A collective "oh no!" rose up from the crowd gathered within the Historic Alberta House. They drew out the expression of dread, letting it fall into a murmur. Onstage, Chris Williams, the founder of Front Porch Sessions, joked about people running for the doors.
"That's usually the response, when an audience first learns that they're gonna talk to people," Williams told the Mercury in a later interview. "Most people, someone would have told them what's up. But some come to what they think is just a regular storytelling show, and they're surprised."
Front Porch Sessions is a storytelling night with a community twist, but overall it's a fairly simple format: Storytellers speak on a topic, and at the end they pose a question to the audience. Attendees form small groups to share their answers or just listen to others. In practice, the groups are around two to four people—anything larger wouldn't leave time for everyone to talk during the short ten-minute window.
"Usually by the end, people want more time to talk. 'More time! More time!'" Williams said. "Ten minutes always flies by."
Williams is a familiar figure in Portland's storytelling and comedy scenes as he is one third of popular improv troupe Broke Gravy, but he stressed that Front Porch and Broke Gravy are separate ideas. It's hard for him to remember which project came first, but he has no fewer than three stories about how Front Porch began.
"My grandmother's front stoop," is the first story Williams tells. "Anybody walking by would stop and my grandma would just catch up—tell the stories, hear the stories. I would be in the corner, just soaking it all up." Another inspiration came when Williams was invited to an all women business networking night—as the first man to attend. He liked the format of one person standing up, talking about an idea, and the crowd breaking into discussion groups. He hosted the first Front Porch Sessions in his Portland backyard.
"I know it's called Front Porch Sessions, but my backyard is bigger than my front yard," Williams explained with a laugh. "I invited three storytellers, each from a different circle of my own friends, and the reaction was so strong afterwards. A month later, people would come ask me about it. I was like, 'I guess I gotta do another one.'"
Though the storytelling show seems simple in plan and execution, there's a dense quantity of knowledge at its root. Williams has spent most of his adult life working to bring people together. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and helped create a program for Portland Public Schools that pairs students and their families with engagement coaches, to tackle problems like the disproportionate discipline that impacts Black and Brown students. He's a former board president of Kickstand Comedy and currently serving on the board of Okay You, a nonprofit that works to help kids and adults handle anxiety. "I was a very anxious kid, so when they asked I was like, absolutely," Williams said.
The most recent Front Porch Sessions, on February 20, was the first one held since the pandemic. The speakers were all funny, likable, and charismatic. They were also not white. "There's so many voices in this city—in this country— that just go unheard," Williams explained later. "I've always been very intentional with who I put on stage. I want to hear from Black, Brown, Indigenous folks, and the LGBTQIA+ community—those voices that just don't get that stage time. But the beautiful thing is anyone can come and be in the audience."
And despite initial protests from that audience, discussion quickly ratcheted into a friendly roar. Out of all the chats we had, the most uncomfortable was just when a person we locked eyes with refused to talk. "The thing I like most about myself is that I keep to myself," he said, answering the question's prompt. "I don't bother people."
"Severe social anxiety is a real thing," Williams said. "But no one is watching you. You can just go to the bathroom. You can go get a drink. But if you do that three times, you start having a conversation with yourself—I've had people come up to me after a show and say 'The first two sessions, I went to the bathroom. But then I stared at myself in the mirror, like: You can do this.'"
Williams focused on the best things to come from the series: "I mean, two people got married, and there's been a baby born," he said. "In both of these scenarios the people met at a Front Porch. They clearly continued the conversation afterward, which is great. I'm not taking credit for the baby, but I'm really cool with being a part of that story."
Learn more about Front Porch Sessions at frontporchsessions.com