Blank Stares and Glittering Eyes: Adventures with Audiences

By Cassandra Cushing

Cassie is a Next Generation Scholarship recipient for attending the 2013 National Storytelling Conference, August 1-4 in Richmond, VA.

cushingMy storytelling teachers and mentors told me that sometimes a synergy between the teller, the tale and the audience can emerge in an almost tangible relationship—an unseen but nonetheless palpable energy becomes present as these three variables meet in a single moment. They said that if I care for the story in my research and crafting, the story, in turn, would carry me in the telling.

Soon after hearing this, I created a show combining my two loves: traditional storytelling and good coffee. As I told the same stories at four different venues, to four very different audiences, I learned the truth of a lot of what my teachers and mentors had been telling me.

The second show was, from my perspective, the best of the bunch. As I regaled the audience with over an hour of gruesome and grizzly tales, suitable for a dark October evening, I was flying high! Telling these stories exhilarated me while the audience, engaged and transported, redoubled my passion. Teig O’Kane labored under the weight of his corpse; the youngest daughter’s anger and desperation, fueled by blood and loss of innocence, rescued herself and her sisters from the ogre in the hills. Yes, this was storytelling! There was life in this! Every image was clear, to me and to the attentive audience, excitement glittering in their eyes. Whether that was synergy or the stories carrying me, I was on fire and gushing thanks at the appreciations I received at the end of the night.

A week later, my third performance contrasted starkly. Usually, my opening story about ruining my mother-in-law’s pans and stovetop the first time I roasted coffee, would evoke some laughs. This audience looked at me blankly. I had to keep going, but now, even to me, the words were sounding empty. Continuing into the third story and searching the audience for any reaction, I wondered, “Was last week’s success just a weird anomaly?” Midway through the second half, loud music came through the walls from a neighboring bar, and I wasn’t sure if Tieg O’Kane would be able to bury his corpse that night. Words continued to tumble out of my mouth and gestures happened as I ticked off the stories. I was exhausted by the end of it and ready to give up storytelling altogether.

Later, friends and colleagues reassured me that, while it did not have the same energy as the previous show, it was still good. I learned that even though the audience felt subdued, they were having a good time. I, however, hadn’t been able to see it. Watching a video of the evening revealed how my heightened insecurity had led me to rush the stories.  A deep breath could have restored a steady pace and alleviated my anxiety.

With those four October shows, I came to a deeper understanding of the notion of synergy as I experienced the dramatic difference that an audience can have on a teller. On that third night, I wasn’t present in the stories or for my audience, but I knew the stories and I loved them. They carried me. Other nights, we soared together discovering new highs of relational happiness, reminding me how seemingly simple stories can transport teller and listener alike.

About Cassie

Cassie, owner of Kaleidoscope Coffee, has loved coffee for 10 years.  She recently discovered that storytelling is pretty cool too, especially the traditional kind. She is working towards opening a storytelling coffee shop.

Contact Cassie



Stepping Into the Story Through Character Interpretation

by Darci Tucker

“I suppose there was folks worse hurt than a bullet to the leg, for the surgeon left that part of the tent.  And when he did, I saw, on a table nearby, a pile of bandages.  So I grabbed as many of those bandages as I could hold, and I slid out the back of the tent—right underneath the tent fabric there—and I pulled myself far back into a thicket, so’s I was well hid, and I took off my belt and I clenched it between my teeth to keep myself from cryin’ out…”

darcytuckerDeborah Samson, Revolutionary War soldier, describes removing a bullet from her own leg to a group of fifth graders.  Some are wide-eyed and slack-jawed.  Others squirm and cover their ears.  Then they eagerly ask her why she enlisted, how she hid her gender, what it felt like to get shot, whether she regretted her decision to enlist.  They leave with a deeper understanding of the events that led to the Revolutionary War and the experiences of the people who lived through it, because they’ve heard it from someone who lived through it.  They’ve “heard it from the horse’s mouth.”

Fifth graders often tell me “I hate social studies, but this was really cool!”  And if I happen to bump into them several years later, while visiting a middle school, they say, “You’re that lady that did that thing about that woman who fought in the American Revolution!”  They remember.

