Having performed in a Testify show, I knew that the producers worked very thoughtfully and collaboratively with performers in the weeks leading up to the show. I wanted to discuss this process with someone who had gone through that process on what that experience was like. Kate Caldwell, one of the producers of Testify, introduced me to the Sarah Rodriguez Pratt, who was the first storyteller in the very first Testify show ever.
Sarah Rodriguez Pratt is a writer and editor based in Austin. Originally from McAllen, Texas, she has a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a master’s degree in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to being the first person to ever speak at Testify, she is the author of Choose Your Weapon, a young adult fantasy novel that won glowing praise from readers and critics alike; and Plan Your Attack, her highly anticipated second book, which continues her exciting YA trilogy about a dragon-fighting Latina heroine. You can read about her adventures in writing and beyond on her blog at ThatsAGirlsCar, and you can follow her on Twitter at @ThatsAGirlsCar.
Austin Storytelling: So, you were in the first Testify show ever. How did you get involved with that? Had you done storytelling shows before?
SRP: I had not. Erin Feil [one of the producers of Testify] and I had known each other for over a decade at this point. Probably about a decade. And she sent me a Facebook message saying, “Hey, I’m going to be doing this, um, my friends and are starting this show, and I think you’d be a really great addition to it. I know that you’ve self published a book recently, and that that was a huge part of your life for a long time. Would you like to talk about it? And she also brought up the fact that I’m from McAllen, and I went to Harvard, which was this huge culture shock. She was, like, so somewhere between all of this there’s a story, and I think you’d be a great fit for it.
So, I put together a story, and I presented it to them. And they really liked it, and then, I said, “I’ll go first if you want.” And they let me, and it was just one of those rare moments of great courage that I’m really glad I went with because if someone asked me today, I don’t know if I’d agree to be the first ever person to speak at this event, and, you know, just blaze that trail, but I’m certainly glad that I did it. So, that’s basically how I got involved. I’d known Erin for a while, and she knows I can tell a good story at a party.
ME: Cool. What was the theme for your first show? Do you remember?
SRP: It was some sort of variety of new beginnings [According to a Testify producer, the theme was Creation] because I talked about creating my book. The woman after me talked about the birth of her second child. Another person talked about his experience in the foster care system, and sort of, getting out of that, and, you know, trying to have an adult life with this really challenging experience in his background. A good friend of mine talked about what it was like to be at the capitol during the Senate bill, you know, the anti-choice bill on legislation. She was one of the people who was really involved in getting all that together, so it was something to do with new beginnings, I think.
AS: So, can you take us through the process, um, once you were asked and you said you would do it. Like, do you remember how you put together your pitch or do you remember what you pitch was like? How did you decide what story you wanted to tell? How did you, kind of, shape it?
SPR: Sure, sure. Erin sort of offered a lot of suggestions. I took those and, I think, condensed it into a few lines of like, “I could talk about this and then this and then this.” She said, “That sounds great.” And then I just started writing, you know. I’m a writer by trade. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Then, I read it out loud and realized it was going to be, like, an hour, so I had to start cutting. From there it was just a matter of trimming. For me, it was never a matter of “I need more material.” It was like, “How do I take what I have and shave off bits so it will fit in this time frame and still all make sense.” And it all does come around full circle. I didn’t want it to be linear; I wanted it to be circular. So, that’s what I did, and I read it a lot for my now ex-husband and got feedback on what was interesting, what wasn’t. Unfortunately, of course, a lot of the stuff I cut was stuff that he said, “Oh, that’s great! You should keep that in!” But, you know, again, it’s very limited time.
And I knew that even though I talk very fast, on stage I would be going a little bit slower. There would be random moments where people laughed where I didn’t expect them to laugh, which did happen. What I did not expect was that I would forget part of my story because I changed it at the last minute. There was one section, where I thought, “Oh, that should go over here instead because that makes more sense.” It was a little bit out of the time frame, and I’d written down three lines on my wrist that I thought I would forget, and it was none of them! So, there’s this great moment near the end of my first presentation, where I look at my wrist, and then I just look off into space for a minute, and then, I just keep going and I get back on track, thankfully. But, yeah, I did not anticipate that.
AS: So, this is interesting to me. I didn’t write this down, but, to prepare for this storytelling show, you wrote something first and then…
SPR: Then I just read it over and over again, and I don’t know if I would recommend that because I do worry sometimes that it sounded a little bit too rehearsed, but I think, for me at least, it’s really important to know what’s coming next and to have an idea, and not just a vague idea of the point I want to make but the exact way I want to phrase it. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a perfectionist or because I’m a writer, but because unless I’m just having a total brain fart moment and not remembering what’s coming next, every line in my show is specific. And I do try to present it, especially the last one, I tried to present in a more conversational, colloquial way as opposed to this very specific monologue that I was delivering. The second and third one I did try to be more casual with, but, yeah, for me it’s important to write it all down, have the bullet points, and know how exactly I want to phrase something because my greatest fear is being on stage, and then saying, “No, that’s not what I meant to say!”
