A Storytelling Artist @ Work

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Storytelling World
“A Storytelling Artist @ Work”
Summer/Fall, 1996
Issue 10

INTRODUCTION
When we fall into something because we love it, we are often clueless as to how complex it is. I began my career as a professional performer blissfully unaware of what I did not know. Looking back, I realize that, like the bumble bee, I did not know I was aerodynamically unsound; therefore, I could fly. “Maintaining altitude” over the years in a long-term performance career is the tricky part, because there is much in the reality of everyday life that can send us spiraling downward.

A professional teller is potentially a many-splendored thing: solo artist, storytelling community activist and small business owner. The small business owner role itself has myriad components:  agent, manager, office staff, marketing director, press agent, recordings and resource distributor. Talk about your “Three Faces of Eve!” If we remain in the professional storytelling field over time, we eventually become aware of at least some of these multiple personalities. This can happen gradually or precipitously or both. Given the inevitability of this revelation, it’s helpful to safeguard against its striking with the force of a psychotic break. (“EEEK! What do you mean the IRS wants to audit me? It’s my ‘Bunny Bo-jangles’ storytelling character who took all those gigs, not me!!!”)

Taking a hard look at what it means to support ourselves as performing artists in an art form that is traditionally undervalued in our culture, while also examining the squishier aspects of conducting our business and our art in an ethical manner, can be the first step in avoiding burnout and/or a court-ordered commitment by our loved ones. The earlier we can take this hard look, the better; though, for some of us, starting a career as a deranged bumble bee may just be a fact of life.

There is much about our youth as a culture of revivalist storytellers that promotes a certain refreshing naivete. Part of that culture is a body of primitive beliefs which have flourished in these first twenty-five years of the American storytelling revival. These myths combined with the youth and naivete of our movement can sometimes make us vulnerable when we need to be better armed with common sense.

SOME POPULAR MYTHS:

I. ANYONE CAN BE A (PROFESSIONAL) STORYTELLER.

Reality: Everyone can and probably needs to tell stories. The human impulse to express ourselves in narrative form is universal. Whether everyone can or should try to make a living doing it is another issue entirely. In fact, we can do ourselves (and our art form) a serious disservice by relying on our early efforts as tellers to pay our bills. Let’s not kid ourselves: Even established performers long for the stability of a day job.

If we can spend some time developing as a storytelling practitioner without putting the pressure of paying our landlords with the proceeds, we’ll have more grace, more fun and less burnout. I once heard an established artist tell a college student interested in following the artist’s path: “If anything can stop you, let it.” Personally, I think that’s great advice.

II. IF I LOVE WHAT I’M DOING, THAT MAKES IT OKAY.

Reality: Adolf Hitler and Countess Elizabeth Bathory loved their work too, but what they did was still morally repugnant. So we need to think again about the implications of buying a favorite teller’s recording and learning all the stories on it for our next library gig; telling someone else’s personal experience as our own; or adapting and telling a literary story in a concert or festival setting without permission or credit, and/or going more than five minutes overtime in an olio for any reason whatsoever. Love of a story does not excuse this kind of abuse of fellow tellers, sources, the audience and the profession.

III. NOW THAT I KNOW I WANT TO BE A STORYTELLER, I NEED AN AGENT.

Reality: The vast majority of nationally known tellers are self-represented and will be to their dying day, whether they like it or not. Most of those with agents are either married to them or related by blood. In each case that I can call to mind, the spouse or sibling is enormously suited to the job, and highly motivated to boot. So, the rest of us need to take a good look at our finances and extended family members, and unless there’s someone there who’s both capable and willing, we would be well advised to bite the bullet and sharpen our own business skills.

IV. I’M A(N) ARTIST/WOMAN/ETHNIC PERSON/NON-PROFIT/[insert your favorite stereotype of disempowerment and victimization]; I’VE NEVER FELT COMFORTABLE HANDLING MONEY.

Reality: There’s no time like the present to start. A financial seminar leader explained it this way, saying, “There are three kinds of people in the world: Dolphins, which are ascendant beings; Sharks, which are eating machines; and Tuna, which are essentially fish food. Which one do you want to be?” There’s no reason dolphins shouldn’t have money. Storytellers are sought after for the valuable products and services we offer. We need to stand up for that value, individually and as a community. This means, in part, developing a positive relationship with incoming currency.

At a recent booking conference, a state arts council administrator described the artists in attendance (all of whom had paid serious money for the privilege of offering their wares to potential buyers) as being both at the bottom and the top of the marketplace food chain. Any storyteller who’s waited months to be paid for resources sold on-site at a festival, knowing that the tents and cash registers used at the resource booth had been paid for long ago, has experienced this maddening duality. Where would the festival be without the on-stage talent?  Why, then, aren’t we the first creditors to be paid? Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Let us make sure we don’t perpetuate our own disenfranchisement. America’s simultaneous worshiping and loathing of money — similar to its preoccupation with and horror of sex — makes for some pretty strong double messages about both. We need to take a deep breath and examine our unspoken attitudes about financial success. If we find “A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned” on our internal tape recorders, then we can give a cheer: Hurrah! If we discover that the mottoes we’ve tattooed on our psyches are more like: “You Can’t Make A Living As An Artist,” we may want to consider psychic dermabrasion. Our unconscious attitude about money almost certainly steers our business practices. If those attitudes are rocky at best, we must look out for the rapids ahead.

