Inside a redesigned Airstream trailer, a father and son scan a list of story titles written on a chalkboard menu. After choosing a story, each picks up a cassette tape, a Walkman and pair of headphones.
“It’s what Daddy had when he was little, like your age,” the father, Nathan Scholl, tells his 9-year-old.
The pair then exit the trailer to listen to life stories from other Charlottesville residents whom they have not met.
This is the Story Stream project, which made a stop last Thursday at a Tom Sox baseball game at Charlottesville High School.
Created through a partnership between The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative and University of Virginia Arts, the Airstream visits places all over the city to collect and share people’s stories.
“It’s essentially our mobile, interactive, storytelling and story-listening project,” said Alan Goffinski, director of The Bridge. “The project serves three primary goals. One is to raise the spirit of community in Charlottesville. Another is to bridge diverse communities, especially the UVa student community with the broader Charlottesville community. And three, to bring an art experience to people who might not know they would like an art experience.”
The Story Stream debuted at the Tom Tom Founders Festival in April, where people listened to stories, recorded their own and pulled prompts from pillars set up outside. The pillars pose questions such as “When are you at your best?” and “What makes you laugh uncontrollably?” and are covered in blank sticky notes for people to write their answers.
“These pillars outside the Airstream, they create a natural curiosity, and they draw people in,” Goffinski said. “If someone’s willing to come up and read, they may be willing to write. And if someone’s willing to write, they’re going to feel invested and want to check out what’s going on inside.”
Once inside the trailer, people can sit on bean bag chairs or on stools at a booth. When a visitor orders a story from the eight menu options, someone working in the trailer fetches the corresponding cassette tape. The stories on the menu are the most recent; old stories are retired to the Story Stream website.
In the last three months, the Story Stream has gone out — six times in total — to places such as the IX Art Park for the Lovefest event in June and a farmer’s market at Meade Park in July.
The cassette tapes include stories of a woman’s joy at seeing the stars above Charlottesville after living in New York, as well as a grandmother’s determination to attend UVa before desegregation.
“All the stories lead back to Charlottesville,” Goffinski said. “They’re all about the community and about people’s experiences … It’s about getting to know your fellow Charlottesvillians.”
Sometimes, hearing a story inspires a listener to tell his or her own tale.
“So when they start doing that, we’ll pull out a recorder and record their story,” Goffinski said. “The concept is that it would be a ‘story snowball.’ It’ll pick up stories as it goes, it’ll adapt and change as necessary, as it responds to the community.”
Emily Kovalenko, an intern at The Bridge who was working inside the Story Stream last week, reminisced about recording someone’s story.
“She had a positive energy to her — she just seemed so sweet and kind and young at heart,” Kovalenko said. “Just inviting people in like that, and little kids coming in and exploring the space, is something I appreciate.”
Another woman who recorded her story for the Story Stream, Hilda Ward, appreciates any chance to foster personal connections between different people and different cultures.
“One of the things that I like about Charlottesville is that you have a variety of people from many, many different cultures,” Ward said. “Getting stories from people sounded like a great idea. And I wish we could do that more often … I think people tend to pretty much stay with their own culture, and that makes me sad because I like to get to know people from all over, with all kinds of backgrounds.”
The project was initiated this spring when fourth-year UVa student Cody Simms, who was interning with The Bridge, took the project on as his senior thesis. Simms’ goal, in part, was to transform the meaning of the trailer itself.
Because Airstream trailers originally were meant for luxury and leisure travel, Simms said, they were exclusive by design.
“So that was part of the design challenge,” Simms said. “How can we turn an object that was exclusive into a moment of inclusivity? How can we have a space that feels like it’s for everyone?”
Simms hoped the project would bring together strangers from all over Charlottesville, creating a shared space to enable conversations and allow people to bond with fellow listeners and previous recorders. He also stressed the importance of the Airstream’s mobility.
“It’s on wheels so it can be brought to all different parts of the city,” Simms said. “As long as it keeps doing that, it’s going to keep changing and evolving as different people are exposed to it.”
The Bridge PAI plans to incorporate other projects into the trailer. For example, a UVa course called “Making Art in/with Communities” will work with the Bridge on a mobile magazine-making project.
In the fall, the trailer will house materials for people to make DIY publications on the spot, Goffinski said.
The Story Stream is an attempt to make art accessible, he said.
“At the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, our primary function is we have an art gallery,” Goffinski said. “As low-barrier as that is, it’s still a white-walled art gallery. And that is still intimidating to people. So this lets us take you out of your paradigm of what art is, as a spectator, as a viewer, and it provides art in a different context. As it provides a creative experience that you can not only appreciate but actually engage [in] yourself.”
Last week, the story Scholl chose was called “Last Week on Earth,” the story of a busking guitar-player named Dan Smith who had played a couple’s song at their request. When the couple thanked the musician for his gift, they shared that the husband had terminal cancer. That week was his last.
“I think it’s powerful when we share stories with one another,” Scholl said after listening. “I think it’s one of the most profound things we do together, as human beings … so I appreciate the stories of all the different people that they have in this exhibit.”