Community Storytelling Is My Passion
By Caren S. Neile, Ph.D.
My father, my stepbrother and I were involved in community theater down in Fort Lauderdale. The lead actress had so many lines that she was always forgetting them. So you would be in the dressing room, which was upstairs and down the hall from the stage, and suddenly you would hear your cue half an hour before you were supposed to go on! She would forget a different part every night, so castmembers ran back and forth trying to make the performances work.
There’s one thing I like even better than telling stories: giving others the opportunity to tell theirs. For two decades, I have worked with dozens of organizations and thousands of people to provide engaging ways to give voice to their stories. After all, don’t we, as storytellers, know that everyone has a story? Don’t we know the value of listening, and being listened to? Here is a gift we can give others that definitely keeps on giving.
What follows are stories from some of my experiences that may inspire you to engage in community storytelling.
Storytelling slams: One of the hottest tickets in community storytelling is the storytelling slam, a friendly competition that invites people to tell their true stories in a performance setting. I have held slams in coffee shops, a bar, and most recently online. My current sponsor is the local library.
One Sunday evening I was tired and frankly not in the mood to host the event, but it was advertised, and of course I went. One of the tellers who signed up turned out to be a ninety-year-old man, who was helped to the stage by his younger cousin. Was his story going to be relevant to the college students in the audience, I wondered? He proceeded to tell a story from his days in a Nazi concentration camp. I thought the man was nervous because his eyes were shut; it turned out that he was nearly blind. Yet despite his age and infirmity, he kept the crowd, some of whom were seventy years younger, absolutely spellbound. I was in awe.
Professional storytelling series: What could be better than bringing great storytellers to perform in your hometown? Courtesy of local theaters, schools and libraries, I have invited dozens of nationally acclaimed storytellers. I generally take care of airport transport, and they stay at the homes of generous storytellers, friends, or at hotels.
Early on, I was able to invite one of the foremost storytellers in the country to my town. Not only was she one of my favorites, but I also had a special feeling about her from her performances. Other than briefly introducing myself at the National Storytelling Festival, however, we had never met. From the moment I picked her up at the airport, we clicked. Since then we have worked together on several projects, I have been her guest in another state a number of times, and we have maintained a rewarding personal and professional relationship. More importantly, she has shared her talents in my area through workshops and performances with storytellers, story listeners and others several times. What an unexpected gift!
Local public radio: Public radio stations are often seeking local content. Since 2009, I have co-hosted and produced a segment that invites people in the listening area to tell brief, first-person local stories. These are edited by my co-host, who is an employee of the station. My co-host and I then discuss the story on air. The excerpt with which I began this piece is from that segment.
Storytelling workshops for non-profits: As more non-profit administrators learn the benefits of storytelling, we have an increasing number of opportunities to help them assist their clients by offering workshops. I once led a workshop for a homeless organization. I entered into the project with some trepidation, having no idea what to expect. One man emerged as a leader in the group, paving the way for others by speaking up often and eagerly, thereby demonstrating that I was not going to judge or criticize. It was not the first time, and certainly not the last, when my “students” taught me how to be more open, honest and humble. We followed the workshop with a slam. While the stories of hardship and endurance that emerged were amazing, the looks of pride on the faces of the storytellers, listeners and administrators were priceless.
Senior communities: They may not always hear so well, but seniors sure know how to listen. In fact, the longer people have lived, the better acquainted with storytelling they often are. I started leading a story-sharing group at a senior center in 2001; as the group changed, I found myself telling stories and doing the TimeSlips technique (timeslips.org) more often than listening. Nevertheless, I always gave the seniors time to tell. Assisted and independent living facilities, as well as women’s and cultural groups, are other great venues that need programming.
Storytelling performances for non-profits: Not all community storytelling is exclusive from performance, of course. I have also interviewed stakeholders and created corporate stories for non-profits. I once told a story for Goodwill Industries from the perspective of a client. Afterward my aunt, who was in the audience, told me she became so involved that she thought I was talking about myself!
While I haven’t gotten wealthy from these endeavors, helping people get their voices heard fills me with joy. And hey, I’ll never run out of stories!
|Caren S. Neile|