Storytelling: It’s Not Just Kid’s Stuff!

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This primer for presenters, compiled and edited by Milbre Burch, includes presenting rationale, as well as audience development and marketing tips. Plus it outlines ticket prices, audience demographics, performance settings, and funding and PR strategies culled from interviews with ten of the most seasoned storytelling presenters in the country. With over 75 years of combined  experience, they have presented storytelling for adult and family audiences in 70-500 seat venues as diverse as college and regional theatres, coffee house, churches, libraries and art museums.

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The audience is very involved in the process of the story, though they may not think about it. The storyteller seems to be telling you the story personally, not performing.You walk away with a shared story, to refer back to when you meet those people again. — Ellen Munds (IN)

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Two unique elements of storytelling are the startling reciprocity between speaker and audience, and the distinctive way a storyteller’s personality is at play with the form and content of a story.– Carol Birch (CT)

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Introduction:

Storytelling is the most basic of theatrical performances. A teller, an audience: that’s all there is.

A teller weaves a story around listeners who lose themselves in the life of the story, drift inward, and are carried along on the magic of their own imaginations. On the front porch, in the local pub or in the most elegant theatre, storytelling is still, essentially, a bare-bones interaction between teller and listener.The wide appeal of storytelling is based on this simple interaction.

This need to hear and tell stories is primal. Storytelling is one of the art forms that everyone encounters in childhood, even in this day of arts education neglect. And although it is storytelling for adults that is our concern here, it is important to remember that it is as children that we learn how to listen to stories, and feel our own imaginations awaken as we build internal landscapes to match the words we hear.

So it should be no surprise that among the audiences for storytelling are parents of small children — the very people who are considered “lost audiences” and who are not expected back in the theatre for a decade or two — who, observing their own children fall under the mystical spell of storytelling, may yearn for the same experience.

Storytelling is an essential part of the theatre presenting mix both as spoken word performance and as traditional arts/heritage performance.

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The co-creation of the story with the audience is unique to storytelling. And the relationship between the teller to story and the teller to the audience is based on immense respect. — Jo Radner (DC)

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Why present storytelling? Here are seven good reasons:

1. Good storytelling is good theatre. It is theatre one-on-one. And storytelling is more than a spectator sport. Often engaged in a light trance state, the listener co-creates the story with the teller.

2. In storytelling performance, low production costs yield high production values. The focus is on the performer —  lights, sets and costumes engage, but don’t overwhelm. With technical costs rising sharply, why not stretch your dollars by including spoken word or storytelling performances in your series?

3. Professional storytellers can move between a wide variety of venues without losing the magic that they bring to the stage. Storytelling performances are designed for maximum flexibility of presentation formats.

4. Storytelling has its roots in the tribal traditions of oral cultures back when memory was the library. Elders passed on their wisdom through the vessel of story. Storytelling is still trans-generational today — it appeals to multi-age audiences.

5. Because stories do not recognize national borders, storytelling is also trans-cultural. Contemporary stories incorporate centuries-old legends. European stories borrow from African folk tales. Asian tales have parallels among Native American stories. Performances can feature the stories of a particular theme, a specific culture or geographic region, or focus on varied tellings of a story that appears in several cultures.

6. Storytelling builds community. Not only does an audience react  together — laughing or crying as befits the events of a story — but also it breathes together as well. Beyond the bounds of shared emotion and breath, the power of story is rooted in the metaphors and images it offers any group of listeners who go away from the telling with a shared language.

7. Many touring tellers are talented and experienced teachers as well as performers and can follow-up a concert event with outreach workshops targeted to various ages. Storytellers are residency-friendly.

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Where are storytelling audiences? You’ll find them in:
adult education classes alumni groups American Association of Retired Persons meetings American Association of University Women meetings amusement parks antique stores art galleries bookstores children’s museums civic organizations city council or commission meetings chambers of commerce children’s advocacy organizations churches civil rights groups club meetings coffee houses colleges community centers cooking clubs county fairs elder hostels environmental organizations family business organizations farmer’s markets fine art museums flea markets folk art museums folk festivals folk music and folk dance groups gay and lesbian rights groups genealogical societies gymnasiums health clubs historical societies independent living centers institutional settings: hospitals, shelters, prisons League of Women Voters meetings La Leche League meetings libraries life enrichment classes literacy advocacy groups lunchrooms National Association for the Advancement of Colored People meetings National Organization for Women meetings news stands Parent Teacher Association meetings parenting groups poetry slams political meetings public parks and gardens public radio audiences public television audiences quilting clubs reading groups schools senior centers shopping malls sidewalk sales small business organizations social justice groups storytelling swap groups street fairs support groups swap meets synagogues tabernacles talk radio audiences temples teacher’s organizations theatres trade schools universities women’s clubs zoological societies among others.

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The presenter’s biggest responsibility is finding the right teller for the right place. — Heather Forest (NY)

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Twenty tips on how to reach storytelling audiences:

Storytelling audiences are easy to find and inexpensive to reach. Like generations of folk arts audiences, storytelling fans don’t require glossy posters and expensive advertising. Storytelling benefits from the most basic of grassroots marketing techniques: word of mouth, fliers posted in community centers and on the Internet, appearances on local radio, announcements in church, postcards to book club members, or notices in neighborhood newsletters. Here are a few inexpensive ways to reach potential ticket-buyers.