Character interpreters tell personal stories, while portraying the people whose stories they tell. While this powerful technique is usually used to tell historical stories, it can also be used to raise awareness of current issues like homelessness, AIDS, terrorism… If our listeners are to remember our stories, and perhaps be moved to action, we must connect with them on an emotional level.  Data, dates and facts are not usually memorable unless the listener can see how the information applies to someone they “know.”

Historical novels, documentaries, and good museums show this. Some museums, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Conner Prairie in Indiana and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, allow visitors to converse with costumed interpreters who portray people from the past. Many teachers have their students portray historical figures, and others do so themselves.  Can you imagine how much more attention you’d have paid in school if your teacher had put on a costume and become Albert Einstein or Malcom X?

I especially enjoy telling the stories of people on the losing sides of conflicts.  Those stories expose listeners to new information and perspectives.  They challenge listeners to think about what they would have done under similar circumstances, rather than to simply parrot the textbook versions of events.  Life is messy, and outcomes only look inevitable in the rear view mirror. In the past, as now, most conflicts weren’t between good guys and bad guys, but between ordinary people who disagreed about how to solve their problems.  Just like us, they longed for a crystal ball to show them what to do.

Character interpretation allows our audiences to touch our common humanity.  It reminds us that, despite our differences, the core issues that are important to us—the quest for love, the need to care for our families, the desire for freedom—are transcendent.

About Darci

Darci has told stories in character since 1995, both at Colonial Williamsburg and through her own business, American Lives: History Brought to Life™. She portrays almost 20 women from American history, from an indentured servant in the 1750s to Amelia Earhart in 1928. She tells the stories of Unionists and Confederates, Loyalists and Patriots, adventurers, reformers, entrepreneurs, and a Royal Governor’s wife.

Darci was the Founding Director of the “Legacy” character interpretation scholarship program at Bethel University in Tennessee.  She performs in character in schools all over the country, and trains teachers and museum educators to teach through character interpretation.  Let her show you how to use this powerful storytelling technique at her workshop, Stepping into the Story Through Character Interpretation, at the NSN Conference in Richmond.

Contact Darci



MOSAIC WORK: Beginning a Complicated Story

by Jo Radner

radnerPart of the nature of man is to recompose a unity that has been broken.
In mosaic, I recreate an order out of shards.
– Mosaic master Marco de Luca

That’s what it feels like, to me, to set out to make a big, complicated story.  I start with heaps of shining bits – a little anecdote here, some essential facts there, a big gawky piece I just know belongs somewhere, a nickname, oral histories, a great line, miscellaneous fragments given by well-meaning friends – all sorts of stuff.  I don’t even know the shape of the frame I need to fill.  But I love those sparkles, the way they glint off each other.  I know that somewhere in those scattered shards an artistic story is waiting to be found.

Tesserae [the pieces from which mosaics are composed]
are irregular, rough, individualized, unique.
Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I am not patient, and I am not comfortable with uncertainty and formlessness.  It is hard for me not to impose a pattern instead of taking the time to discover it.  But the integrity of the whole big story depends on being open to discovery, questioning any pattern that starts to seem obligatory.  So I first take the pieces, my tesserae, one by one, hold them up to the light, and see which ones are particularly bright for me.  What images are most vivid?  (“Images are like torches leading us through the dark,” says Jay O’Callahan.)  I spend a long time with those sparks: Why do I love them?  What essence of my story can they reveal?

Then I do some very pedestrian things.  Since I’m making a mosaic, I want all the fragments to be physical bits I can move around.  Small post-its work well; I write just enough words on each to identify an individual anecdote or image or piece of information.  Sometimes I color-code the bits (depending on my emerging knowledge of the story), perhaps for emotional tone (humor, horror) or for important characters or places, or for necessary background information (the mortar of the mosaic).

