Creating Connections, One Story at a Time

By Penelope Starr

Once a week I meet up with four friends and we walk a mile along a dry-river path to a coffee shop where we sip beverages, eat bagels and gab. Our ages range from late fifties to early eighties—we have more than three hundred years of combined life stories to share.

Last week we sat at an outdoor table overlooking a parking lot next to a middle aged man in a baseball cap who was reading while he sipped his coffee. I was facing him and noticed he was staring off into space rather than burying his nose in his book. It seemed like he was deliberately trying to look like he was lost in reverie but I knew he was straining to hear our conversation.

Our usual lively exchange ranged from the latest political scandal to vaginal plastic surgery. We told each other about having a difficult mother in assisted living and an ill child. We shared snippets from our outrageous pasts. With each intimate revelation, I glanced at the listener to confirm he was, indeed, following our stories. When he got up to leave we waved and said goodbye but he didn’t respond or acknowledge his eavesdropping. We all agreed that he had gotten an earful and an education.

Our walk-talks have cemented already strong friendships into something more akin to a community. We share our truths in a safe space, listening to each other with wonder and respect.

It reminds me of a community storytelling event. Everyone has a voice and feels heard. There is no censorship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our opinions. Our bond is the agreement to listen to each others stories.

This is what I’ve learned in the thirteen years since I created Odyssey Storytelling, a monthly community storytelling event in Tucson, Arizona. My original intention was to create an entertaining event by inviting local people to share their interesting and edifying stories with an audience. I have always loved listening to stories and I assumed that everyone else did too.

But I didn’t know how much more there was to community storytelling. Month after month I watched people gain confidence in their newly learned storytelling skills as they shared intimate details from their lives. I heard stories that bridged cultural divides. I was witness to prejudices softening and connections being made. I sensed profound and deep healing from tellers and listeners. I reveled in the pure democracy of uncensored voices. I experienced radical acceptance and deep empowerment.

My journey from story listener to story producer is a do-it-yourself tale. Enthusiasm carried me when experience was lacking. My strategy was to figure it out along the way. It worked for me but not until I suffered a few disasters and learned lessons the hard way.

I didn’t have a clear roadmap to follow so I decided to write a book to help others navigate this path. The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events chronicles my journey, offering tips for success and pitfalls to avoid. But most of all, the book is about the stories I heard over the last dozen plus years that connected me to the amazing community of tellers and listeners.

Just like my walking group, community storytelling creates connections one story at a time.

About Penelope

Nothing in Penelope Starr’s background prepared her for her thirteen year adventure in community storytelling. Penelope taught herself how to produce a storytelling event, coach tellers, wrangle venues, make websites and market Odyssey Storytelling. Now, at seventy-one, she taught herself how to write a book about it. Look for The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events, published by Parkhurst Brothers in 2017. Her next adventure is consulting with groups who want to start their own community storytelling.

Contact Penelope

You can find her on Facebook and at


Tell Your Family’s Story

By Anne Shimojima

Of all the storytelling projects I’ve been involved with in the last thirty-plus years, none has been more meaningful, more revealing, or more personally satisfying than the story of my own family’s journey from Japan to the United States and their incarceration during World War II. But it was a surprising turn for me, a teller of folk tales who came from a family that never talked about the past.

It all began with the idea to create a family photo book and the surprising discovery that my cousin had photographs and documents from our grandmother that went all the way back to Japan, some over a hundred years old. It was then that I realized it wasn’t enough to make a photo book. I had to get the story. I had only one living relative on my father’s side who had lived in a camp, my 91-year old aunt, so I broke family tradition and interviewed her. She showed no reluctance talking about what must have been painful memories and she helped me to understand what my grandparents went through as they lost the life they had spent thirty-five years building.

From there the family history project grew into slide shows of our four generations, a DVD, a notebook of historical documents, and three different photo books. But then the biggest surprise of all – I decided to develop a story for performance. I now tell this story with a slide show of photographs from my family and the National Archives because I want you to see the horse stalls, the barracks, and the guard towers. The story has become even more important in our current atmosphere of increased fear and suspicion, and I want people to understand what really happens when people are incarcerated for the crime of looking like the enemy.

Nine years ago I began to give my workshop on creating family history projects. It is not a genealogy workshop. Instead it gives ideas on how to share your own family history discoveries. I give oral history interviewing tips, show how I found historical documents, and demonstrate how I edited photos and created a photo book and video slide shows.

My current workshop is an update of the workshop I presented at the 2008 National Storytelling Conference. Since then I’ve learned about new technologies, websites, and tools to create a project that your family will treasure and that you can use to create your own story.

Learning from the past helps to ground us in the present and strengthen us for the future. May your family’s story be one that gives you insight and meaning in your own life, and may it be a gift for future generations.

About Anne

Anne has been a storyteller for over thirty years, performing at such places as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Chicago History Museum, the 1st Asian American Storytelling Festival, the Stories Connect Us All Online Storytelling Festival, the Hans Christian Andersen statue in New York City, and as Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Festival. In 2017 she will be a New Voice at the National Storytelling Festival. Anne delights in performing at schools, museums, libraries, gardens, senior centers, conferences, and anywhere people like to hear a good story.

