How Stories With Spirit Soared Globally During the Pandemic

Cooper Braun, co-owner of Stories With Spirit, has been involved with theater since high school.
Cooper Braun, co-owner of Stories With Spirit, has been involved with theater since high school. Scott Yoho/Longmont Museum
Acting partners Cooper Braun and Rachel Ann Harding started Stories With Spirit in 2014 to share their acting and storytelling with adult audiences. When the pandemic hit, they took their performances to Zoom, gaining a wider fan base from the U.S., Canada, Singapore, Australia and India. Over eight performances, they brought in around $9,000 in sales — an unprecedented success for the duo.

“We adopted a pay-what-it’s-worth model for our online shows,” Braun explains. “Tickets are free, but registration is required. After the show, I ask that folks consider what an hour and a half of art was worth to them and to express that if they can.”

Long before launching Stories With Spirt, Braun and Harding knew they were natural storytellers. Braun grew up in Boulder; his family didn't have a TV set until he was ten.

“I was read to a great deal as a child,” Braun explains. “The child pacification method my parents employed was story records and cassette tapes. I consumed them voraciously. Not having a TV meant, as a child, I was culturally illiterate as far as my friends were concerned. I didn’t have the cartoon or TV show references that they shared. But it was honestly not that big of a deal for me.”

He attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, hoping to earn a degree in computer science — but the theater bug bit him hard.

“Theater is what I lived and breathed in college,” Cooper says. “I spent almost every waking hour in the theater. About half-and-half acting and tech. I played the Boy in Waiting for Godot, Tartuffe in Tartuffe, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among others.

“My technical focus was on lighting design and carpentry,” he adds. “I did some sound design, stage management and film, as well. I could project my voice, hold presence on stage [and] deal with lights in my eyes. Learning to ‘tell’ a story versus ‘performing’ one took some time.”

Harding, born in Alaska, moved to Boulder in 2009 to be closer to her Colorado-based family and the mountains. She fell in love with theater at a young age.

“When I was but a wee sprout, I took classes in improvisation and vocal technique,” she relates. “Upon moving to Colorado, I attended Naropa University and studied theater as part of my interdisciplinary studies along with music and childhood education. I love telling stories to all ages, but there is a particular delight to watching a child listen to a story.

“I discovered traditional storytelling in 2011 at the Conference on World Affairs when I saw the Northern Irish storyteller Liz Weir tell a set of traditional stories,” Harding continues. “She invited me to come and study with her, and in October of 2012, I flew to Northern Ireland and spent a month following her across the countryside. Upon my return to the states, I set my feet on the path of storytelling and never looked back.”
click to enlarge Rachel Ann Harding, co-owner of Stories With Spirit, has had an affinity for storytelling and theater since she was young. - SIMON BROOKS
Rachel Ann Harding, co-owner of Stories With Spirit, has had an affinity for storytelling and theater since she was young.
Simon Brooks
Braun and Harding crossed paths in 2013 while performing at a storytelling open mic in Boulder. They soon hosted the open mic together and discovered that they meshed well. So in 2014, they started Stories With Spirit at the now-shuttered Still Cellars Art House and Distillery in Longmont.

“Rachel Ann and I balance one another out,” Braun says. “She is a head-in-the-clouds optimist, always thinking of a million new things we could do. I am a realist at the best of times and a pessimist at the worst. Together, we make a fantastic team.”

Harding enjoys that she and Braun can perform stories in front of mature crowds

“Cooper is a fantastic, creative partner who is all about telling traditional stories for adults,” she exclaims. “When we met, I was mostly telling stories to children, and it was refreshing to work with someone who wanted to dive into more emotionally complex folktales for an older audience.”

Braun explains that Stories With Spirit is in the same ballpark as New York’s the Moth, a club where thousands of storytellers have presented stories and often intertwine theater and documentary techniques.

“Storytelling is a sister art to theater,” he explains. “Its closest relative might be stand-up comedy, by which I mean that when I perform, I stand in one place on stage, and I talk. There are no lighting or sound cues. There is no fourth wall. Both the storyteller and the audience accept that we are in the same room together. This may, at first, seem strange to audience members used to a theatrical setting. But I find most people quickly grow to enjoy the difference.”

Braun and Harding perform a mix of traditional fare such as Grimm's Fairy Tales and original works. One of the latter programs, Transformation, dealt with stories of change and longing for change, while Facing the Dark 1 and 2 tackled loss, redemption, facing current and past demons and more. No matter what story Braun and Harding tell, they want to whisk audiences away from their current situations.

“The goal is to be present and ground the audience,” Braun explains. “To help them find the story in their own minds. To tell, as opposed to perform, the story. This is a tightrope, as I want my voice and gesture to be able to carry the audience while keeping them as participants.”

Harding, on the other hand, likes to implement a visualization approach.

“I am very visual and literal, so often I will know what my characters and their environment look like,” she says. “It helps me orient in the story and makes it easier to describe what the listeners should know. When I map out the story in my head, even changing the location of landmarks in the story changes the way characters act and move through narrative.

“I love how storytelling can transport an audience to a completely unique experience,” Harding adds. “Each person is hearing the same story, but seeing or imagining something completely unique to them.”

At the end of the day, Braun hopes to inspire others with his knack for storytelling.

“At the core, I want to open people’s hearts,” he declares. “To make them feel inspired. That darkness can be conquered.”

To learn more about Stories With Spirit and to register for a performance of Fairy Tale Variations: The Princess and the Frog on May 8, visit the Stories With Spirit Facebook page.
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Khaleel Hayes is a writer and journalist who graduated from MSU Denver in 2018. His body of work includes profiles, film reviews, poetry, short plays and photography.
Contact: Khaleel Hayes