Dallas native shares stories with show ‘Oral Fixation’, by Michelle Hammond, SMU Daily Campus

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December 9, 2013 at 10:43 pm
Nicole Stewart, creator of show “Oral Fixation” at The MAC. (Courtesy of Nicole Stewart)
Nicole Stewart, creator of show “Oral Fixation” at The MAC. (Courtesy of Nicole Stewart)

When Allison Hatfield first started going to “Oral Fixation” at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary museum a year ago, she was only there to support her friend Sara, who was sharing her story for that night’s “Cooking with Gas” show.

But it wasn’t long before Hatfield, a 42-year-old Dallas native, became a loyal member of the audience.

Every month she would go see the one night only story-telling performance, and every month she would hear Nicole Stewart, the creator of “Oral Fixation,” give an introduction before each show.

The introductions always varied depending on the theme of the show, but there was one thing Stewart would always say: “The story tellers go through a very rigorous editing process.”

As a bit of a pessimist and a skeptic by nature, Hatfield always had the same reaction.

“Really? How rigorous could it actually be? You’re an actress, not an editor…” she would think to herself. Hatfield has been working as managing editor of “Daily Candy,” a web-based fashion, beauty and entertainment publication, for almost nine years.

She was confident that if anyone knew a rigorous editing process, she did.

When the time came to submit stories for the theme of last February’s show, “Playing the Field,” Hatfield decided she would give it a try.

She felt she needed to reconnect with a part of herself she had silenced over the years, and the fact that she would finally experience this rigorous editing process she had heard so much about for herself was definitely a plus.

“So I submit my story… and I realize it’s a freaking rigorous editing process,” Hatfield said, shaking her head as if still in disbelief.

Many might find it hard to believe that Stewart, a 34-year-old petite, peppy, Southern redhead would be capable of imposing such an intense process on her storytellers, but those who know her well understand there is so much more to Stewart than meets the eye.

“Nicole is one of the most creative, go-getter types I’ve ever met,” Hatfield said. “She will absolutely ask for what she wants and isn’t afraid to hear the word ‘no.’”

Stewart attended Northwestern University’s theater department, lived in New York for two years and Los Angeles for six before finally returning to Dallas, her hometown.

“It was great,” Stewart said about her travels as a young, aspiring actress. “I felt like I was at the center of everything. Looking back I don’t think I was at the center of much, but I was at least close to people who were at the center of the fields that I was interested in,” she said.

It was while living in LA at the age of 26 that Stewart first encountered “Spark Off Rose,” a storytelling show, and immediately fell in love with the idea of storytelling within a community.

“Especially in LA where everyone is working so hard to put on a persona…I thought, how revolutionary to have people being real on stage as opposed to acting,” Stewart said.

It was something Stewart never knew existed before, and because she felt her experience in L.A. had not been the most genuine, she felt ready for a certain kind of realness in her life.

She became involved in the community and when she moved back home, she was disappointed to see there was nothing like it. However, Stewart’s disappointment was short-lived.

Upon realizing there wasn’t a storytelling show in Dallas, she simply decided to take on the challenge of creating one herself.

By this time she had already successfully set up her pilates business as a side career, so Stewart fearlessly began to take writing classes, personal non-fiction writing classes and began working with a writing coach to get her new project off the ground.

She mentioned the idea to her husband, Anton Schlesinger, who works in marketing, and he was on board and willing to help right away.

“I’ve known him my whole life, or, more accurately, his whole life,” Stewart said.

Her light blue eyes brighten as she recalls the rare story of how she met her husband.Their parents were friends from the time they were both born and when she was three years old she was taken to his house. They grew up and went their separate ways, reconnected years later and eventually got married and moved back to Dallas.

The phrase “It was meant to be” has never seemed more appropriate.

Besides her husband, who offered to help with marketing and as well as being co-producer and art director of the show, Stewart received help from Gail Sachson, former chair of the Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission.

Sachson knew Stewart’s parents, and when she heard of the artistic endeavor she was taking on, she jumped right in and became an unofficial mentor to Stewart.

Stewart had always admired The McKinney Avenue Contemporary and didn’t hesitate to approach it about her project.

Even though the show was still without a name, she was able to get a space to perform in.

After signing the contract with The MAC, Stewart had just one month to spread the word, name the show and get people to share stories.

With the help of her small team, Stewart got the show a Facebook page and a logo, and began to spread the word.

Meanwhile, Sachson created the show’s bold name: “Oral Fixation.”

“It was obvious after hearing what she was thinking about doing,” Sachson said. “I thought, ‘sexy, serious, welcoming… this is just too tempting its got to be ‘Oral Fixation’.”

The first show had an audience of 55, the second show had one of 75 and by the third, “Oral Fixation” had sold out with an audience of 125.

After the third performance, “Oral Fixation” sold out every single night it was on.

“We all have stories to tell, and Nicole [Stewart] helps us realize their significance, drama and universality,” Sachson said.

For each of the monthly “Oral Fixation” performances, there is a different theme, which is always an idiom of Stewart’s choice.

“I basically text myself every time I hear someone say an idiom,” Stewart said. “I have this database I’ve created, it’s…like 300 idioms or something, so if everyone loves the show we can basically live on forever.”

Evidently, when Stewart wants to make something happen, she will.

“Luckily I’m pretty persuasive,” she says smiling.

Randy Brooks, a musician from Kentucky who has lived most of his life in Dallas, fell victim to Stewart’s canny gift of persuasion.

“She’s tiny but she’s just so confident,” Brooks said.

When Stewart first reached out to him, Brooks, the man who wrote the lyrics to the novelty song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” he didn’t think he had a story to tell. Stewart encouraged him to tell the story of how he came up with the iconic Christmas song and that’s exactly what he did.

“It was a little off-putting not knowing someone and having them tell me how to tell my story but she’s always right,” he said.

As someone who is certainly not a newcomer to the show business world, Brooks, 65, admires Stewart’s drive to make the show a success.

“If at her age I had been trying to direct other people…I think I might have been intimidated but she’s not. She knows exactly where she is going and what she wants,” he said.

Paul Scott, a human resources manager at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, shares the same appreciation for Stewart’s commitment.

“She’s got the magic formula and she knows what she wants the audience to experience,” Scott said.

Scott, 44, participated in the show with the theme “Baby Steps” in season two. He shared a very personal story in which he described a medical procedure he underwent and decided to make the story humorously over the top.

Like Hatfield and Brooks, Scott reaches the same verdict when thinking back on his turn at “Oral Fixation.”

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” he said.

For Stewart, “Oral Fixation” is the bridge between being an actor and not being an actor. She dedicates countless hours to perfecting the show, from editing with her storytellers to constantly trying to get the show’s name out there and encouraging more people to share their stories.

It has become a huge part of her life, and even more so a few months ago, when she decided to share onstage one of the most difficult and devastating moments of her life.

When Stewart picked “Bun in the Oven” as this season’s opening theme for “Oral Fixation,” she was inspired by her own pregnancy at the time.

Just a month after deciding on the theme, at 20 weeks pregnant, Stewart discovered her fetus had an abnormality. At 22 weeks, she had to have an abortion.

While she was initially tempted to change the theme, Stewart decided to share her story, regardless of the painful turn it had taken.

“I just decided that if I can’t be a role model and show my community what I’m really asking people to do then why am I doing it in the first place?” Stewart said.

Despite her family’s attempts to talk her out of it, and the fear of what the reactions to the story might be in a place like Dallas, Stewart did it anyway.

“I felt like it was a gift for me to be able to let it go in that way,” she said. “It was one of the best nights of my life.”

Stewart said the feedback from the audience of 200 that night was more supportive than she was expecting. Some audience members even came up to her after the show and shared similar stories.

It’s only been five months since Stewart had the misfortune of losing her baby, but she tells her story with grace and tranquility.

“Nicole [Stewart] puts together shows where there’s something for everybody,” Scott said. “Whether you’re there to laugh or work through your own demons, every piece has a moment you can relate to.”

After having experienced the show both as an audience member and as a performer, Hatfield believes Stewart has enriched what the Dallas cultural scene has to offer, and said “Oral Fixation” is undoubtedly one of the best nights in Dallas.

“She’s a person that surprises you because she’s pretty, she’s sweet and she’s funny, but there’s a lot of depth there that maybe you’re not expecting,” Hatfield said.

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