by Jancie Creaney
“Just like you do on the page, you have to pull the audience in right away,” says Blaise Allysen Kearsley, Gotham teacher and host of How I Learned, a live storytelling series. “Set the stakes early so that the audience is engaged and then make sure you have a strong ending.” Though writing for the page came first for Blaise, storytelling has been a prominent part of her creative life for over 10 years.
In 2009, a friend nudged her in the direction of a producing opportunity at a Lower East Side bar. Initially, Blaise believed she was signing on to host an already conceptualized show. In reality, the management wanted her to create, produce, andhost a brand new monthly event. “I wasn’t ready for that. At the time, I was writing an essay called ‘How I Learned About Sex.’ It seemed like a no-brainer,” she says of the show’s inception. “It could be a series called How I Learned and each show could have a different topic.”
“I think what was unique about How I Learned was that it was a mix of storytelling, reading, and comedy,” says Blaise. The series was forced to go on an indefinite hiatus because of the pandemic, but otherwise, nearing its eleventh year, it shows no signs of stopping. Reflecting on whether storytelling and writing for the page inform one another as far as craft is concerned, Blaise says, “the word choice is different, the pacing is different.” With storytelling, she notes, “it’s so much about the story beats… and keeping it moving forward because you have 7 to 10 minutes to tell a story.”
“It made me more aware of plot points and how important they are,” says Blaise, who is currently plugging away at a second draft of her memoir.
“Writing came first. I was really drawn to it as a kid,” says Blaise. But even then, storytelling was in the air. Blaise recalls listening to her father and his siblings tell stories about the family. “They grew up in Croton-on-Hudson... and my grandfather helped build the Croton dam, which is this gorgeous structure. He started the ice service–the first black-owned business in Croton. It’s a huge family. There’s a lot of history there.”
Blaise comes from a long line of artists and teachers. Her father, a middle school art teacher for more than 40 years, was “the kind of teacher who, 20 years after kids have graduated, still write to him and tell him how much he changed their life. I was really struck by that and proud of that.”
In college, she studied multiculturalism in early childhood education, eventually working for an organization that helps middle school and high school teachers develop lessons focused on anti-racism and anti-Semitism. “I worked with a lot of teachers and I saw what they did and how they navigated their classrooms. I was always kind of in awe.”
It wasn’t until Blaise took a few Gotham classes that her literary and educational experiences coalesced. “I loved the teachers and I think that planted the seed,” she recalls. “As the years passed and my writing career grew—and based on what I learned from my dad and working at the educational organization—I knew [teaching] was something I could do.”
Thinking back on her beginnings as a writer, Blaise offers a few reminders, ones that often slip away in the midst of creative projects, work, and life: “Remember that the really good stuff comes out of revision; don’t expect to write something really profound and beautiful on the first go; just keep going; and work it like a puzzle.”
“I think for a long time I didn’t realize that you kind of have to write your way into a story and allow it to take you where it wants to go…” says Blaise. Like so much of life, writing “is about patience and confidence.”