V. I’M AN ARTIST, NOT A BUSINESS PERSON.

Reality: We can be artists without having a career in the arts, and we can have a career in the arts without being artists. But if we are making a career of our art, we’d better attend to our business. Selling our services and/or our resources has all kinds of implications. Legally, we may need to apply for a business license and/or a home occupation permit; we may need to file sales tax and pay quarterly income tax. We may want to develop a mailing list of schools and libraries or college performing arts series so we can market ourselves. There may be catalogs and retail outlets who ought to be contacted about carrying our recordings. In other words, there’s work to be done, and if we don’t want to do it, we may need to hire someone (who’s good at it) to do it for us. As a performer once said: “There’s a reason they call it show business and not show art.”

VI. IF I’M A STORYTELLER, THE ONLY MEASURE OF MY SUCCESS IS AN INVITATION TO THE NATIONAL STORYTELLING FESTIVAL.

Reality: “NAPPS” (as that festival and its sponsoring organization are still affectionately called despite a name change) accounts for three out of three hundred and sixty five days a year. How big is the chance we will need to eat between festival appearances? Like many an emerging teller, I had imagined that being at the National Storytelling Festival would change my life. “Hello, Hollywood calling.” In the month following my first appearance there, I was back to two jobs in thirty days and lucky to be able to put food on the table. Shortly after that, a colleague advised me not to spend too much time chasing after one particular gig, no matter how prestigious it might sound. It was good advice.

Within the wide spectrum of damn-good storytelling, there are numerous niches for us and our work. From a distance, festivals have a glamorous sheen; up close, they tend to be back-breaking work. But, if all goes well, they often do lead to other festival work down the road. Still they are not the bread and butter of a storytelling career.

That’s not to say we oughtn’t aspire to the festival circuit, or to the annual teaching and reading conferences and educational institutes around the country that often utilize storytellers. But that stuff is all road work, and we (and our families) need to make an informed decision about whether or not we want to fashion ourselves as a road warriors.

Regardless of our aspirations, we would do well to lay the foundation for on-going work in our home communities — teaching and performing in schools, community centers, churches, synagogues, hospitals, prisons, coffee house, galleries, theatres. The opportunities are nearly limitless. Storytellers are constantly uncovering (or creating) new venues. Let us do our work and do it well and we will be valued for it — no matter what the setting. But we must make sure we recognize the value of the important work we do, even (especially!) if we find we do it mostly close to home.

SOME NOT SO POPULAR REALITIES:

I. STORYTELLING HAS A BAD RAP IN THE MODERN WORLD.

Spaulding Gray and Garrison Keillor don’t describe themselves as storytellers, although they occasionally allow themselves to be described as such. Should this be telling us something? Yes. This news just in: the word “storytelling” has a bad rap in America, except when invoked with poetic license to describe the craft of a filmmaker or novelist. Otherwise, it seems to call to mind for the general public the stultifying image of a musty and mustachioed lady librarian reading from a book to a large group of two-year-olds and their delerious-with-cabin-fever parents.

So, storytelling is popularly associated with babysitting which calls to mind America’s favorite underclass: children. In modern-day America everything associated with the infantile province – child care, child support payments, early childhood as well as elementary school education — is given lots of lip service and absolutely no honor or funding. This little PR problem can get you coming and going. If your work as a storyteller is aimed at adults, no one will believe you. And if you are dedicated to your work as a children’s performer, people will wonder why you can’t make it in the real world.

We can address this problem directly and/or indirectly. The former tactic involves talking about it in our work, our communities, in the media — consciously and consistently demonstrating the enormous power of spoken narrative. The latter tactic involves finding other ways to describe our work to get people in the door to see it before springing on them that they are seeing storytelling. I personally prefer a strategy which includes both.

II. THERE’S THE JOB OF THE ARTIST AND THE ART OF THE JOB.

So, what is the job of the artist? Practicing our art and articulating its worth. It seems to me that this is a three pronged task: a.) educating ourselves about our art form; b.) educating our (potential) sponsors about our art form; and c.) educating our audiences about our art form. All three — artist, sponsor and audience — have a relationship to story and storytelling with a life of its own.

And what is the art of the job? Doing it well and with grace. I’m thinking of two main areas this time: a.) being a mensch or a wo-mensch and b.) being a professional. Solo performance makes for a lonely road to travel. Networking and building community with others along the same road makes the journey easier for everyone — those ahead and those behind as well as those walking side by side with us. Keep in mind, too, that news travels fast. We are all part of the same ethical and economic ecosystem: what gains any one of us make, all of us may benefit from; what gaucheries any one of us commits, all of us may suffer for.

