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A 'life-changing' experience for $6: Vancouver Story Slam celebrates 20 years

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Out of all the tales that have been told at the Vancouver Story Slam over the past 20 years, the most romantic to emerge from the event may be the one shared by the hosts.

Susan Cormier, a Métis writer with a fashion style as revered as her prose, recalls meeting Bryant Ross at the competition back in 2006.

“You could say that Bryant and I were rivals, not necessarily enemies, but we were both gunning for the championship,” Cormier explains.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s a beautiful woman—but way out of my league,’” adds Ross, a burly storyteller who recently retired from a 41-year firefighting career.

Their rivalry eventually blossomed into a romance, and when the couple learned the event was at risk of ending in 2015, due to a lack of hosts, they stepped in and saved the day.

“We said, ‘Oh heck no,’" says Cormier. “We had a bigger vision for the show.”

On the second Thursday of every month, the couple drives from their Langley home to Hero’s Welcome on Main Street, the long-time venue of the Vancouver Story Slam.

It only costs $6 to attend, and no experience is needed to sign up to compete; you just need to tell an original story between four and six minutes long.

“Any story outside these times will be disqualified—and we are merciless,” Ross reminds participants and attendees each month during his routine, pre-show introduction.

Three winners are picked by audience vote, and the prizes range from cold-hard cash to a bagged lunch, packed by the hosts.

At the end of the year, the 10 storytellers who have racked up the most points compete for a Stanley Cup-sized trophy in the championship show.

'A story to tell'

Stand-up comedian and hairstylist Soo Jeong has won that trophy twice.

Her first winning story in 2019 was about a time she went snorkeling, despite not knowing how to swim, and ended up feeding the fishes with her sea-sickness.

“I didn’t think anyone would care about my silly vomit story, but they did, it brought them laughter,” Jeong says.

“We all have a story or many stories to tell, but often you don’t feel like that’s your place until you see something like this."

Compared to the comedy world, Jeong finds the VSS audience more supportive and receptive.

“At the Story Slam, people are there to experience life with you,” she explains.

Community goes a long way

The hosts agree that the best thing about hosting the show is the community it’s fostered.

They love watching performers blossom on stage, and seeing strangers seated at the same table, only to return the next month as friends sharing a pizza.

“On a regular basis, we get an email from someone saying this show has changed their life,” says Ross.

Cormier says she feels blessed to be able to create a safe space where people feel welcomed and at home.

“In urban centres like this, having an event where you can get up and tell a story and be a part of a community is very important to our mental health, to our souls and to our creative expression,” she explains.

Big anniversary plans

While the annual championships typically take place at the Rio Theatre, a 420-seat venue that sells out each year, Cormier and Ross have bigger dreams for the 20th anniversary.

They’ve booked out The Vogue, which has triple capacity.

The competition’s co-founder, Sean McGarragle, is astounded by its evolution.

“You have to understand, we just wanted to build a little community initially, something that was a way for all of us to feel good, appreciated, heard and also exchange stories,” says McGarragle.

When he and his friend, Johnny Frem Dixom, first launched the event in 2004, it took place in the defunct Mount Pleasant café Our Town, which can host up to 40 people.

Today, the Vancouver Story Slam is believed to be the longest-running event of its kind in Canada.

Despite its immense growth, the slam community feels like a close-knit family to McGarragle.

“You come in here and you sort of feel like you’re coming to Sunday dinner,” McGarragle says, seated in a packed Hero’s Welcome ahead of February’s slam.

“It’s almost like this show has become sort of a Linus blanket for all of us.”

Tickets to the 2024 finals are available online for $20. To catch one of the regular shows, head to Hero’s Welcome on March 14 with $6 in cash—and maybe even a story. 

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