Portland, Oregon is a city full of so many things happening every night. The Mystery Box show has always stood out to us as an event to attend if you were looking for something entirely different. The Mystery Box show is a sexy storytelling event series that features honest stories from real people.
We’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the Mystery Box show ourselves and recently had the opportunity to chat with Reba and Eric, the minds behind the show. Read on to find out how it all started, their process in curating the show, unexpected lessons from storytellers and audiences and more!
What inspired your search for a sex-themed storytelling event in Portland, other than the obvious desire to want to hear other people share their experiences?
In the beginning, it was just Eric, who was involved in the storytelling community. He always really liked hearing the stories that focused on sex and thought surely, there must be a storytelling show featuring ONLY sex stories in Portland. After discovering that there wasn’t, he decided to start one of his own. He had zero experience producing a show, but just really wanted to make the show he wanted to see.
Reba came along a little less than a year later, bringing her experience as a performer, producer and coach, adding the necessary ingredients to really make the show what it is today. i.e. more emotions and meaning. For Reba, that’s what the show is: a way to connect with other people. She believes that sharing sex stories helps to “normalize” sexual experiences and makes us feel like we belong.
How is the process for finding new storytellers and coaching them for the show?
People pitch stories to us via email!
Usually folks hear about us from someone who has attended or performed in the show. Or they have attended a show themselves and think “I’ve got a story to share!”
We ask for just 2-3 sentences in a pitch. If the pitch sounds like it has some good potential (Does it make us want to hear more? Are there obvious stakes? Is it about sex instead of merely including a bit of sex), we arrange to meet in person or over Skype to hear the whole story. We prefer it this way because ultimately, the story will be performed live, not written. Language is usually very different between the two media. During the coaching sessions, we offer notes to the storyteller. Usually these notes offer ideas on story structure, points of clarification and emotional stakes. Then we arrange to hear the story again at a later date, with the notes incorporated in the new version of the story.
We ask that the storyteller not memorize their story like a script, but rather to memorize the concepts, scenes, or beats, so that the story comes across more conversational and authentic. Usually we only need 2-3 coaching sessions.
Just before the show we have one final “rehearsal” with all 5 storytellers together for each specific show as a chance to bond. It also helps to calm nerves, knowing that there are 4 other folks being very vulnerable on stage in front of 400 strangers and friends. And it’s an opportunity for us to offer final feedback on the story as well as help with stage presence and delivering a story in front of a microphone.
Was/were there ever (a) situation(s) where the show took a completely unexpected turn?
Yes! There was one time, for example, when a storyteller got on stage and told a completely different story than the one we had been working on together. Not only that, but it took a wild turn toward the gratuitous! We really try to coach folks into not being gratuitous, both in language and content (unless it specifically adds to the story, of course). We’re very careful now to specifically ask folks to tell the story we all agreed on once they’re on stage!
Are there any topics/experiences that haven't been covered in the show that you're both interested in?
We are always looking for new and interesting stories, to bring even more diversity to the show. For example, we’d love to hear stories from little people. Reba has been very interested in hearing an orgasmic birth story (we haven’t featured one yet). There are also always new fetish/kink stories we haven’t featured yet, like stories from Furries (if they consider the Furry aspect sexual in nature), electro-stimulation, body modification, a story from a gimp’s experience, etc.
How many stories have been told so far?
Over the span of 5 years, we have showcased nearly 200 sex-centric stories! We have 6 MainStage shows a year (one every other month) and occasionally pepper in additional shows in other locations. To date we have taken The Mystery Box Show to: Portland State University, OMSI After Dark, Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Wordstock and Arse Electronika in San Francisco.
How do you keep each upcoming event fresh?
We try very hard to feature folks from all walks of life. All gender identities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, ages, and lifestyles. We also strive to find a good variety of stories within each show so that it doesn’t become a pattern that people expect. (e.g. “Oh, here comes the virginity story. Now it’s time for the BDSM story. Next up is the sexual trauma and recovery story.”)
Sexuality is on such a wide spectrum, we never feel we’re at a loss for new subject matter to explore. As long as people pitch stories to us, we know we’re shining light on more and more of that spectrum, and that will keep it interesting and new.
As for keeping the show fresh in the moment, at the show, we coach storytellers into making it personal. It’s a simple idea, but a powerful one when used properly. Using “I” statements, as opposed to giving a “lecture” helps give the show a momentum as the audience is carried along with the stories being told on stage.
What have been the most popular stories so far?
Any memorable feedback from storytellers and/or audience members?
Storytellers will often tell us that the coaching process is therapeutic and cathartic for them. Although that isn’t our intention, it feels nice to be a part of that feedback.
We also learned from audience feedback early on what kind of trigger warnings are appropriate and when, which we are really grateful for!
What kind of trigger warnings are appropriate?
Trigger warnings are tricky because anything can trigger anyone. We give a general content notification at the top of each show explaining that we showcase stories on the entire sexual spectrum, including stories on the darker side. We ask our audience to be responsible for their own triggers and to take care of themselves however necessary (like stepping out of the room, visiting the bar, etc.) if the need arises. With that being said, if a particular story contains obvious triggers (sexual assault or abuse, for instance) we give an additional warning before that story.
What else have you learned from audience feedback over the course of the Mystery Box show?
The feedback we love the most is when audience members tell us that they connected with a story and felt “normal” about a sexual experience or fetish or kink, etc. because now they knew they weren’t the only one. This directly affects the way we coach storytellers. Connecting and community building is one of the major driving forces behind the show.
What's next for the Mystery Box show?
We may consider taking the show to other cities in the future, but for now we are working on building a stronger community here in Portland. We’re also exploring the idea of putting together an anthology of stories that have been on our show in book form.
What other cities would you like to see the show take place in? I'd love to see it in Berlin.
We’d LOVE to come to Berlin!! Our biggest goal/challenge with traveling with the show is making sure we have an audience where we go. This means building an audience BEFORE we get there and/or performing in a venue that can market for us/is popular enough that folks know and trust the shows they book. We have quite a following in Portland, but are still working on getting National/International! So far we have taken the show to San Francisco twice, but are pretty open to where we might go if all of the components align!
More on the Mystery Box Show
Get your tickets for VIP and General Admission!