A Conversation with Larry Dean Harris

As summer closes, we can find inspiration from the breathtaking boldness of the recent ECLIPSE to dive wholeheartedly into our creative work.

You might start by checking out Larry Dean Harris's STRONG WORDS storytelling series in Silver Lake, and perhaps throw your name into the hat. Read more about what he looks for in a story in our conversation below! 

LARRY DEAN HARRIS is a New York Outer Critics Circle Award nominated playwright living in Los Angeles. As a storyteller, he's performed in Sit N Spin at the Comedy Central Stage, Tongue & Groove at the Hotel Café, Spark Off Rose in Santa Monica and Write Club at the Bootleg Theatre. He recently teamed with singer-songwriter bestie Sally Fingerett to create Pen Pals, an evening of music and stories. Harris is the creator and co-curator of Strong Words, the long-running Silverlake/Atwater arts event. He proudly hails from Toledo, Ohio, where he created the long-running musical comedy revue “Oh, No! Not Toledo!”

Larry Dean Harris

Strong Words began in Silver Lake when three writers - all members of Body Builders Gym - came together to share their stories in a public forum. The salon-style event grew to include music and visual art fostering a spirit of community. Admission is always free, and programming is limited to 80 minutes to allow for open dialogue after the performance. After four successful years in Silver Lake, Strong Words moved to nearby Atwater Village in 2016 in a glorious new outdoor venue at the St. Francis Center. Strong Words was recently selected to open the 2018 season of the Los Angeles Public Library's “LA Made” series at the Mark Taper Auditorium.


Karin: Tell me about Strong Words and how it began...

Larry Dean Harris: About six years ago, three writers at the legendary Body Builders Gym in Silver Lake banded together to read their work aloud in front of friends and family. Something clicked, and Strong Words was born.

I love that three body builders had stories they were burning to share. What was the first story you shared on the stage that first night? 

I told two stories that night, but “Confessions of a Calvin Klein Underwear Model” was, by far, the favorite. Here in Silver Lake, we don't blush easily.

With so many other storytelling venues out there, do you have a sense of what makes Strong Words unique? 

Initially, it was our Silver Lake location. When I began as a storyteller, I was performing at Spark and Sit N Spin and having a ball. But we didn't have a show like that in our neighborhood. But now, I think it's our fearless audience. They embrace everything I throw at them with open ears. We opened our last show with a sound bath, and they loved it!

After producing Spark Off Rose for 13 years, it is clear to me that live storytelling and personal narrative is more than a trend, it's a bona fide movement. Why do you think people are drawn to it? What's this movement all about it? Why now?  

We live in a swipe-left/swipe-right world now of instant everything. I think a good storytelling show gives us a chance to breathe, to laugh and cry and absorb new ideas in real time.

What kinds of stories do you look for when putting together a show? 

I love the truth naked and unabashed. I love an economical story with lots of beats, laughs and a surprise or three. But I'm also a sucker for craft, when the writing is so delicious, the audience is swept away.

Do you work with the writers on editing their pieces or are the pieces submitted ready to perform?    

Occasionally, I will help a first-time storyteller with a few notes, like “Your story really doesn't get started until the third paragraph,” but otherwise I give free rein. I do insist on reading the stories in advance to program a well-balanced show with a good arc.

You say that your evenings grew to include music and visual art. In what way? 

Well, there are stories told with words, but there are also stories told with song and with images. So it seemed like an organic way to expand our community of artists. I have this amazing co-curator, Michael Hirabayashi, who has a discriminating eye for both art and photography. He was on a film shoot with a young actor, Joseph Lee, who was painting these fresh, super-compelling portraits on scraps of wood. Michael encouraged him to share his work at Strong Words, and that was his very first show. Now he's getting sizable commissions.

I love the “open dialogue” component after the performance. At Spark it was such an important piece of cultivating community - that idea of continuing the conversation that was started on stage. What have you noticed? 

I think a long show fatigues the audience. I try to keep our show tight - less than 80 minutes - because people do like to linger, have another glass of wine and just engage with like-minded individuals. It's my favorite part of the evening.

What do you do as your day job -- and how does storytelling and producing this event figure into your world? 

I'm a Mad Man. Storytelling is nothing new in the advertising world. I can spin a whole story in 60 seconds and still mention the product by name five times.

What are your dreams and aspirations for Strong Words and yourself as a creative artist and writer? 

Personally, I'm happy right here right now. I love that whenever I have a new story I don't have to wait. I have an audience ready to be rocked. But for Strong Words, I'd like to expand our reach. We're starting to do that, partnering with the Los Angeles Public Library. We're opening the 2018 LA MADE season playing the big room at the main branch downtown in February.

How do people go about submitting to you? Do you have specific guidelines?  

First, I insist they attend a Strong Words show, so they understand the dynamic. For stories, I have three simple rules: Must be TRUE. Must be YOU (your story told in the first person). Must be 1,350 words or less. I haven't met a story that couldn't benefit from some ruthless editing. Writers fight me on it, but afterward, they always thank me (and then grab a lock of my hair to make a voodoo doll).


To learn more about Larry Dean Harris, visit the Strong Words website.

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