The Story Portal: Building Community at Burning Man

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Rendering of the 2013 Story Portal

This morning, I looked up “Burning Man” on Kickstarter and found out about a gem of a project in the works: “The Story Portal.” If you’re going to Apogaea this June or Burning Man this August, you’ll get the opportunity to take their steampunk-style stage.

What is the Story Portal?

A participant-driven art installation, volunteers spin a wheel which gives them a subject from their own lives on which to speak. Then, they tell their story to the crowd.


I had the opportunity to ask project lead, Robert Rhu, questions about the Story Portal. Here’s what he had to say.

1. Tell us about the moment the Story Portal was conceived. What circumstances sparked the idea?
A few of us who are founding members of The Story Portal are professional facilitators. We all met through the Burning Man community. As we got to know each other we discovered a shared passion for the power story plays in facilitating transformation and connection between people - despite seemingly different backgrounds or world-views. Over the months we were getting to know each other many conversations occurred about this topic. We kept chatting about how we could take that passion out into the world.
About eight months into knowing each other we began hosting experiential Burning Man-esque events/parties at a beautiful community space outside of Boulder, CO called the Koi Temple. These events had multiple spaces where a variety of activities were occurring that were meant to foster connections and communication between attendees. One of the spaces had a primitive fortune wheel mounted to a wall that was used as a tool to get people engaging with each other. There were things like "serenade a stranger", "give your neighbor a foot massage", or "tell a secret to a stranger" as topics on these wheels. We rotated initiatives depending on the theme of each event.

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Story wheel for 2012 Story Portal

During one of these parties I had the revelation that we could create a wheel of story topics. I immediately went over to my partners in crime and conveyed the idea, suggesting we build a wheel to take to our regional Burning Man event, Apogaea. We built a primitive wheel similar to the ones we used at our Koi Temple events and took it to Apogaea. It was a HUGE success. There were few hours during the event when people were not sharing stories with each other. From there the project was spawned and has been on a very steep trajectory ever since.
2. What outcome from the original Story Portal you built for Apogaea last year inspired you to go bigger this year?
At Burning Man 2012 we built a much more elaborate wheel. It was a 9 foot tall hand-crafted Price is Right-style wheel. It allowed for interchangeable topic panels that were beautifully routed on a CNC router. The wheel fit 20 topics at a time, but an additional 60 could be swapped out. It was quite an evolution from the previous wheel at Apogaea earlier that summer. We set it up in a 20x10 carport tent with a small stage and microphone. The response was more than we could have hoped for. There was a constant stream of storytellers throughout the event.
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Telling stories at Burning Man

All of us have been attending Burning Man for many years. Many of us have been attending for a decade or more. If there is one thing that we have all noticed about the evolution of Burning Man it is that it has gotten further away from its roots as a community of creatives who are meant to express themselves at their most intimate and sincere levels. Our belief is that participants are truly the star of the Burning Man show. Yet as the event has grown the focus has become more about large raves and self indulgent behavior. No judgment in that at all. For us it has simply strayed from what we see the core values of the event to be.
The lesson we took away from The Story Portal at Burning Man in 2012 is that there is such richness in each individual who attends Burning Man. It is each person’s story that creates the totality of what we experience as the magic of Burning Man. From that perspective we decided that we MUST build something that shifts the focus back to the participant - making each individual and their story the star of the show. So we have set out to build an interactive setting that brings all the attention to the beauty that is Burning Man - the individual and the creative essence in them born out of their life story.
3. Is there an ultimate goal or purpose motivating your creation of The Story Portal?
Plans for The Story Portal are well beyond Burning Man and this project. As I mentioned, many of us are professional facilitators. We plan to apply for nonprofit status in the fall, creating an organization that offers workshops and creates other interactive art pieces that engage people's stories. The Story Portal aims to connect individuals to the vast world of shared experience through spontaneous and true storytelling. We have many plans to take that mission out into the wider world.
An example is our Story Portal smartphone app and website. The app replicates our wheel concept. There will be functionality to record and upload stories to a website where people will be able to connect with each other around their shared stories. Our hope is that we will be able to create a vast network where people will be able find others who share similar life experience and connect toward personal and communal transformation. The app will be launched in the next three weeks and the website will go live in the fall.
It is our belief that when stories are shared, all of our lives transform for the betterment of humanity. Our purpose may sound lofty, but we have proven it to be true through our projects and are confident we will be transforming lives through story for many years to come.
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Model of the 2013 Story Portal

The Story Portal project resonates with me because I believe there’s something mystical in the art of telling one’s story. A good storyteller moves us into new realities or offers alternate perspectives on the realm we currently inhabit. We are brought together by the tales we tell, whether these be our nursery rhymes, movies, headline news or life stories. For better or worse, cultures are defined by the stories we tell.

I imagine The Story Portal to be like a drawbridge with which we invite strangers into the fortress which protects our hearts. Vulnerability births strong community; it takes trust to lay aside our armor and expose our weaknesses.

Will I have the guts to gamble my secrets on the mercy of the story wheel at Burning Man this year? I’m the kind of speaker who blushes and fumbles. Truth be told, I’m more excited to hear your stories than to tell my own. But in Burning Man’s spirit of freedom and adventure, I’ll spin the wheel.

What do you think of the Story Portal? Please show the creators some love by leaving a comment below!


By Kimbriel Dean


1. Sara

May 7, 2013 at 2:18 PM

A totally awesome idea! I took a creative writing class where students had to write an event from their lives and then we had to edit/critique each others stories. I learned from this that everyone has interesting and unique things to say, just that they don't always know how to express them well. If I were an editor I don't think I'd ever reject a manuscript! (Just a lot of reworking though!)

2. Hannah

May 20, 2013 at 10:06 PM

This is a really good idea. A lot of students from my school go to Burning Man or Afterburn or PreHeat and some of their stories are sometimes discouraging about how some people aren't getting into the sense of community that Burning Man is supposed to reflect, so I think this is a nice idea and a good way to help people open up through common and personal experiences.