Probably this could be done on a computer, but I want the tactile experience.  I stick my post-its on a whiteboard in one configuration, photograph it lest I forget it later, then mess it up and try something else.  I play with patterns, juxtapositions, plot lines, always trying to jostle easy assumptions.  If the story is about a series of events or a life story, I think of all the possible alternatives to a chronological plot.  (Nothing wrong with chronology, but it should be a choice, not a default.)  If the story material is not overtly chronological, I see what some different kinds of clusters can reveal to me: stories from or about different people; different subject matter; moods/emotional tone; places.  Sometimes I arrange my tesserae in a sequence from my most to my least favorite.  Sometimes I look for the oppositions or extremes in the story (moods, weather, characters, activities, seasons, etc.) and see if I notice significant movement between them.  Loren Niemi’s New Book of Plots has also helped me jostle loose some ideas about arranging the fragments.

One tough thing about making a complicated story is that everything has to happen at once – there’s no single, methodical path from fragments to story.  I’ve talked a bit about plotting here, but plotting doesn’t really come before exploring the characters, or experimenting with points of view, or figuring out what and where the big transition(s) will be, or. . . .  Making a story is a recursive process.  It sends you back and forth over the same pieces, through the same questions, again and again, till – suddenly, unexpectedly – you know where you’re going with the mosaic.  And then there’s more labor, choosing, juxtaposing, excluding tesserae.  And then, there’s making it a performance.  To quote Jay again, “Creativity seems to be a combination of hard work and an openness to grace.”

What are your favorite ways of composing these big stories?  What obstacles do you find most daunting?

About Jo

Jo Radner tends to make stories about the people and history of northern New England.  Short or long, her stories favor characters whose lives defeat simple explanations and situations in which gravity and humor are bedfellows.  She is most pleased with “Burnt into Memory,” a story created from many oral histories she gathered from survivors of the 1947 wildfire that destroyed the town of Brownfield, Maine.

Jo’s CD, Yankee Ingenuity: Stories of Headstrong and Resourceful People, received a 2013 Storytelling World Award.  In April 2013 she was given the Brother Blue and Ruth Hill Award from the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling, “in recognition of extraordinary commitment, dedication and loving encouragement to the New England storytelling community.” She is past president of the National Storytelling Network.

Contact Jo



The New American Storytelling Festival: If Not Now, When?

by Willy Claflin

claflinI’m really looking forward to joining all of you at the National Storytelling Conference in Richmond this August 1-4.  Last summer we planted a seed.  A new domain name was registered: The American Storytelling Festival.  A new festival was proposed.  Somewhat tongue in cheek, it promised to be Everything You Ever Wanted.  But now, seriously, I’m asking you to join me and help make it happen!

Whether you are discontented with the limitations of Jonesborough, or simply eager to share your vision of the Perfect Festival, please come to our brainstorming session on Sunday morning, August 4, 9-10:30 am in Richmond, Virginia.  What would you most like to see in a new national festival?  True diversity in tellers, tales, and audience? Epics, slams, traditional stories, monologues?  Workshops on improvisation or “going deep”?  If you could have Anything You Like, what would it be?

This will be a true brainstorming session: any and all ideas are welcome and will be considered and recorded.  Questionnaires will be sent to all participants afterwards, just in case there was something you forgot, or didn’t have time to say!

At the end of this time together, you will have the chance to join an active network of tellers in developing themes and programs for the new festival.  Goals and timelines will be established, and next steps identified.  You will have the opportunity to take an active, ongoing role in shaping the festival and help us decide issues like: What kind of festival best suits the storytelling community’s needs? What kind of outreach is necessary to recruit tellers from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups?  Where should we hold the Festival?  What kinds of venues best support a diversity of tellers and tales?  Shall we incorporate workshops?  How long should the Festival last? Any suggestions, all ideas, every fantasy will be considered.

OK, some of you may be thinking—that’s great, but really, how can we organize and pay for all this?  Ah, you’re in luck!  For those hardy souls wishing to deal with the nuts and bolts of finance, I’ll see you at Ellen Munds’ wonderful Friday intensive on fundraising and finance.  Ellen really knows what she’s doing, and if you come, well…then, you’ll know too!

But no pre$$ure!  Just come share your dreams on Sunday.  Let’s do this!

Thank you all for all you do,
Willy Claflin

P.S.  For those of you unable to attend the conference or attending a different session on Sunday, your ideas are welcome also.  Comment here on the blog!

