppe, a co-working space located at 6101 Penn Avenue in East Liberty. Find more details and RSVP on Facebook.