The story Hidden Memory is available for audio download with a lesson plan and discussion questions at

Contact Anne



A Night At The Monti

by Sara Beth Nelson

My husband John and I cross the threshold from the still sunny summer evening into the dark music hall. There is a man at a podium. I show him the electronic tickets on my glowing phone screen. He stamps our hands with thick blue ink.

I go to the table on the right with papers and a large glass drinking mug. I write my name on the paper and drop it into the glass.

Folding metal chairs are set up facing the stage with narrow aisles down the center and sides. We sit. The rows are so close together my knees almost touch the seat in front of me. I sit on the left aisle so I can get out if my name is called. John sits next to me.

On stage, there is a microphone and a whiteboard. The whiteboard waits for the scores. The theme of the evening written across the top: On the Road.

The room fills and fills. Soon I am touching people on all sides. The house lights dim and we are in the dark.

The host gets on stage. The lights are bright. He squints. He sweats. He can’t see us, but he is all we can see. He announces the first storyteller and tells him to prepare. He introduces the judges, picked and trained just that evening. They call out the names they have created for their judging teams. The scribe writes the names across the top of the white board.

The host tells a story about trying to be like Jack Kerouac. He brings up the first storyteller. The man complains about the blinding light. He tells his story. People clap. He sits down. The host talks again, tells the next teller to prepare. He asks the judges for scores and the scribe writes them on the whiteboard.

The next storyteller goes. And then I get called. I stand to the side of the stage while the host finishes asking for scores. He introduces me again. I climb the steps to the stage. I stand in the light. I don’t squint, but I want to. I can not see anyone. Just shadows around the edges of the room. I tell my story. It is about a road trip John and I took through the UK. People laugh at the right spots; disembodied voices. I waver in the light and accept the applause. The host comes back and I step down. The host asks the judges for my scores. I’m not a contender for first place, but they’re not terrible.

My friend, Ray, tells a story. He gets a high score and will probably win. He’s won the story slam before.

There are more stories. Some profound and others silly. A man who is blind tells a story about eating fancy dinners at conferences in different countries and the French chef who kindly cut his food before sending it out.

I have numb spots on my behind from the hard seats. The final scores are tallied. Ray wins. The crowd erupts. The host struggles to explain over the cheers that someone else must go on from this slam to compete in the grand slam since Ray is already going. The blind storyteller is in second place. Everyone else sees what he does not. They see on the board that his score is next highest. Friends reach over and grab his shoulder. They whisper in his ear as the host announces his name. He will go to the grand slam.

The room seems immediately cooler as bodies move apart. Air and space flow again in between. John and I weave around others going to the bathroom, to the bar, out the door. We go into the night.

Understanding reality storytelling, and sharing what I have learned with the national storytelling community, is a continuing project of mine. One around which I am planning my dissertation. The picture I’ve painted here is just one night at one event. At the conference this summer I will be sharing insights I gained regarding reality and festival-style storytelling after conducting oral history interviews with a couple of Georgia storytellers.

About Sara Beth

Sarah Beth Nelson is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina. She conducts research on modern oral communication with the focus of her dissertation being the reality storytelling movement. Sarah Beth also performs as a storyteller in fringes, festivals, and many venues in between. When not telling true stories from her own life she shares classical myths she has reimagined to feature empowered heroines.

Contact Sara Beth

Storytelling website:
Academic website:
Email address:


Play with a Purpose

by Karen Chace


“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  – Fred Rogers

From the moment my students stepped into the room for the after school storytelling program, ‘after school’ being the operative words, I was already at a disadvantage. By then they had been sitting at their desks for almost five hours, with only 20 minutes for recess, barely any time at all to add movement and play to their day. How could I keep them motivated through 13 weeks of class, especially for those students who return year after year?  I quickly learned that play and movement were two key ingredients.

While I began to create different worksheets to help them sequence and visualize their folktales, I knew it was equally important to get them on their feet, let their bodies feel the stories. Sometimes it was a combination of both. One of my newest creations, Exaggeration Station, was a perfect marriage of the two. The objective is to encourage them to play with the elements of their story.

I prepared a worksheet for the students to complete before the game, which mirrored the nine poster boards placed around the room; this gave them a chance to think through their choices. Since we were in the school library I used the book stands for the poster boards, placing them on the shelves, no higher than eye level. They were organized in a pattern that wove them up and down the aisles so the children could easily move through the game. We immediately followed up with Walk the Talk, another movement activity, and they quickly incorporated what they discovered while playing Exaggeration Station.

More than once I’ve reconfigured a childhood game into a new classroom activity. Sometimes inspiration comes in an instant in the most unexpected places. One day I was working with my third grade storytelling troupe. We were using the school hallway for a version of The Virginia Reel. Rather than standing still and facing each other, they were paired up, walking side by side, one teller sharing their tale with their partner. As they were executing the activity I suddenly noticed two girls reach out to hold hands. Immediately, the memory of an old schoolyard game popped into my head and a brand new activity, Red Rover, Red Rover Send Story Right Over, was born.