About Willy

Willy Claflin is a one-man festival. Spanning historical sagas, intergalactic yarns, Mother Moose Tales, and counter culture misadventures, he covers the full spectrum of spoken word entertainment.  A headliner and master of ceremonies at the National Storytelling Festival, Willy is a favorite at festivals throughout the U.S. He also has many award-winning recordings and is the co-author (along with Maynard Moose) of three award-winning children’s books.  Willy’s tribute to Gamble Rogers was a highlight of last year’s National Storytelling Conference. Original, traditional, historical, personal, comic—regardless of genre, Willy fits any playbill.

Contact Willy



Ease Your Financial Worries: Fundraising for Storytelling Organizations

by Ellen Munds

mundsIn my early days of fundraising, the idea of asking someone for money made me physically sick. But I also knew that no one was going to do it for me, so I had to learn how. In 1996, I attended a one-week course at the Fund Raising School of Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.  That course turned my relationship with fundraising upside down. It is still not my favorite part of my job, but I no longer dread it. These days, I approach fundraising as a personal challenge.

You never know when a donation will drop in your lap. During the first or second year of the existence of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, one of the sound engineers that we had hired wrote us a check for $75.00. He said that we couldn’t cash the check until we started an endowment. We opened a savings account and deposited the check. From that day forward, we offered individuals a choice to make a donation to the general operating fund or the endowment. In 2006, a single young volunteer and attendee called me to ask about making a donation to our endowment in memory of her grandmother. I said, “Of course!” I then asked her if she would like to get together or if she would prefer to drop the donation in the mail. She decided to drop it in the mail. In my mind, I was thinking $100 or maybe $500. I was certainly surprised when I opened the envelope and found a check for $15,000. During the same year, we decided to incorporate the endowment as its own not-for-profit with the sole purpose of funding the programs and services of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. We moved the funds to the Central Indiana Community Foundation so that our money would be managed by experts. To date, our endowment has grown to approximately $100,000, along with nine planned gifts. As far as endowments go, it is still small but, for us, this is a major achievement.

I will be presenting a fundraising workshop at the upcoming NSN Storytelling Conference in Richmond, Virginia. Hopefully, this workshop will help point your organization down the path to financial security. During this three-hour intensive session, which includes lecture, group discussion and small group activities, we will examine your budgets for potential earned and contributed income. We will determine the best approaches for each income source as well as prioritize your next steps in developing a fundraising plan.

I will share with you the tools that I have found to be the most helpful. These tools are the “science” of fundraising. One specific tool demonstrates that it is humanly impossible for one individual to raise all of the necessary funds for an organization, whether large of small. Someone has to lead but it takes a team of volunteers, board members or staff.

My favorite tool is the Gift Range Chart. It takes your goal and breaks it down into manageable goals. If you want to raise $50,000, this tool helps you determine how many gifts of various sizes ($2,500, $1,000, $100, etc.) you will need. It is much easier for me to wrap my head around raising two $2,500 gifts instead of worrying about raising $50,000. You will create a Gift Range Chart for your organization, so bring your budgets.

I am not a fundraising or development expert. I’ve learned from experience, from colleagues who were willing to mentor me along the way and by making my own mistakes. Bring your questions and your own experiences. I am sure we will learn from each other!

About Storytelling Arts of Indiana

Ellen H. Munds
Executive Director
Storytelling Arts of Indiana

Storytelling Arts of Indiana promotes the art and use of storytelling in everyday life. Current programs include:

  • the Life Stories Project in collaboration with WFYI and the Indiana Historical Society
  • Jabberwocky in collaboration with IndyFringe Festival
  • As I Recall storytelling guilds for elders in collaboration with the Indianapolis Public Library and the Hancock County Public Library
  • Weekly storytelling at the bedside of patients at Riley Hospital for Children,
  • Summer performances in the neighborhood parks for children receiving free lunches in collaboration with Indy Parks,
  • If These Walls Could Tell series in collaboration with Indiana Landmarks
  • Sharing Hoosier History Through Stories series in collaboration with the Indiana Historical Society
  • Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship
  • Scary Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery in collaboration with Crown Hill Heritage Foundation
  • Series for adults as well as performances for families and students in collaboration with the Indiana Historical Society