The Gamechangers is a series of interviews with social activists who are based in and around Belfast that explore how they see the world and what they are doing to change it. The second in the series is an interview with Paul Doran, a journalist and co-creator of Tenx9 (pronounced ‘Ten by nine’), a storytelling event where 9 people have up to 10 minutes to tell a true story about their life.
Hello Paul. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m 49 years old. I’m from Derry originally but I’ve lived in Belfast for 30 years. I came here for University and been here ever since. I’m a journalist in the BBC specializing in politics and political programmes.
Tenx9 is a little side line that I run with Padraig O Tuama. We’ve been running in Belfast for over 3 years now. The idea is that 9 people have up to 10 minutes to tell a true story. We’re not interested in creative writing or fiction or super confident performances, the only thing is all the stories have to be true. We’re interested in stories that haven’t been heard before. We try to create the space where people can speak freely. And a very important thing is that it’s always free. We never charge an entrance fee.
What type of people come?
Initially we would have had about 30 people, most of whom we knew. Many Padraig would have come across in his work or were friends of his. Now, it’s a very different crowd that come. We have a very good range of age and gender. It’s been helped by working with different festivals. We get a lot of people turning up to tell stories who we don’t know. That’s what we’re aiming for. There’s a nice mix.
How do you find people to tell stories?
Initially it was bulling, intimidation and threats! And a little bit of bribery. What I find is there is an element of contagion about it. People come along and think ‘I would like to do that’ and then they come along and tell their first story.
How do you choose the themes for the stories?
We sit down and go through ideas and try to make them wide ranging in their interpretation. They are very often one word but can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes it’s the time of year, Christmas or summer, or in January we had ‘beginings’. It’s about picking something that can be interpreted widely enough for people to tell a story. The range of stories that we get around the theme are very often so different that it indicates that it’s working.
Do you ever get ones that are way off the beaten track?
Always. You never know what to expect. When we did ‘Courage’, as you would expect we had a lot of stories about illness and facing up to certain things. But they were also extremely funny. People have a wry way of looking at things. You never know what to expect.
How did it begin?
The first one was in Belfast in the Green Room at the Black Box. There were about 30 people there. That was in September 2011. Now we get crowds of about 150 plus.
Every month. And always on a Wednesday.
Have you always had it in the Black Box?
We have had it in other places but its spiritual home is the Black box. We’re well established there.
What other places have you had it at?
We’ve done it at different festivals. We’ve done it at Greenbelt in England. Bounce, the disability festival at the Lyric. We’ve done it at Corrymeela. We’re taking it to East Belfast for the C. S. Lewis festival. We’ve also done Pride and the Belfast Comedy Festival, Culture Night, and the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
I’ve heard there are other Tenx9s?
There are other Tenx9s. The first one to start was in Nashville and it’s still going strong. There’s one in Chicago. There’s one in Balham in London. There’s also a variation in the Netherlands as well. These are all people who have come and seen it in Belfast. The Nashville guy used to come to the one in Belfast and learned the rules and asked if he could start one there.
Why do people come to Tenx9?
I’d like to think they come because of the human connection. The audiences are always very, very respectful. We get a lot of very funny stories but we also get a lot of touching and very sad stories. And there’s always that variety. I like to think that people just connect with the human behind the story. That’s why we’re only interested in true stories. For us the audience is as important as the person telling the story. It’s a two-way relationship. If people don’t listen what’s the point in telling?
I think there’s a great desire to hear human stories and there’s a great desire to tell human stories. People do it for different reasons. Some people are great storytellers. For others it’s catharsis. For others it’s about honouring people who have touched their lives.
What’s your favourite or most memorable story?
There’s a few. One woman told a story about the flags dispute and how it impacted upon her and her neighbour. It was an incredible story. Another woman told one at the disability festival. She spoke very slowly and was severely disabled. She was from a traveler family and there was about 20 of them. It was about her mothers relationship with a middle class woman and how the woman would give her the remains of her perfume because she had an 11 year old daughter. It was a stunning story and it was a lot of effort for her to tell it. There was silence at the end of it. It was stunning.
What about the future?
We would love to get a tenx9 up and running in Derry. We would also love to get a publication together so that some of these stories can be circulated more widely. And we’d like to get a podcast up and running too. That would be recording the event so if people miss it they can still hear it.
How do you find out about when it’s on?