By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 09, 2010 at 9:01 AM

Did you hear the one about the bedroom standoff between a naked man and a naked chipmunk? Or the one about being a passenger in a car driven on the freeway by a friend who is having an epileptic seizure?

You did if you are a regular in the audience for Ex Fabula, a recurring storytelling forum that has quickly become a hot ticket in Milwaukee. Operating for only a year, Ex Fabula is mounting a high profile program at Turner Hall Saturday, and recordings of stories told at previous events will be broadcast on WUWM at 10 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 19. Similar recordings have previously been broadcast on WMSE.

The Ex Fabula recipe is remarkably simple and summed up in the group's slogan: "Story. Stage. You." Anyone with a good yarn and the guts to get up in front of an audience to tell it is eligible to participate.

There is one fundamental rule -- the story must be true -- and a few regulations. No stand-up comedy routines. No memorized dialog or performance art. No props or costumes. You can't speak from notes and you can't proselytize for anything.

The inaugural Ex Fabula event was held in November of '09 only six weeks after five people got together to brainstorm about starting a public storytelling series. Relying on word of mouth, the event attracted 50 persons to the Art Bar in Riverwest, filling the venue.

Subsequent monthly forums, with a break during the summer, have drawn capacity crowds to the Hi-Hat Lounge on the East Side, Riverwest's Stonefly Brewery, the Bay View Brew Haus, the Sugar Maple in Bay View and Mo's Irish Pub in Wauwatosa. A Turner Hall event last May attracted an audience of 300.

You may notice a pattern here. Ex Fabula produces its shows in settings with bars. Admission is inexpensive -- $5 except for Turner Hall, which is $10 -- and a social buzz permeates the venues. The November event at the Bay View Brew Haus had the feel of a club with a friendly inclusive vibe.

The audience was mostly under 35, but gray hair could be seen in the room, and the age of the story tellers cut across generational lines.

Ex Fabula was started by Leah Delaney, Megan McGee, Adam Weise, Matt Sabljak and Amy Allen Schleicher. Delaney and McGee are the only performers in the group. The former has acted in Bunny Gumbo Productions' Combat Theatre, and the latter is a member of the four-woman comedy sketch troupe Broadminded.

The founders developed a program structure that begins with a single topic for each event. Persons wishing to tell a story that relates to the theme submit their names to be drawn from a hat. A typical Ex Fabula evening consists of three segments, each containing three stories.

Stories are limited to five minutes, and the two intermissions give the audience the opportunity to visit the bar. Ex Fabula has four story-telling categories, although they may not all be used for a single program.

The Solo is self-explanatory.

The Duo employs two storytellers relating a shared experience, and its time limit is 10 minutes.

The Rashomon emphasizes different perspectives and features two persons telling their differing versions of the same story. Each participant speaks for five minutes.

The Terkel consists of one person interviewing another for five minutes.

Ex Fabula also encourages audience members to write a brief one or two sentence true story based on the evening's theme. Those sentences are read by the program host between appearances of the onstage storytellers.

The audience votes on the best story at the end of an event, with the winner taking home prizes of radio station coffee mugs, water bottles or CDs.

Co-founder Megan McGee offers some tips on effective storytelling. "Heightened situations with heightened stakes often make for good stories, and they are popular with audiences. Use good detail.

"Don't be overly rehearsed, and don't allow extraneous things get in the way of the story. Get into a good rhythm and be relaxed. If you have your fear in check, and if we can't hear your voice shaking, you can draw people in."

It seems ironic that in our high tech digital age, simple low tech storytelling is enjoying increased popularity. New York-based The Moth, which the Ex Fabula founders admire, has expanded into podcasts, a public radio program heard on WUWM, a national tour of storytellers and chapters in other cities. Another local group, Milwaukee Area Story Tellers, produces monthly programs at Mount Mary College.

"Storytelling is an art form that allows you to feel very connected at a time when isolation is a modern plague," McGee says. "I think people long for connection.

"Maybe storytelling is the opposite of texting. It is face to face. You are committed to the moment. You aren't multi-tasking. We all need the empathy of others, and you can get that with storytelling."

The Turner Hall event Saturday night will follow a slightly different format, with seven of eight 10-minute storytelling slots filled in advance by persons who have been especially successful at previous events. Only one name will be drawn from the hat immediately preceding the show. Saturday's theme is gifts.

Ex Fabula -- the name is Latin for "from stories" -- is in the process of legally becoming a non-profit organization.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.