Telling Room student Leigh Ellis will share the virtual stage next week with a formidable lineup: a Broadway actress currently performing in the musical phenomenon “Hamilton,” a standup comedian who has his own Netflix special, and a singer-songwriter originally from Falmouth who recently signed with a national label.

If Ellis is nervous, they are taking it in stride.

“It’s definitely exciting to be in the same space with these creators,” said Ellis, a senior at Windham High School who has been involved with the Portland-based storytelling nonprofit since attending a summer camp in seventh grade and who already has one book published – a young adult novel titled “Bach in the Barn.”

Ellis will participate with other students, alumni and special guests on Wednesday, April 6, as part of the organization’s fourth annual Show & Tell: A Literary Spectacular, an event that serves as both a showcase of storytelling in various forms and as a major fundraiser.

It’s produced and directed by Sean Mewshaw, a Portland-based film and stage director who worked on such films as “Gangs of New York” and “Remember the Titans,” and directed a feature written by his wife, Desi Van Til, called “Tumbledown,” starring Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall.

Telling Room executive director Kristina Powell. Photo by Rylan Hynes, courtesy of the Telling Room

Kristina Powell, The Telling Room’s executive director, said the performance will be a “true variety show.”


“It’s really just a fun and powerful way people can learn more about our programs,” she said.

The Telling Room was founded in 2004 by nonfiction magazine and book writers Sara Corbett and Michael Paterniti, a married couple who live in Portland, and their fellow storyteller and friend Susan Conley.

With an annual budget just shy of $900,000 and about a dozen full-time staff members, The Telling Room reaches as many as 3,000 writers between the ages of 6 and 18 each year. The organization’s goal is to help young people build confidence and find their voice through storytelling.

In less than two decades, it has become a cultural touchstone and national example of a successful after-school arts program, drawing interest from some of Maine’s best-known writers and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who recognized the organization with a national award in 2015. Former President Barack Obama visited with Telling Room students over Zoom last year.

This year’s showcase has been in the works for months, Powell said. It will be hosted live for a small audience at the Telling Room’s space on Commercial Street and offered digitally, both as a livestream and for people to watch at their convenience. Alumni Ambassadors Yousi Alshuwaili, Cam Jury, Khalil Kilani and Nina Powers will serve as hosts.

Mandy Gonzalez, an actress and author currently starring in the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” records a segment that will be part of “Show & Tell: A Literary Spectactular,” the Telling Room’s annual storytelling showcase and fundraiser. Photo by Chloe Gaget, courtesy of the Telling Room

One of the headlining performances will be from Mandy Gonzalez, a California native who has starred as Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway production of “Hamilton” since 2016. Her other credits include “In the Heights,” which was written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the long-running musical “Wicked,” in which she played Elphaba.


More recently, Gonzalez has written two books in a four-book series, called “Fearless,” that is rooted in her own experience as a young Latina with dreams of reaching the apex of the theater world.

She learned about the Telling Room through a coworker, whose friend is a board member, and loved the organization’s mission. From an early age, Gonzalez said she was drawn to the power of stories.

“When I was a kid, my mom took us to the library. It was my favorite place to be,” she said in a recent interview. “She said, ‘Get whatever you want.’ And they felt like treasures we were going to uncover. It was a magical place.”

As she got older, Gonzalez thought more about the books she read and realized there weren’t many that featured characters who looked like her. That led her to write “Fearless.”

Author Morgan Talty of Levant in a screen grab from a short film based on one of his stories that will be featured in the Telling Room’s annual “Show & Tell” event. Photo by Alex Coppola, courtesy of the Telling Room

The same realization was true for Morgan Talty, a writer whose short-story collection, “Night of the Living Rez,” will be published this summer. Talty lives in Levant but grew up on Indian Island, north of Bangor, which is home to the state’s Penobscot Nation. His stories are often rooted in his heritage.

“I feel it’s important because a lot of things non-Natives see about Indigenous culture is presented in a way that’s colorful, right, but a safe distance away,” he said. “Indigenous people have been defined by white western culture for a long time, but there is an opportunity to broaden our view.”


Talty, 31, had no prior experience with the organization, but learned about it when he attended the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast creative writing graduate program. He’s been working with a local filmmaker to create a short film based on one of his stories.

The other headlining performers – Hari Kondabolu and Genevieve Stokes – both have strong ties to Maine. Stokes, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter, grew up in Falmouth but is currently in Los Angeles recording her debut album. One of her new songs will be featured in Show & Tell.

Kondabolu attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick and performed standup as a student before gaining national fame, including with a Netflix special, “Warn Your Relatives,” and a truTV documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” that explores racist stereotypes of Indian and South Asian people by examining the character from the animated show “The Simpsons.”

Leigh Ellis, a senior at Windham High School, has been invovled with the Telling Room since 7th grade and published a book, “Bach in the Barn,” as part of the Young Emerging Authors Program. Ellis will share a new piece during the organization’s annual “Show & Tell” event. Photo by Molly Haley

Ellis may still be in high school, but they could be on their way to bigger things, too. Ellis wrote and published a novel as part of The Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program, and their current piece, a poem titled “Squid Season,” written last fall, has been adapted into a short film for the Show & Tell program by two California filmmakers.

“When I originally wrote it, I had no idea it would be adopted into anything other than my notebook,” Ellis said.

The story is deeply personal and Ellis said it’s a “little bit nerve-racking,” to think about sharing so widely.


“But the Telling Room has been a really open space for sharing personal stories I might not share,” they said.

Powell, the Telling Room’s director, said there has been a tremendous amount of energy around creating Show & Tell, some of likely pent-up creativity from the pandemic.

“I think like many nonprofits, we’re really thinking about how to consider the impact of the pandemic for the next year and future,” she said.

Ellis said there is no question the pandemic has provided ample time for creative thought.

“I feel like the pandemic has given a lot of kids time and space to reflect and just like think about our identity and our place in society. And that comes through in writing more than ever before,” they said.

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