Thursday, August 15, 2013


I'd only vaguely heard of the National Storytelling Network in 2005 when my new friend Donna Ingham told me that there was to be a storytelling conference in Oklahoma City, OK.  In a gesture of true mentor-ship, she offered to share her hotel room with this weird Brit, that is, if a 6-hour drive was do-able.  I was in the middle of a successful storytelling year with a hectic summer timetable so it wasn't easy to re-arrange my schedule and I couldn't leave for Oklahoma until the Friday afternoon but it was such a generous gesture and I enjoy an adventure so off I jolly well went.  Oh, how glad I am that I did.

Because there in Oklahoma City, I found out that there existed in the US a veritable tribe of storytellers from every part of the country, from all ethnic origins, with every kind of story.  Please don't think me arrogant when I tell you I had no idea then that the Art of Storytelling was a real and thriving thing and that people other than me were making a living doing it.  Of course I knew I hadn't invented the business of storytelling -- I wasn't that conceited -- but I had invented my own little version of it in Austin, Texas, basically a music town, self-proclaimed "Music Capital of the World."  My own craft had grown organically from a love of telling stories, my life as a theatre actress, and the need to pay my mortgage; I'd been touring Texas schools and libraries with my multicultural folktales for ten years when I set off for Oklahoma that July afternoon.  I genuinely didn't realize that other people were doing precisely what I was doing, and doing it skillfully, fiercely, passionately...and traveling the country with it, indeed the world.  It was stunning to unearth a wealth of storytelling talent I didn't know existed.  There was a whole tribe for me to learn from.  I was truly excited: I was not alone!

Next was the discovery that people were telling personal stories as well as folk tales, and while they stood at the microphone sharing their anecdotal tales with hundreds of listeners, they sang, joked and laughed as if they were with close friends in an English pub, always one of my favorite places to listen to and tell tales.  What a revelation!  You see, I'd created and performed my own personal narratives at local fringe festivals never knowing there was any other platform.  My insular world was changing, opening up.  I drove back with plans to revisit a long list of family stories, travel tales, personal disasters.  I was inspired!

In 2008, Donna and I, now good friends and storytelling colleagues, KOA'ed our way to the conference in Gatlinburg, TN, memorable not just for the wonder of that story-filled weekend and the upward trajectory of my learning curve, but for the 24-hour stomach bug which hit moments after we left the conference center and forced me to sleep and vomit my way to Austin in the back of Jerry Ingham's SUV. 

My lasting memories thus far were of an Elizabeth Ellis' keynote which filled my eyes with tears, my heart with hope; a panel of Native American tellers discussing stories from their native cultures; the multi-teller interpretations of the old folktale, Beauty and the Beast; workshops that crammed my head with wondrous ideas; and an array of delicious stories, the likes of which I'd never tasted before.  I was in storyteller heaven.

This year, the first summer I've been theatre-free in five years, I had the thrill of attending the NSN Conference in Richmond, VA.  Still rooming with Donna Ingham, but this time inviting a new storyteller friend, Joanie Stewart, to join in the conference experience.  I'm a bit more knowledgeable now and wish to share what I love with others.  My pleasure, I assure you!

The 2013 gathering was somewhat different from my previous encounters.  The world is changing and the "business" of storytelling is changing along with it.  This conference embraced and helped disentangle that brave, new world: digital storytelling with Joe Lambert; photo-tales with Oliver Uberti; stories and face-painting with Christopher Agostino.  Allison Downey taught us about story-slamming at The Moth and how to create five-minute anecdotes of our own.  Kim Weitkamp shared her proven marketing ideas on how to get noticed in the plugged-in world of social media.

The blessings of good, old-fashioned storytelling were there too.  Megan Hicks taught us how to fracture fairy tales and we came up with Hansels and Gretls to make you weep!  Darci Tucker demonstrated the art of deep character study to embellish history and keep our youth culture on their toes.  Lyn Ford used the age-old practice of yoga to start our day; we laughed like loonies to lift our spirits!  There were showcases, story swaps, and story slams; there were fringe shows (I did one!), late night stories with wine at the bar, and later night stories in hotel rooms. 

At the end of the day (forgive me, Mum), we still focused on the Art of Storytelling -- "the original sustainable art form" -- but with a set of new variables thrown in for good measure.  I've thought about those variables ever since I got back to Austin and what keeps coming to mind is Elizabeth Ellis' 70th birthday party.  As everyone circled up, I studied those splendid smiling faces, all singing and celebrating, and I thought of Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the people you meet, the stories they'll tell.."

And I remembered what stands out most at NSN conferences: the people, the people, the people.  The world is changing and the "business" of storytelling may have to change with it, but change, for the most part, is a good thing.  After all, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  But as long as we, the people, remain openhearted and open-minded...and tell those tales every chance we get...we can make anything work.  Bring it on, dare I say, bring it on!

Once upon a time, there was a princess with a new set of variables...

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