My Shameless “Spark” Plug


Performance stage at The Spark, London’s storytelling club (PHOTO COURTESY OF BAILEY BARNETT)


On a recent Monday, I found myself in a relatively large yet intimate room in the “attic” of London’s Hackney Picturehouse. A crowd of over 50 people gathered around a bar and Ikea-esque tables and chairs.  They munched on wasabi peas and made small talk as the air filled with an aura of excitement, possibility and curiosity. At the front of the room, a wooden stage stood against a black backdrop, completely empty but for a lone microphone glowing in the center of a spotlight.  This is the casual setup of a meeting for ‘The Spark,’ one of Britain’s most popular storytelling clubs, where anyone can come and share at the club’s themed open mic nights.

I sat at one of the tables and looked for any clue of what I was getting myself into. Before I had the chance to figure it out on my own, however, a man rocking a rather eclectic turtleneck (think patches, velour and other crimes against fashion) and a small notepad wandered by.  He had been talking to groups of people around the room and seemed like he frequented the event, so I seized the opportunity and asked him some questions as to what exactly ‘The Spark’ was.  All that I really got from this man, whose name was Dave, was that he was the host of the venue.

Cool? Yes. Informative? Not so much.

With that brief and awkward exchange, Dave bounced onto the stage, switched into host-mode–according to The Spark’s webpage, he is Dave Pickering–and began. “Hello! I’m Dave, and I’ll be your host for tonight. I should be available over here all night if you need anything,” he said, gesturing to a chair to the left of the stage. “If I’m not around, I’ve probably just sneaked out for a cigarette. But I don’t condone that behavior.”

The Spark, Dave explained, is an open-mic, first person storytelling event. Anyone can tell a story, so long it is both true and under five minutes (it also seemed as though square-rimmed glasses were a requirement amongst storytellers, even though Dave never mentioned it). While all of this sounded good in theory, I had a hard time believing that anyone could possibly want to stand mid-stage and bare their soul for a room full of strangers to hear. Soul-baring is something that I prefer to avoid in all situations, especially those involving strangers, and I have a hard time seeing the benefits of such an exchange. In my mind, humor seems like a more natural way for people to bond with one another, so that’s what I tend to stick with.  That being said, if enough people were willing to tell stories to keep this specific club running, then there had to be some appeal to it. I wanted to figure out just what that appeal was.

“All across London we work to connect people through stories.  It’s a tag-line but it’s true and it’s a very exciting thing,” said Dave, reassuring the crowd and attempting to increase the number of sign-ups. Again, exciting isn’t exactly my adjective of choice for this sort of event (my adjective of choice would be “terrifying”), but there was something here to be learned. Whether I would be laughing like crazy or sobbing like someone who’d just seen Marley and Me for the first time by the end of the night was unsure, but Dave had my hopes up that I would feel something. Only time would tell. “The theme for tonight is head slash heart,” Dave said, “Let me now introduce you to your first storyteller–Dave!”  With that, Dave-the-Host set the mic down. Then picking it back up as Dave-the-Storyteller, looked dramatically ahead into the audience. “We kissed in my head at a Radiohead concert…” and so the night began.

Dave, rocking that turtleneck like no one else could. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BAILEY BARNETT)
Dave, rocking that turtleneck like no one else could. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BAILEY BARNETT)

Over the next two hours, a whirlwind of emotion swirled across the stage.  There was Linn Ann, a regular in a leather jacket, black boots and large gold hoops who introduced her tale as “another car story” and maintained her tough exterior until the end, when she grew teary-eyed at the mention of loyalty of her Chevy that she had suffered through rain and storm (literally) to purchase. Following was Glennis, a soft-spoken yet witty woman who told of how her family’s visit to an animal park “pre-health and safety days” ended up a front-page news story when she rolled down the car window to get a better look at the tigers. Next was John Mark, a man who told of his shared drink with a French soldier that ended in a near-death experience. Then there was Elna Baker, a woman from a strict religious background who shared of her life as “The Last Virgin in New York City”  and Emma, a girl who told of how her days at a work camp (“Have you seen ‘Holes?’ It was like that,”) and led her past “evangelical, musical theater-loving” self to get a tattoo. Even one of our own, Marissa, gathered the courage to share her own “Catfish” story on stage.

All of these stories were touching, but in witty and sarcastic ways unlike the deep and dark secrets that I had anticipated hearing. If this is what Dave meant by storytelling, then perhaps it was not all that different from the conversations I had on a daily basis. But if this were the case, then what is the purpose of creating an event that is nothing more than a glorified version of what we do daily? I had gotten my hopes up that there would be something more that I could take away from this evening, and I had a feeling that there still may be.

Speakers walked on and off of the stage, sharing more “head slash heart” tales as funny and thoughtful as those before, leaving me entertained but still longing for more. At last, there was a man named Sunil. He introduced himself and apologized for his informal attire, saying that he hadn’t expected to be at The Spark, let alone telling his story on stage. Sunil, moved by those who had told stories before him, told of the death of his best friend James, whom he had known for 30 years. “He ate bugs, which was weird.  He also ate tubs of ice cream, but we all do that, don’t we? It’s weird saying ‘he ate’ instead of ‘he eats’. Anyways, he was my mate, he was James, and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with him.” James, who suffered from mental illness, had committed suicide in September 2014.  With a catch in his voice, Sunil urged anyone contemplating suicide to seek help, acknowledging that he too had felt suicidal, but that James’ death had helped him to be thankful that he had not fulfilled his plans.

Thanking the audience, Sunil handed off the mic to Dave, who thanked Sunil, saying, “This is an issue that weighs heavily on my heart, and one that resonates with many here. This is what I mean when I say stories bring people together. Life doesn’t seem so bad when you realize that others feel the same way you do.”

I could not have agreed with Dave more. While the stories told throughout the night had all appealed to me, none of them had moved me in the way that Sunil’s had.  I admire all of those who chose to share their stories that night, but there is something exceptionally courageous about someone willing to expose their raw, imperfect emotions. Of all of the people who got on the stage that night, Sunil was the most authentically human in a way that we all are, but in a way that many of us (including myself) are often afraid to show. He didn’t use humor, he didn’t try to be an entertainer, he didn’t do anything other than show his natural emotions, and thus his natural and vulnerable self.

As the night came to a close, Dave’s tagline had rung true. The audience was connected, and in a way that strangers don’t often find themselves to be. Exiting the Hackney Picturehouse, I caught myself considering the idea of telling a story the following week. But I’m still my usual, poker-faced self and one man’s courage didn’t change my ways completely, so naturally I never ended up telling a story of my own.  However, the fact that I even considered it speaks volumes about ‘The Spark.’ I can’t promise that everyone who attends The Spark will be moved in the same way that I was, but I can promise that they will feel something. While it may not be at the top of any tourist attraction or sightseeing lists, The Spark is an event that I believe everyone in London, visitor or local, should attend if given the chance.


Hackney Picturehouse 270 Mare St.

London Fields, Overground Station

To find out future dates, locations, and themes for other Spark events,