Another day we began by completing my written exercise, Language Ladders. Immediately after finishing their worksheets I cued up the music and we began to “Dialogue and Dance!” By merging the tactile exercise of writing, then quickly moving to an interactive game utilizing their new story dialogue, it reinforced and stimulated their work.

After fifteen years of teaching I still continue to think about new ways to bring movement into the classroom. It’s no surprise we all love to play so why not incorporate as much as possible into our day and play with a purpose!

Want to add some more play to your classroom, to your storytelling? Register for my workshop, Story Play, at the National Storytelling Conference this summer; I promise we will have fun, and chocolates!

About Karen

When she isn’t writing or telling stories Karen is teaching and coaching the next generation of storytellers. Her award winning book, Story by Story: Creating a Student Storytelling Troupe, is based on teaching the art of Oral Tradition to over 500 students. Her greatest joy is watching a shy child transform into a confident performer.

Karen produces and hosts the television series the Story Café in Massachusetts, offering colleagues the opportunity to share stories and highlight the unique diversity of their work. She is also the co-founder of Once Upon a Generation, an intergenerational storytelling project with storyteller Andrea Lovett.

Contact Karen



A new magic at the NSN fringe: My experience with Houdini

by Kevin D. Cordi, Ph.D.

cordi-magicThe lights were low. I deliberately waited a full minute and a half after my introduction before entering the stage in true Houdini-style. He would spark their curiosity and leave them wanting more.

Loren Niemi and I traded hawking in the hallway, and soon after, the show began at the National Storytelling Network Fringe event in Kansas City. “The Unfolding Life of Houdini” debuted, and here is the story of that evening.

The Show

A room filled with storytellers mixed in with the Kansas City community might be a tough audience for a debut. Untrue. The NSN Fringe is a warm and welcoming community inviting risks within story. I saw friendly, but honest faces. Since the audience was storytellers, they knew the value of story and this made me desire to share my story more. Even though my Scottish accent trailed into Appalachian, they were with me, wanting more. When I secured the old fashioned handcuffs on Diane Cox and she slipped right out, she played along and improvised more of the story.  A storyteller always heightens the narrative.

After the show, there was appreciation. I can’t think of another place where a long line of people simply waited to hug you! I so valued the Kansas City man who said, “Your performance was the one thing I am taking home from this conference, I had to tell you.”

Taking Risks

houdiniFringe celebrates risk. After twenty-seven years as a storyteller, this show was unlike any other I have developed. It became a challenge. Starting with a disappearing wand, I merged into a roving reporter, the first allowed in Houdini’s home. As the reporter, I discovered all the allure that is Houdini. In the span of 55 minutes, a picture transformed into an escape with handcuffs and later a séance. We chatted with a spirit who hated Houdini. I channeled Houdini’s father and his wife, both revealing more than they intended. Add to the conversation, a blow hard magician and a quiet evening with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. All this became a rich multiple narrative performance for the Fringe.   In it, I hope people are challenged to look at stories as through multiple lenses and perhaps share many voices contained in their story.

Unlike a traditional storytelling show, I shared Houdini’s life not in his voice but in the voices of people he knew. The reporter stayed as the transition link between the people. The performance merged improvisation, multiple narratives, and magic. This is not to say it didn’t have other places to grow.

Since the NSN fringe was connected to the conference, there was room to garner feedback. I am indebted to my fellow colleagues and friends who helped shaped the show. Before the show, the kind and careful listener of British (although now living in NH) teller Simon Brooks listened and recorded the show one hour before curtain (There was no curtain.) His advice even at this late hour helped fine tune the work.

After the Curtain

After the show, the magic continued. Lilli Pang from Australia shared constructive feedback. At Breakfast, Jim May challenged me to build more of the narrative arc. Bob Reiser took notes and dedicated time to help me build more ideas as well. When asked, people provided ideas, reactions, and other Houdini knowledge. This doesn’t always happen at fringe festivals, but when the audience is peppered with storytellers who are attuned story listeners, magic happens.

As I was leaving, Anne Rutherford shared poignant narrative places to revisit in the work. She praised the direction. I left the festival and conference knowing the magic of community and knowing that Houdini will come again, with a different trick and an even craftier narrative because of the assistants who, when asked, told me the way to make the magic last.

Slow Down

As I boarded the plane, I took a breath and wrote all I had learned. I still have questions about my work. I carefully mapped my development and my new goals. I took my time so I would remember.

When we perform at a conference or a fringe festival, we need to take time to reflect on what we learned. One of my college students Rachel Kerber shared a Latin creed that I am using to guide me, “make haste slowly.” We need to slow down what we know even if we are in a hurry. Take time to learn. We need to slow down to see the world. Let me say, as I take a breath, thank you NSN and my fellow magicians.

About Kevin

Kevin enjoys the wonder and appeal found in taking risks and playing with his stories with others. He believes stories improve when shared with deep listeners. He is the author of “Playing with Stories: story crafting for writers, teachers, and imaginative thinkers” (Parkhurst Brothers, 2014). He is now touring the Houdini show and when he is not doing that, he teaches literacy, story, and education classes as an Assistant Professor at Ohio Northern University. You can find him at