AS: That’s really interesting to me. And I think there is a balance between, like, practicing it enough that you feel comfortable telling it and practicing it so much that it feels…like, it’s not fresh any more. And that’s a hard thing to do in a show like that.
SRP: I have to feel at some level I’m on autopilot because I don’t want to go off on a tangent that, to me, is not as important as the rest of the story. All of the stories that I’ve told so far happened over a long period of time. It’s not, like, one event. It’s not one evening. So, my first show was about my book, which was a two and a half, three year process, and again, I went back to high school because I’m from McAllen. I went to kind of a tough high school. I remember distinctly talking about my high school English seminar [at Harvard], where people were talking about Foucault, Descartes, post modernism, and I was thinking, “I went to a high school where a security guard got knifed with a beer bottle after first period one day, so, you know, I don’t know who Foucault is, but I dare any of you all to get through that.” So, you know, I started with high school and then went up through going to college and being too afraid to write fiction for 10 years and then, eventually, writing my book. And then, that internal struggle of “Oh my gosh, is this good enough? Is my family going to accuse me of basing the family in my book after them?” And sort of struggling with the voice both in my head and of my mother—who’s been so supportive!—but, you know every girl will tell you that either she doesn’t care at all what her mother thinks or she’s secretly very, very concerned about it. And I was very, very concerned about it. So, you know, that story was a multi-year story, and I had a lot to say in a very short time.
My second story was about how I basically went from having my dream job to getting laid off, to being unemployed, to stumbling into the world of social services and emergency management just after Hurricane Katrina, and the crazy two years that followed and how I got married in the middle of all that, so that was also a really long story, and then this last one only happened over about a year and a half, but it was about the process of knowing my marriage was falling apart as I was getting really into bird feeding. And then, watching all the house finches get a very contagious disease that killed them all, so (laughs) there was a lot to say…
And I’ve seen people at Testify who tell a story about one evening or, you know, one small, like, that happens over only one night, and they’re fantastic. And I’ve seen people that I can tell are just sort of off the cuff. Like Erin at the last show, I thought she did a fantastic job being kind of off the cuff about her experience working for the John Kerry campaign, and that’s super great.
What I love about Testify is that they do have this wide variety of stories, of storytelling styles, but they all make them fascinating, you know? You never know what you’re going to get, but I know that whenever I go to the show, I’m going to come away with being… I don’t want to say entertained because that almost cheapens it, but feeling like moved and changed, and exposed to a totally different perspective that has made my life better, brighter, and more interesting.
ME: They should put that on a poster.
SRP: They should! I’m glad you got that on tape.
AS: I’m kind of interested because they have a very strict sort of time limit, so, um, what is your sort of process of figuring out how to fit it into…I think the max is 13 minutes, or they recommend about 11.
SRP: Yeah, it used to be about 15. What I do is I, like I said, I’m a rehearsal kind of person. I’ll do it over and over again with my phone timing myself, and, um, I try to keep track of how much the time goes up or down depending on what I add or take away. I always know, again, that there’s going to be…there are going to be pauses, and, especially this last time, I ended up talking a lot slower than I anticipated, and people laughed a lot more. This was my first show where I had literally never done it for another human being except for the producers, so I genuinely had no idea what to expect. I did not think that people would laugh at, uh, my, you know, funny little comments about things that—they’re not going to sound funny right now, but they were in the show, I assure you—like learning that Atlantic puffins are all dying out because the oceans are getting warmer, and the fish that the puffin parents feed their pufflings are dying out, so they’re starving, and so this… I freak out, and I tell my now ex-husband, “We have to save the puffins,” and this was my impetus for wanting a bird feeder for Christmas. He has to point out that a birdfeeder in northwest Austin is unlikely to attract Atlantic puffins. A lot of people laughed at that, and I was super excited because I did not think that what’s funny to me would be funny to the entire audience, but it WAS! And that was great because then, you know, I have the whole arc of people laughing and then really sad when I talk about, you know, having to leave him and all the birds dying and everything.
AS: So, I know that the producers of Testify meet with the performers before the show. Can you talk a little bit about what those meetings are like and the purposes of those meetings? Like, did they give you feedback that you took and incorporated?
SRP: Always. For this last one, there were two meetings, and for me, at least, what I do is, I’ll do the show…well, the first meeting this last show, I did my story for Erin, and she gave me feedback about what she liked and what she thought. At the time, it was right at 11 minutes, so there wasn’t a need to cut anything, but she gave me feedback on why she liked it, and she said some things that I did not expect. They were all very positive, so that was good. That made me feel better about doing the show because I was still excited, but I’d gotten to a point where I was apprehensive about it just considering the subject matter. So, you know, my…my last experience was probably a fairly unique one.