Remember: The devil’s in the details. This means returning phone calls, if not within the day at least within the week. Being pleasant no matter how lame-brained the persons we are dealing with may seem. Not under-cutting your colleagues. It means arriving on time, starting on time and ending on time. And it includes personal appearance: It’s a rare “general audience” performance opportunity for which a wet tee-shirt and/or sweat-pants without a jock-strap are appropriate attire. And yet National Storytelling Congress attendees were treated to the latter at a regional concert within recent memory. (Remember the note above on American attitudes about sexuality?)

III. THERE IS AN ART TO MARKETING OUR CRAFT, OURSELVES AND SERVICES, AND OUR RESOURCES

Our craft is what we do; our services are how we do it, and our resources are the tangible products we offer. And each of these may demand a different marketing strategy.

So, after we’ve created ourselves as artists and want to begin to get the word out about what we do, we need to keep in mind one thing: Marketing is a profession with skills, knowledge and value all its own. Just because we’ve recorded the world’s very best storytelling audio-cassette or CD, doesn’t mean we know how to get it distributed outside our immediate families.

Most of us have heard that it takes money to make money. I’ve certainly found that to be true.  Another nationally known teller and I were joking recently about our “expensive hobby.” I realized some years ago that life was too short for me to go back to school to get those extra degrees in book-keeping, accounting, marketing, business, design and advertising. (Is there any other career outside performance that expects the practitioner to be so multi-talented?) So what do I do? I hire people to consult with me and/or to do the work itself. Yep, I contract out my marketing, my ad design, some of my office work (especially when I’m on the road) and my annual income tax preparation.

Last year in the spring, my part-time office manager, looked over her own tax return and remarked that she had had a very good year. I looked over mine and replied, “That’s the difference between an ’employer’ and an ’employee.'” A career in storytelling is definitely not a good get-rich-quick scheme.

And as much as we might like to think it pristine, the province of storytelling performance has not been unblemished by sexism, racism or ageism. Women outnumber men in the field not only as practitioners, but also as presenters and audience members. How does this impact our industry?  Well, it might explain why our outnumbered male colleagues in the profession reported fees about 40% higher than us home girls some few years ago. How do we fight pheromones? We don’t.  But we can make an informed decision about raising our prices.

I found myself looking at a performance series brochure recently and making a mental note: the season was all white men and women of color. I wondered if that meant that next year’s season would be white women and men of color. If so, I would have a chance to be considered.

Shortly after this musing, I heard a friend and colleague remark about that same brochure: “Oh, they had an Asian American woman this year. Now they won’t want another Asian American woman for three years. That leaves me out.”

Let’s face it, our inner demons are dying to get hold of these kinds of demographics. They will happily convince us that there will always be someone more experienced or more fresh; more attractive or more unusual looking; more testosterone-laden and alluring, or more feminine and user-friendly; more musical or more physical than we are. These “competitors” are invariably from a hipper part of the country or more regionally challenged than us which gives them the sympathy vote. And it seems like they always get the work we want.

Tempting as it is to get mired in the muck of these comparisons, we need to spend as little time as possible whining about our perceived disadvantages and direct that energy back to building the integrity of our work and getting the word out about it. To market, to market.

IV. AMERICA HAS A DEBTING ADDICTION.

Years of self-employment as artists can make us proficient at rationalizing our every purchase and justifying our every expenditure as a business expense. Be careful. Pay attention. We need to be very, very clear about our cash flow situation. Compulsive shopping, spending, debting and self-debting are epidemic behaviors in this country, encouraged by capitalism and the American economy. Our cultural addiction to those behaviors is largely ignored by the media and rendered invisible by the marketplace. College students are urged to get as many credit cards as they can while they are in college. Credit card companies know that all they have to do is wait, and eventually their investment in the credit-card-user comes back to them at the rate of 18.5% per annum.

Small businesses and artists are particularly vulnerable to incurring debt. Both often have numerous start-up costs, frequent outlays for materials up-front, and long waits for the return of income. As artists in business for ourselves, we can be subject to a double whammy.

In the likely event that we do find ourselves in debt, there is an important resource available. We can look in the phone book for the local chapter of a twelve-step program called Debtors Anonymous (DA). DA offers numerous weekly meetings each with a different focus. For instance, there is a Business Owners Debtors Anonymous (BODA) and a Visions group that specifically focuses on long-range goal-setting. “Shopping around” may uncover a group that meets our specific needs (though some discomfort at these meetings may be a necessary evil). Regular attendance of DA meetings and an honest effort to “work its program” are survival tools available to anyone in debt. DA also offers a good forum for exploring self-defeating attitudes about money.

V. WE CAN CHOOSE NOT TO ENTER THE MARKETPLACE.

We are not our fame and our fortune. We can give ourselves permission to remain amateur storytellers. Despite its more flip popular meanings, the word amateur has at its core: “a practitioner out of love.” So, we want, we need, we love to tell stories? There are innumerable opportunities to share our skills, our passion, our ability to touch, teach and entertain within our communities. If we follow our bliss on our own terms, we will have plenty of opportunities to live happily ever after.

RECOMMENDED READING:
The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron
Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Levinson
Your Money Or Your Life -Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt and Live Prosperously by Gerald Mundis

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Copyright, Milbre Burch, 1997. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a data base or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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