By Diane Majeske | Photos by Joni Strickfaden
They talked about summer and soccer, flowers and friends, and the joy of growing and giving.
They told of a preacher with a voice like honey butter, and a scary snake named Sam.
Their voices rose and fell, they shifted and stomped, and their hands caressed the air. As the sun set over the horizon, members of the Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild told their stories.
And they told them well.
The audience, filling every seat — and spilling into the aisles — at Crazy Wisdom was mesmerized.
In a time when technology rules our culture, and entertainment is instantly, constantly available, the ancient art of storytelling is alive and well. Internationally, storytelling festivals, conferences and workshops abound; closer to home, the Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild is thriving.
The odd juxtaposition isn’t lost on longtime storyteller and guild member Judy Schmidt. But it doesn’t surprise her, either.
“It might actually be because of technology that storytelling is thriving,” she says. “I think people really miss that face time; storytelling is getting back to the basics. People don’t sit around the kitchen table anymore and share stories, or talk about what happened that day. I think a lot of people simply miss that.”
Gertrude Warkentin, a relative newcomer to the storytelling scene, agrees. “You have so much coming at you so fast these days,” she says. “People have a sense of having lost something. Maybe there is that sense of longing for just slowing down and telling stories. I will say that since I’ve started, I’ve really come to appreciate a good story.”
And whether it’s a personal tale, a myth, a ghost story or something altogether different, telling a good story — one that keeps the rapt attention of the audience — is all about connecting.
Telling a story to a group is very different than simply reading one to them, says guild member Beverly Black, who also teaches storytelling workshops. “When you have a written work, it’s just between you and the story. But when you’re up there onstage, telling a story — maybe telling your own, personal story, it’s extremely interactive,” she says. “Storytelling keeps you in the present; you’re right there.”
What Makes a Good Story?
Stories are a wonderful way to get to know people better, says Black. But even the best story can fall flat without forethought. For instance, she says, a story that an adult audience would find poignant or amusing could go right over the heads of younger children — and an older audience might not find the simplicity of a children’s story very entertaining.
Good storytellers know their audiences.
She explains: “There are three things that happen in a good story. You have the storyteller, the audience, and the story itself, and there has to be a connection. There has to be a connection between you and the story, and between you and the audience, to make it all work.”
Storytellers think on their feet, reading their audience to see how the tale is being received. Based on what they see, they might spontaneously change it, add to it, or even start over.
“There are so many different kinds of stories and storytellers,” says guild member Laura Lee Hayes. “Storytelling can be very physical. They say that with storytelling, only 20 percent is words. But we know some (tellers) who barely move — but then again, they know the power of the pause. It’s those pauses, the tone of your voice, the pitch, the expression on your face, all of those go in to making stories.
Hayes feels like she’s been telling stories all her life. “I was the oldest of four, and my mother would often say, ‘I have to make dinner — go amuse your siblings.’ So I started making up things.”
She laughs. “Now I’ve grown from being a big fat liar to a storyteller.”
Storytelling helps her hone her writing skills, she says, and keeps her imagination sharp. It also keeps her in touch with her audience.
“The stories I come away from feeling great about aren’t always happy, or they aren’t always funny,” Hayes continues. “They’re the ones where I feel I’ve actually connected with the audience. A friend of mine gave me a wonderful quote, ‘Remember that a story is one heart touching another.’ I believe that; I truly do.”
Black agrees. She, too, has told stories all her life, and even taught corporate classes where she encouraged her participants to connect with others through storytelling. But she actually was introduced to the art when she was attending a different type of workshop — one for Celtic harpists.
“I play the Celtic harp, and I went to this workshop in Ontario,” she recalls. “You took four classes a day, and they only had three for the harp; the fourth was a storytelling class.”
She took it, told a story, and excelled. She was chosen to tell her story at a related festival that week.
“That was the first story I ever really told in front of so many people,” she remembers with a laugh. “I loved it; I loved the way people reacted. There’s just something about being up on stage; something just happens. I came back to Ann Arbor and I realized I had to find (storytellers) here. And I got hooked up with the storytellers’ guild.”
Preparing for the Big Moment
Of course, no story will ever make it to the stage until the teller feels prepared enough — and brave enough — to get in front of an audience and share it.
Judy Schmidt was a school librarian for 30 years and never had the desire to speak in front of a group. She was an avid reader, and she loved stories. But she didn’t even like talking in front of a class. Until she took a storytelling workshop. Suddenly, that stage fright left her.
“What happened was when I came back from the storytelling workshop, I tried it out on the schoolkids,” she recalled. “And I found out that when you’re in your storytelling mode, people listen.”
She laughs. “When I was teaching the card catalog, nobody cared. But this was different. They were listening … and that’s a really nice feeling.”
She started buying tapes, reading books, and listening to other storytellers. She realized that a good story, like a good book, needs a plot and characters — but it also needs to be compressed, with each word carefully chosen.
“You can’t spend pages on description, and pages on background,” she says. “You don’t have that luxury. You can have a really good idea, but you really have to narrow it down and get rid of everything that doesn’t contribute to the story itself.”
She learned quickly — and found she enjoyed telling everything from folk tales to experiences from her own life.
“I developed my own repertoire,” she says. “I started getting away from stories that were predictable. I realized people liked to be surprised.”
They do, agrees Warkentin. She considers herself more of a novice storyteller, although she’s performed stage plays, is quick with a joke, and has always loved listening to stories. She realizes it’s not as simple as many veteran tellers make it seem.
In fact, she still remembers a night long ago, when she was in nursing school — she performed a monologue in front of an audience, and it fell flat.
“Oh, it was just terrible,” she says, able to laugh about it now. She didn’t get discouraged; instead she practiced and improved.
“I’ve learned a lot since then,” she says. “The guild has been very generous about letting me practice. I went to a class with Beverly (Black) and I’ve learned a lot listening to others in the guild. I tell a lot of personal stories, and when you craft a story from an anecdote and you gift an audience with it, there’s something … just satisfying about it.”
All storytellers prepare in different ways, they agree, and that preparation is essential. They type out notes, practice in front of others, or listen to themselves on tape. And if they’re attending storytelling workshops or festivals, they keep in mind their venue — and rules that may go along with it.
For instance, The MOTH, a well-known storytelling organization that holds events across the country, holds its storytellers to a five-minute time limit. Conversely, Going Deep: The Traditional Long Story Retreat, required its stories to be at least an hour long.
Getting on stage can seem intimidating the first time, storytellers agree. But the end result is worth it — for both the teller and the listener.
Ask Darryl Mickels, who not only loves telling stories, but enjoys listening to them, as well.
“With a story, there’s no special effects — it’s all in your mind,” he says. “And there’s always a little bit of excitement to being up there … sometimes you’re sharing a deep emotion. But I love to kick back and listen to other stories, too. Even if I’ve heard it before, it seems like I always get something new out of it.”
Hayes encourages anyone who’s interested to give it a try — even if they’ve never thought of themselves as a storyteller. She offers a little food for thought.
“If you think you’ve never told a story, consider this: Did you ever go anywhere and tell anyone about it? Ever have a little anecdote you’ve shared? Those are stories — they’re all stories. And telling your stories and being heard is a wonderful experience.”
"Story Nights" are held on the second Thursday of each month at Crazy Wisdom (except in the summer). At the end of the performance, audience members are invited to share a five-minute story. Regular Guild meetings are held on the fourth Sunday of every month from 2 to 4 p.m. at Nicola's books (except in the summer). The first hour is always devoted to open storytelling. For more information, visit: http://www.annarborstorytelling.org/AASG/Home.html.