Then, the second meeting which was with Erin and Kate, Kate gave me some GREAT feedback about what she thought was missing and how to bring it even more full circle. I mean, maybe it was sort of an oval shape and helped round it out, no pun intended, but, um, her feedback was really valuable. She thought about stuff that I didn’t even notice, you know. Like, I close it with talking about how I love birds, but it’s people who are, basically, helping me put my broken heart back together. And she was like, “That’s really great, but you don’t talk about people a whole lot so…” (laughs) As soon as she said it, I was like, “That’s such an obvious thing to point out. How did I not see that?” But that’s why that outside perspective, especially from seasoned storytellers, people who do this on stage and see other people do it on stage is so important. And what I love is that, I want to say every show, but I’d have to verify that, but in at least almost every show, one of the producers is up on stage
telling a story. Because they know, and it keeps them, I think, really able to relate to the performers and really keep their fingers on the pulse of this production. And know what that experience is like, and that, I think, helps it work even better and keeps it even more relevant.
AS: I think that’s right. I think I’ve seen…every show I’ve been to, one of them has been emceeing, and they rotate it around. I think that’s really cool.
You sort of answered one of my questions already about have you done Testify since, but how would you describe your overall experience with doing Testify?
SRP: Phenomenal! I mean, if I had to in one word, it would be phenomenal. A lot of people have told me, “I don’t understand how you can do that. How can you get up there and talk about yourself.” I’m like, “I have a captive audience willing to listen about me. How can you not want to get up there?”
Overall, it’s been fantastic. Every time has been different. And what I’d forgotten, but that I remembered after the third time is that it’s not always fantastic, and that has nothing to do with the producers. That has to do with the moments that I’m sitting backstage in the green room, realizing what I’m about to do. And that is the only time that I regret it, and slightly consider sneaking out of the theater, getting in my car, and going home. And I work through it every time. And every time…that feeling when you come off the stage and people are clapping, and you realize, sort of, what you’ve done…you start getting positive reception from people…that outweighs that preshow nervousness 10,000 times at least. It’s a fantastic experience if you, first of all, if you’re comfortable talking about yourself and if you’re willing to consider your audience. I was talking with a friend about writing recently, and one of the things I said was that a lot of people want to write, and a lot of people want to tell their stories. That’s fantastic. We’re all human. One of my favorite songs is M.I.A.’s Story to be Told. “All I ever wanted was my story to be told…” but I think in order to be a good writer, you also have to consider your audience. You have to consider if they’re going to like it. And I don’t mean, like, marketability and positioning yourself. I mean, if you want to be a successful writer, yeah, you have to think about that. I just mean thinking from the audience’s perspective. Is this going to be a good story? Does this all make sense? Does it come full circle? What’s great about the Testify producers is that they help you to achieve that. They help you keep your story on track. They give you feedback that brings it full circle and makes it relevant to the audience, so that everyone has a great experience. Both the people who are listening and the people who are speaking.
AS: How has the show changed? They’ve been doing this a little over a year, so how do you think the show has changed over time?
SRP: Well, the time limits are shorter, which I think, you know, I mean that’s the nature of the beast. There are more people who are doing it now. I continue to see new faces, which I think is going to be great because that means…it’s always good to see a new storyteller, but I like that there are also still a lot of veterans. I guess that’s another way that it’s changes is that there are veteran storytellers now. There are people who have done it multiple times. There are definitely names that when I see them on the roster, I’m super pumped. I was super pumped to see that Heather had become one of the producers. She is…out of all the people that I’ve ever seen, she’s probably my favorite. And for me, personally, what’s changed is that I find myself getting influenced in two ways be Testify. One is that it inspires me to keep telling stories. Like Bronwen –I don’t know if you know her—she told a story about her divorce last fall that inspired me, and I thought, “You know what? Maybe one day I’ll have the strength and courage to talk about my divorce.” And I did, and that was amazing. And I told her after my show, and it was very emotional for me. I hope it was emotional for her.
Testify has changed my life because it has introduced people to me that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise who have proven to be very crucial in my life. And it has given me a place to go every month where I know that, you know, again that I’m going to walk out of there a little bit changed. When your life is in the middle of a storm, having that thing that you can go to where you do see some of the same people and you know you’re going to see knew people becomes very meaningful.
AS: Last question. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about pitching to Testify?
SRP: DO IT! Do it. Absolutely, do it. And for some reason—I don’t know anyone who’s been rejected, but I guess it’s totally possible just due to the number of slots they have—if you get rejected, submit again. Keep submitting or say, “Hey, is there a shred of this story that could be changed a little bit and then maybe done a different month?” Do it and go to the shows. Go to all of the shows. After my first show, you know, even if for some reason I hadn’t really enjoyed hearing everybody else, I would have kept going just to support them. Because I felt like, they gave me this platform. They gave me this incredible chance. I want to support them and keep seeing their show. Fortunately, the show is fantastic, so I love going. But, yeah, go to the shows. Again, it’s kind of like writing. If you want to write, you need to read. If you want to speak at Testify, go to the shows. Talk to people, craft your story, be open to feedback, but keep submitting. It can change your life for the better and in ways that you just never anticipated.
AS: Awesome! Thank you.