Through modern and traditional media, Your Real Stories breaks social boundaries

By : Chris Muscardin
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St. Petersburg – The 2011 dramatic film The Help had quite the impact on St. Petersburg resident Lillian Dunlap. It inspired her to take a look at the stories of the real life ‘help’. What started as a small project to showcase “Decades of Day Work” has turned into a journey of stories turned into plays turned into art shows.

Now, Your Real Stories, the organization that produces the show, has announced its first official season.
“Our goal is to generate conversation in the community, across things that usually divide us—things like race, gender, and sexual orientation,” says Dunlap, who is African-American and a member of the LGBT community.. “And we think that part of the way to do that is to get peoples’ stories told who usually are not heard, and get people to come together.”

The key to the women’s mission is encouraging dialogue, says Your Real Stories co-founder and artistic director Jaye Sheldon.

“We think that if we get people together in a darkened theater and experience things together, they may be more likely to talk about things they weren’t willing to before,” Sheldon says. “So far, that’s been working.”

Based in Pinellas County, Your Real Stories is an innovative performing arts organization that uses its platform to address controversial subjects and break down social boundaries. The organization is manned by all sexualities and has touched on LGBT issues throughout its history. Described by founder Dunlap as “theatrical journalism,” the group uses a combination of digital media platforms and old-fashioned theater performances to illustrate their stories, most of which are actually first-hand accounts related to them by people in the community.

Dunlap, having been in the storytelling business for nearly 40 years, is extremely passionate about this project. Along with cofounder Sheldon and the rest of their team, the two have been working on the Your Real Stories project since 2006, traveling around Florida collecting stories from people in different cultures and communities.

The group’s current project, “Decades of Day Work,” has been ongoing since 2011 and focuses on race relations efforts in the community. It’s no accident that 2011 is the same year The Hel was released in theaters.

What started as one small project quickly snowballed, leading to four “Decades of Day Work” productions in as many years, and a fifth one to be included in this year’s season.

“Our overarching goal is to tell stories across many divides… [but] once we started getting these particular stories we started to realize there were so many more to get and so much more conversation to have,” said Sheldon. “So this project [‘Decades of Day Work’] became long-term because it’s really necessary to have a relationship with your entire community in regards to this. It takes time to be able to communicate it.”

The “Decades” project, which is the main focus of this year’s season, looks at stories of day workers and the people who have employed them, and the relationships that form between them. The stories, which are at first related through theatrical performance are followed by a second -half panel of the original storytellers and moderated by journalist, Jaye Anne Terry. The stories, themselves, are not always the most pleasant, but are always powerful and insightful.

“We knew that what we were going to be talking about was difficult… things that people don’t really discuss across race and sometimes even within families. We’re talking about things that people don’t necessarily always have the language to discuss,” Sheldon says. “So many times [the storytellers are] sharing stories that they’ve never shared with anyone else, and there are things that come up and trigger us all emotionally, because we’re talking about really hot-button things.”

With this year’s season however, the group is looking to expand beyond just the annual “Decades of Day Work” format.

“This is our first full season,” Sheldon informed. “For the past three years we’ve been working behind the scenes to ensure that our project has longevity, but the only thing that the community has actually seen us produce is ‘Decades of Day Work.’”

Although “Decades of Day Work V” will be a part of the season in March 2015, “Your Real Stories” has a number of other activities lined up. The season opens September 2 with a photographic exhibit showing at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum in St. Petersburg. Following the close of the exhibit Your Real Stories will be hosting “Story Days in Tampa Bay,” a four day event Sept. 10-13 featuring two seminars presented by special guest Andrew W. Thornhill, who is the author of The Digital Television Report.

November opens with “The Making of Decades of Day Work,” a panel discussion with Dunlap and Sheldon. 2015 sees the opening of “Decades of Day Work V” at the end of March at the freeFall Theatre, and a special event at The Studio@620 in April to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Malcolm X.

More information about Your Real Stories and the activities they have planned this season can be found on their blog at YourRealStories.org.

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