TMI — or too much information — is what people say when they don’t want to hear more of a personal story, but that may be just the part that needs telling. According to the non-profit organization TMI Project, sharing personal stories can be transformative — both for the teller and the audience.
“Many of us have stories we’ve never told anyone because there’s shame attached to them,” said Eva Tenuto, co-founder and executive director of the TMI Project. “Shame prevents sharing, so you keep the stories to yourself and only interpret them from your own perspective. You spend time thinking if people found out this thing about you, they would judge you, so it snowballs and prevents true connection between you and others.”
Like the mythical monster under the bed, an untold story can provoke debilitating fear, even if the threat has no substance. Disarming the monster is simple. Sometimes, all you have to do, says Tenuto, is tell your story.
The Kingston-based nonprofit was founded by Tenuto, who also formed the Women’s Experimental Theater Group, and two other Ulster County creatives; Sari Botton, editor of the award-winning anthology “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York” and Julie Novak, a performance artist and co-author of the feminist coloring book “Girls Are Not Chicks.”
TMI Project was created to help participants tell their stories, even if they have never written anything or performed in front of an audience. During the last seven years, TMI Project workshops have helped hundreds of participants find the story they needed to tell, taught them how to write a monologue, and how to deliver it at a public performance. Workshop participants receive writing prompts, suggestions, edits and advice, whether they attend the standard program for the general public or one customized for teens, college students or with a partner organization, like the Mental Health Association of Ulster County (MHA).
Storytellers are often surprised by the relief they feel after telling their story.
“Once you get the courage to stand up in front of a group of people and share your story, you’re met with the opposite of what you’ve anticipated,” said Tenuto. “Instead of being judged, you’re met with gratitude from the audience. People come up to you and say, ‘I’ve experienced the exact same thing and I’ve never heard anyone brave enough to talk about it. What a relief. Thank you!’ The past experience the participant held in a negative way is turned into a source of inspiration for others.”
The idea for the TMI Project began when Tenuto was asked for the third time to direct a production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” Previous productions, with more or less the same cast, were successful fundraisers for United Way of Ulster County. Having spent considerable time with the cast, Tenuto knew the women had stories of their own to tell, so she asked if instead of performing “The Vagina Monologues” again, this time the women could tell their own stories. After the fundraising committee hesitantly agreed, cast members began crafting monologues.
“By the time we were done, we were no longer just talking about our vaginas but we were talking about a whole lot of things, so we weren’t sure what to call the new production,” said Tenuto. “The one through-line of our stories was we were all telling the parts we usually leave out because we were too ashamed or embarrassed to tell them. The ‘Too Much Information’ parts of the story.”
The audience reaction during the first performance helped Tenuto realize that they were on to something. She observed that telling these stories not only helped participants shed the weight of a shameful secret, but hearing the stories inspired the audience. Tenuto heard one story about an audience member who was finally encouraged to go into therapy after hearing the women’s stories.
And thus, the TMI Project was born; after Botton and Novak’s talents were enlisted, the project snowballed. The stories an audience might hear at a TMI Project performance vary, given the theme of the particular workshop and its participants. Stories might range from comic, such as a real estate agent being caught in the office without any pants on, to heartbreaking, such as the story in which a woman forgave her brother for childhood incest. However silly or solemn they are, shared stories have the power to illuminate the human condition and foster true connection.
Since the organization’s founding, many stories have inspired Tenuto, but one stands out. It’s the story of a 25-year-old woman who participated in a program staged with MHA.
“She had been hospitalized five times before she came to the TMI Project workshop and none of the treatments were working for her,” said Tenuto. “She was shy and withdrawn throughout the workshop. When she finally read her piece for the first time, she seemed to light up, saying, ‘This is exactly how I’ve always wanted to tell my story. This is perfect.’”
The next day the young woman performed her story at the MHA reading and was pleased at the response. TMI Project commonly asks previous participants to share their monologues with other groups, so the young woman was invited to read her story at a local high school. Although warned that teens might not be an easy crowd, she still wanted to read. It worked out well. After her performance students were so inspired that 10 signed up for a workshop.
“She ended up starting a blog about mental health,” said Tenuto. “She got published on MTV.com and other websites. She came to Buffalo with us and performed in front of 250 people for Americorps. She just won the Next Generation Award at the YWCA of Ulster County for work she’s doing in the mental health community. It was incredible to watch her transform but it was even more inspiring to witness her share her story to raise awareness about mental illness. She is helping so many other people.”
Tenuto sees storytelling as a form of activism, a way to empower people and bring about social change, one story at a time. That’s why the organization is developing ways to make the methodology accessible to teachers, mental health professionals and community activists.
“We want to make this work accessible to more people without jeopardizing the quality. It has always been our intention to work with populations that don’t always have a chance to tell a story or be heard,” Tenuto said.
The TMI Project has a busy few months ahead — check out some of their upcoming projects below: