Meet the women helping Madison tell its stories through a podcast and more

Jen Rubin and Takeyla Benton co-host the podcast “Inside Stories: Exploring Madison One Story at a Time.”
three individuals talking into speakers
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

Hang around Jen Rubin and Takeyla Benton long enough and one of them will quote Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” It’s the kind of thing you expect to hear from experienced storytellers, but it also explains why the pair, who co-host the podcast “Inside Stories: Exploring Madison One Story at a Time,” have fashioned careers out of helping others find their voice.

In addition to their podcast, Rubin and Benton individually host storytelling events and workshops at venues such as The Moth StorySLAM, Chazen Museum of Art and the UW Odyssey Project. “Inside Stories,” produced by Richard Jones Jr. of Oddly Arranged Media, features short first-person narratives told live in front of an audience, often at those events. In one episode, journalist James Edward Mills recalls the time he inadvertently spent his 44th birthday in a brothel in Ethiopia. In another, novelist and retired firefighter Greg Renz shares a gripping tale about rescuing two young boys from a burning basement.

The stories are at turns hilarious and heartrending, but Rubin and Benton aren’t content to end things there. After the telling is done, the co-hosts sit down with the episode’s featured guest to break down the story’s various craft elements and emotional content.

“It’s really about, how do you take a thing that happened — like, ‘Oh, I broke my toe walking my dog’ or whatever — and start to pull out some universal threads?” says Rubin, who acknowledges that podcast guests vary in skill and experience. “Someone who has the raw materials for an incredible story and knows how to craft it is going to tell the best story you’ve ever heard. But you don’t need to tell the best story anyone’s ever heard. You need to tell a good story that people connect with.”

Like their guests, the co-hosts took divergent paths to storytelling. Rubin has worked as an advocate, and at various points helped victims of domestic abuse and housing discrimination tell their own tales. (She also wrote a book, “We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood,” about her immigrant grandfather’s radio repair shop on Manhattan’s changing Upper West Side.) Benton cut her teeth doing spoken word poetry in the late ’90s and as a co-producer of Madison’s annual “Listen to Your Mother” event. Whereas Rubin is a chatty and analytical New Yorker, Benton is a self-described introvert and unapologetic empath who also dabbles in tarot reading, reiki and guided meditation. (Benton’s new podcast, “Key Transformations,” explores these other interests.) When a student approached them after a 2018 workshop to suggest the two had good chemistry, Benton almost didn’t believe him. “I was like, ‘Really? Our energy is good together?’ Because we’re both Awkward Annies. I guess we balance each other out.”

That balance keeps “Inside Stories” humming. “I come in with my dissertation notes, Takeyla comes in ready to emote,” jokes Rubin. Adds Benton, “As long as people have stories to tell, we’ll keep doing this.”

Have a story you need to tell? Jen Rubin is co-hosting a four-week storytelling workshop with Marisol Gonzalez-Rodriguez and Brendon Panke at the Arts + Literature Laboratory on Tuesday nights starting April 5. Sign up at artlitlab.org.

Jeff Oloizia is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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