The Mind Behind the Stories: Q&A with Kevin Allison

The podosphere may have reached Peak Storytelling. There are innumerable podcasts in which people share their yarns in a dazzling variety of flavors, from the smutty exploits divulged on Bawdy Storytelling to the funk-infused uplift of Snap Judgment to the embarrassing childhood recollections of the Mortified Podcast. Amid a cluttered field of digital reminiscences, Kevin Allison’s Risk! stands out as one of the most compelling of the genre. Every week Allison presents a collection of stories captured live from his roving stage show as well as recorded in-studio. They range from harrowing to hilarious in the course of a single episode—and sometimes in the span of a single story.

If The Moth is a welcoming cup of hot tea, Risk! is ayahuasca. Risk! gives the listener intimate glimpses into the inner workings of minds both alien and familiar. The common denominator is Allison, who painstakingly curates the proceedings and also coaches many of the storytellers, some of whom are making their first foray into the world of public self-disclosure. The result is a successful podcast with a loyal following that's downloaded more than two million times a month.

Allison, who you might remember from MTV sketch show The State, is the kinky, kooky and unfailingly humane ringleader of this circus. The show is an expression of his point of view, formed through years of experience in and out of showbiz and through his winding personal path to self-acceptance and sobriety. Much as one might wonder how and why a DJ chooses the songs she plays, I’m interested in the mind underlying the stories of Risk!

Risk! returns to Seattle June 10 at the Vera Project. (They’ve recorded two past episodes there before, which included luminaries like Emmett Montgomery, Kelleen Conway Blanchard and Summer Waldron.) I talked to Allison over the phone from his home in New York, and he was as animated and personable as the man on the podcast.

You’ve listened to thousands of people’s stories at this point. How do you keep yourself engaged in listening?
The biggest problem we have when people pitch us stories is that because of shyness—or sometimes because of PTSD—a person will want to dance around the really intense moments. The moments that are the most loaded with emotion, stuff that might be difficult or embarrassing to get into, people will dance around it, and it’s that dancing around that starts to make your eyes glaze over.

A lot of the coaching I do with people is letting them know how to get sense memory into it. I come from an acting background; we were always taught how important sense memory is. Stanislavski used to say if a fella in the play wanted to cry because his mother dies in the play, it would help if his own mother had died and he could remember the look in her eyes when she had her last breath, the smell of her blouse, the ambient noise coming from the room next door, the tingling sensation in his gut.

I’m always trying to get people to remember the gritty sensory details that will bring that moment back to life in such a way that we’re gonna feel it too.

You’re kind of acting as an editor, or a listener’s advocate, in this role.
I am partly an editor, and though I don’t have a license for it, there’s a little bit of therapy that comes into it as well. I’ll say, “Okay, it looks like this person is having such an intense time with this I should really get on the phone with them or talk over Skype and start holding their hand a little more than usual.”

We have those radio-style stories, the ones that aren’t shared live, and some of those might take a couple years of the person checking in every few months with their latest stab. I like to give people lots of time if it’s really difficult for them.

The one with Melanie Hamlett in which she speaks about the entire span of her abusive relationship was one of the most intense I’ve heard on Risk!
She had gotten into an abusive relationship where there was rape, there were death threats, crazy paranoia and conspiracy-theory stuff. She was in a very dangerous relationship and the way she was able to talk about it from various perspectives—it was a fascinating take.

A man heard it and reached out to her on Facebook and he said, “I really want to talk to you; I was so moved by your story because I used to be that guy.” He and Melanie started talking. He’s been in therapy for years now to un-hardwire himself from being abusive to women. He is now telling a story with us on Risk! Here’s a perfect example of someone who was really willing to go there. He recreated some of the moments of these fights that he got into with his wife.

Melanie said, “Wow, some of this might be too intense for some people,” so that’s a case where I do know once we’re done with that story it will require a trigger warning. I don’t like to use the words “trigger warning” but when something is clearly going to dredge up some stuff for some people, I do like to go into it with a sense of what we’re about to wander into, without spoiling it too much.

