Thursday, June 09, 2005

Article: Will You Tell Me a Story?

Will You Tell Me a Story?
by Mel Edwards
Copyright April 13, 2005. All rights reserved.

Parents and baby-sitters are begged nightly for a bedtime story. The first time a child I was caring for looked up and made his plea, my heart and mind began to race. What kind of story? A good one? What will he like? I frowned and offered, “I don’t know any stories. I would be happy to read one to you. Do you have any books?” At the time, I was relieved to learn that he had a small library in his room. I had no idea how vast my options truly were.
It was not until six years ago that I, a high school English teacher, was even made aware of the world of oral storytelling as a medium to entertain, educate and reach anyone I desired. By divine grace, it seems, a workshop for using storytelling in the classroom was offered as in-service training for my district’s faculty. I thought the workshop would be a fun and easy way to rack up my required training hours, fairly certain that I’d never really use storytelling in my high school classroom. Instead of an easily-forgotten workshop, I was given an entirely new direction in life.

What is storytelling?
Storytelling has been around for centuries as a way for news to travel, friends to connect and keep in touch and to entertain. Remember, the Iliad and Odyssey were not books, but stories that bards learned and passed from listener to listener. Long before the postmodern communication age, those who knew each other well would gather in the evenings and entertain themselves with tales from lore, and whenever a stranger was in their midst, he was often asked to spin yarns from his travels and experiences.
According to Joseph Sobol, the modern storytelling revival emerged in the early 1970s in America. Many tellers of that movement had been politically active during the Vietnam era and were less than thrilled with mass media as a form of entertainment. Seeking new ways to connect with friends and strangers alike, some focused upon keeping the oral tradition alive by any means necessary, telling for impromptu audiences of in city parks or to friends over dinner. Others developed audiences in libraries, school and worked their craft in auditoriums filled with listeners. The folk tale tradition offered ample material without the constraints of copyright hurdles.
As American media has changed and the founders of the movement aged, storytelling has evolved to include rap, mime, American Sign Language and multi-lingual stories shared around the world using some of the same communications that the founders often shunned in their daily lives. Stories spring forth in ever increasingly disparate venues and are not the playroom or bedside companions some of us naively believe them to be.

Where can I hear stories?
Those curious about storytelling should begin their listener’s journey close to home. If no one in your inner circle is a gifted teller, you may want to begin with a trip to your local public library for audio recordings of stories. The Internet also is rife with streaming media and downloadable tales. Established storytellers have videos, cassette tapes and cds available for sale via personal websites.
However, if you want to know the true joy of tellers’ skills, you should seek out live performances. There are local storytelling events in every state, and a National Storytelling Festival each October in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Contact your state arts council for information on events in your vicinity. However, don’t limit yourself to the locals. You may miss out on some extraordinary artists. The National Storytelling Network (NSN), cosponsors the national festival and maintains a database of professional storytellers and links to publishers of tales.
Not all stories or storytellers are alike. Do not be disheartened if you do not find a teller whose style and choice of material fail to resonate with you. However, be forewarned, that after one live storytelling event, you may be transformed while on the listener’s journey. I never anticipated that after a single trip to Jonesborough, I would have the urge to learn to spin my own verbal yarns.

What storytelling training is available?
The type of training a student desires will depend on what type of storyteller she wants to become. If graduate school sounds exciting, East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, offers one of the only master’s degrees available in Storytelling. Your aspirations may be more humble. Great. Many colleges offer single classes or concentrations in the genre as well.
Those with more modest stores of time, energy and money for their craft can learn more specific skills directly from the professional tellers. Find a local teller whose style and personality matches yours and contact him about workshops he offers. If you do your research, you’re bound to click with someone who can not only mesmerize you as a listener but ignite your burning desire to become a skilled teller in your own right. Even if your loftiest goal is to tell merely for the joy of enthralling a toddler just once, a seminar or class still will help your reach your destination.
If you live in a remote area or your lifestyle has less flexibility, there is still hope. You may find through your local arts organizations, or via NSN, that a storytelling guild meets in your community. Publishers, such as August House, focus upon the world of story by offering tales you may learn to share, tomes on technique and tips and tricks on establishing storytelling in your community and classrooms. Web-based publishers, including, offer the bare outlines or bones of tales for storytellers to learn for far less than most seminars or workshops would cost. Texas Women’s University also hosts a storytelling list-serve where serious students of the craft may speak with active tellers and event organizers or learn about the profession while lurking in the shadows until ready to introduce step up and be recognized.
Children can be trained to become performing tellers. Many schools offer storytelling electives. Tellers such as Karen Chace, of Massachusetts, is a professional teller who coaches a youth storytelling club and does so with the blessing of the school board, parents and teachers alike. Young tellers with skill and no fear of crowds can even earn a coveted slot at the Jonesborough festival in the Youthful Voices concert.

Now, the next time someone looks to you and says, “Tell me a story,” smile, breathe and know you’ve got this request covered. Whether you pop in a recording, pick up a publication or recall a tale you have told a hundred times, remember, it is all storytelling, and there are stories are for everyone.

Baldwin, J. Bare Bones. Volumes 1-4.
Chace, K. Professional Storyteller.
National Storytelling Network.
Sobol, J. (1999.) The Storyteller’s Journey: An American Revival. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

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