Bonfire’s safe, and popular, storytelling space

Live story series is bringing multi-generational tales to sellout crowds

The performers and hosts of the Nov. 2 Bonfire Storytelling event on stage for the show at the Chico Women’s Club. (Photo courtesy of Bonfire Storytelling)

Acie “Twitch” Schiff is no shrinking violet, nor is she a stranger to the stage. As a seasoned actor, writer, punk musician, concert promoter and out-and-proud trans person, she is usually unfazed by self-expression, or by crowds. But that wasn’t the case one night last November, when Schiff found herself shaking in the wings at the Chico Women’s Club, preparing to share a deeply personal story about her father to a packed house for that month’s installment of Bonfire Storytelling.

“I was so nervous before I went on … I was literally trembling, and that’s just not something that happens to me anymore,” Schiff said recently. “But I realized I was sharing my story on stage with other people who were also baring their souls, in an environment of accepting people who wanted to hear what we had to share.”

Schiff made it through her story with aplomb, and said the feeling of accomplishment from the rare opportunity to combine her love of writing and performance—as well as the overwhelming audience response—made it well worth it.

“The applause afterward … it just felt like so much more than from singing someone else’s song or reciting a Shakespeare monologue, because every part of what they were reacting to was me.”

Bonfire is a recurring storytelling event held during the first week of each month. At each event, a multi-generational ensemble of six storytellers—one from each decade, from their teens through their 80s—tells a 10-minute personal tale based on a theme. In Schiff’s case, the November theme was “We Are Family.” Others have included “Ghosts” (October) and “Endings” (December).

As the old adage goes, “Everyone has a story to tell.” If Bonfire’s success is a fair indicator, then local audiences are eager to hear those tales. Since debuting at Ama Posey Studios in June (with an all-LGBTQ roster in honor of Pride Month), the event has outgrown two venues (it was also held at 330 Wall Street in the space once known as the Wall Street Center for the Arts—now law offices). Since moving to the Chico Women’s Club last November, every show has sold out the 180-capacity space, in as fast as 15 minutes.

The event is organized and hosted by Bonnie Pipkin, who grew up in Chico and cut her teeth on stage at the Blue Room Theatre beforemoving to New York City at the age of 18, where she lived for nearly two decades. In New York, she regularly attended storytelling events like The Moth and Generation Women, the latter of which inspired Bonfire’s multi-generational format. Since returning to Chico a few years ago, she’s hosted salon-style birthday parties every March, at which many guests would choose to tell a story for their performance. She pondered doing a public event, and after Posey offered her former studio space as a venue, she decided to jump in with both feet.

“I decided to go for it and to make it a monthly thing,” Pipkin said. “I knew that would be extra work, but wanted it to be that way so it could grow, and to be consistent so that people would know it’s there and will be there when they’re ready to go to it. And people have responded, it seems to have really struck a chord here.”

Pipkin said she designed the event to grow, hoping that each installment’s storytellers would have their own draw and that those storytellers and audience members would return and spread the word, but that she “had no idea it would snowball the way it has.” To date she’s only purchased advertising once—announcing the premier event in this publication—and relies entirely on social media
(@bonfirestorytellingchico on Insta-gram and her personal Facebook page) and word of mouth for promotion.

Pipkin hand-selects the storytellers for each event, with some help from her “co-conspirator” Dylan Latimer (another prodigal Chicoan and Blue Room alum who spent decades in the Big Apple before returning to town). In the month running up to performances, the storytellers meet several times with Pipkin, Latimer and each other to refine and rehearse their stories. She said that, in addition to ensuring age representation, she makes an effort to cultivate diversity and amplify underrepresented voices by always featuring queer people and people of color.

“I want it to be a reflection of our community and our world,” Pipkin said, adding that an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter has been included at each show since September.

Pipkin decided to shake up the format a bit for the first two Bonfire events of 2024. Jan. 4 was the “Wild Card Show,” a “story slam”-style event at which potential storytellers were chosen at random to tell a five-minute tale based on the prompt “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” The top storytellers (judged by a panel of previous participants, including Schiff) won cash prizes. February will feature neurodivergent storytellers and a theme of “Love.”

In March, Bonfire will return to its regular format, and Pipkin intends to make the Women’s Club the event’s permanent home. She also said she plans to extend each monthly outing to two nights, with the same set of storytellers for both shows.

“There’s something that happens in the room the night of the show … it’s connection,” Pipkin said of Bonfire, and of the art of storytelling in general. “I think we don’t take a lot of time, in general, to truly listen to someone’s story. Having a roomful of people holding that space for someone on stage … energetically, that feels really powerful. And I think that’s what has really resonated with people in the community.

“This is a time in the world when we are seeing people dehumanized and I think the act of telling a story is humanizing, and that’s meaningful at this moment in time.”

Next Bonfire:
Bonfire Storytelling,
Feb. 2, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $15; available 1/14 at & Ikoda Collective (232 Broadway)
Chico Women’s Club
592 E. Third St.

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