There have been a few episodes where you’ll warn the audience, “The guy said this one thing and I admit that it’s problematic.” Did you ever see yourself in that role?
When I started the show in 2009 I truly did have the whole vision for what I wanted the show to be the night it occurred to me. I always wanted to have a show where some [episodes] are absolutely hilarious, some could be horrifying, some could be really beautiful or tear-jerking and some could be traumatic—all over the emotional spectrum.

You are correct, though, that the show has evolved a lot based on the ways the fans react. So many of the greatest stories have come from people who are fans, who heard the show and thought, “Damn, I really want to share about the time I tried to murder my mother.” Like this recent episode, a woman wanted to come out about the fact that she thinks her dad was a cannibal.

Those are people who love the show and “get” the show. I say the show has a humanistic philosophy; we try not to get too ideological, and I don’t necessarily endorse or mean to promote anyone’s point of view on the show. Some people might want the show to be like an AA meeting where everyone is telling stories that fit into an agreed-upon ideology that everyone can give a thumbs-up.

Part of the point of this show is I want people to be as ruthlessly honest as they can, to the extent that often you’re gonna hear people and think, “What the hell was he thinking when he did that?” Or, “Why did she interpret those things that happened to her that way?” Sometimes you as the listener are just gonna flat-out disagree. I want people to be honest to the extent that sometimes it might rub some of us the wrong way.

Things change, too. Someone might share a story one year about drinking a lot and it might be a very funny story, and then they might come on a couple of years later and have a very different feeling about their own drinking situation. People are trying to be true to where they are in life at the time.

My editor, Jeff Barr, is very much a skeptic, an atheist, all that sort of thing. He’ll be really annoyed when we have stories on from people who think they’ve seen ghosts, or had conversations with god while hallucinating. I always say to him, “It doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is that the storyteller is trying to be true to what they feel was going on there.” So if they think they were talking to Jesus while on ayahuasca, then fantastic. That’s what they think.

If you name a show Risk! you’re gonna expect things to go off the rails. But we live in a triggering time with triggered people, so it must be difficult to not feed into that but still present the audience with this stuff.
We’re always reminding listeners that we welcome their communication. They can comment on every episode on our website, and sometimes there are really long arguments that people get into. I appreciate that.

I have to admit it does get me emotionally wound up. A lot of times it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’ll give a trigger warning and some people will be upset that it wasn’t enough of a trigger warning and other people will be upset that there was a trigger warning at all. They feel that’s not in the spirit of Risk! The surprises that happen to these people in their stories, in life they didn’t have trigger warnings.

It’s always tricky. I’m very easily shamed, which is why I created the show, because I have such issues with shame. I was raised very, very, very Catholic and got a lot of shaming, especially from my mom. So when people write in and say, “Shame on you!” it will poke at me. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

You’re the figurehead for all these peoples’ crazy stories.
And I have a lot of craziness of my own, which I think people can hear when I talk about some of my sexual foibles. I’m about to do a story soon about some of my own ups and downs with drugs and alcohol. It’s always interesting to me wondering how much I can or should reveal. Because there are some stories you might wanna hold onto. My therapist says this often: “Maybe you wanna hold onto that one for another 15 years or so?”

You have so many stories on the extremes of the human experience. At some point is it just gonna all be people getting fisted by orangutans? How do you keep from getting jaded? How do you keep room for some of the more quiet narratives and the more personal, intimate things?
It’s not how wild and crazy what’s happening in the story is that matters, it’s what the person was feeling and thinking. For example, on one of the earliest episodes a young lady came on and told the story of how she had terrible social anxiety as a kid and one day she agreed to participate in a game of charades in class. It was the most terrifying thing she’d ever done, and it was such an interesting story because playing the game of charades is not a wild and crazy thing to do—it’s not fisting an orangutan or whatever—but she was able to share the vulnerability that she felt and some of the thoughts that went through her head, how she noticed the expression on her face when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. That brings it alive. It’s about, Can you unpack how you were really feeling and thinking about this thing you went through? What makes it evergreen is that people have such different reactions.

Risk! comes to The Vera Project June 10. More info here.

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