1. Call the National Storytelling Center at 1-800-525-4514 and you will have reached the home of the National Storytelling Network in Jonesborough, TN. NSN staff can direct you to a National Storytelling Directory online and there you will find storytellers and storytelling events, organizations and educational opportunities listed state by state. Use these contacts to spread the word about your upcoming storytelling event.

2. Ask NSN staff about purchasing mailing labels to add its members in your community to your mailing list.

3. The National Storytelling Network has its own website at: www. storynet.org. Check it and other storytelling websites out.

4. Many states have active storytelling networks. Google to find one in your state.

5. There is an annual storytelling festival in virtually every state in the union — more than one in states like Illinois, Georgia and California. Your local reference librarian can assist you in locating information about  the one(s) near you. Local and regional festivals attract folks who are willing to drive real distances and spend money on storytelling. Be sure that audience is targeted in your efforts to spread the word.

6. Since readers are likely audiences for storytelling, and storytelling audiences are likely buyers of books, why not link up with a local bookstore? Ask them to print and  distribute small bookmarks announcing your story series, and of course, advertising the bookstore as a co-sponsor. Ask them to tag their print ads with an announcement of your story events, and organize a ticket giveaway for bookstore customers.

7. Collaborate with a local newspaper to run a story contest, prior to your event.  Ask contestants to finish the following sentence, “Once upon a time, when Elvis was King and Prince was still Prince…” or  “In a land far, far away, a bright yellow lizard was returning phone calls when all of a sudden…” Give away pairs of tickets to the top five entries.

8. Contact college theatre and speech classes, ESL and adult education writing teachers, and visit their classes to announce your performances. Distribute fliers, or ask permission to write the essential information on the chalkboard. Some teachers can easily incorporate your event into their curriculum, and will offer class credit for attendance.

9. For weekend performances, distribute fliers at Saturday morning produce markets and swap meets. Storytelling tends to be a low-cost ticket item, so it can be an impulse buy when one friend asks another: “Say, did you have plans for later?”

10. Often, tellers are writers too. Ask your guest storyteller to write an article (or share a pre-written piece) for the opinion page of your local newspaper. Chances are your teller has already given a lot of thought to the nature of storytelling and has celebrated the art of storytelling on paper as well as in person.

11. If you have a voice mail system, set up one extension to play a short (3-5 minute) story recorded by your guest teller. If you have a storytelling series, consider playing a new story each week, and advertise the “Storyline” phone number in all your publicity materials.

12. Contact local Rotarians, women’s clubs and other civic groups. Visit club meetings to announce your story performances and if club members attend, send a short report after the event to the club’s newsletter editor, and include information on upcoming storytelling events.

13. Is there a spoken word performance tradition or a poetry scene in your town? Make certain that coffee house audiences are invited to your performance series.

14.  Most touring tellers have CDs or downloadable audios of their work. Ask for a number of these to offer as giveaways through the local radio station. Go on radio with a story sample (live or recorded); guest-host an afternoon program; offer short spots on morning programming. Commuters are great story-listeners and potential audience members.

15. List your series or one-time event on the electronic bulletin board at your local library. Better yet, post it via e-mail, on Facebook, twitter, etc.

16. If your teller is known for her stories illuminating a particular culture or ethnic group, be sure to notify interested local organizations, museums, cultural groups about her upcoming appearance.

17. Post fliers or leave a stack of performance information postcards in the local Arts Council or Commission office and put out a stack at the Chamber of Commerce.

18.  Set aside a room off the lobby of your performance space for a 30-minute open story-swap before the show begins. Particular subject matter has great drawing power; target a different theme for the stories to be swapped at your event each month. Advertise the swap as a first come, first served event.

19. Storytellers are obvious outreach artists. Underwrite a free show at a school, library or community center, and invite the public and the media to attend. Send the audience members home with fliers about your mainstage event.

20. Support your local artists: Local tellers can sometimes be engaged at reasonable cost (or by trading a good performance space for a good show) to develop outreach activities that turn your annual storytelling event into a festival of activities within your community. The storytelling world is a small one: your mainstage storyteller may be able to recommend someone in your community.

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Don’t forget: at the heart of storytelling is the story. Don’t ignore content! People listen to stories because the stories are about something. Are new parents going to find these stories enormously  entertaining? Does your teller put words to issues of inclusivity? Do the stories speak to the particular experiences of a cultural or ethnic group? Is there a special message that will gently coax workaholics to take the day off? As you study your storyteller’s body of work, you will begin to know who will be especially touched by the performance.

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In surveying ten presenters about presenting storytelling for adults, these facts emerged:

*Audiences ranged in size from 70-250 people.
*Adult audiences were mostly white, middle class, college-educated, aged 30-80 years, with women predominating.
*Audiences varied considerably from show to show, depending on the theme or the teller.
*Audiences of color came out to see artists of color.
*Ticket costs ranged from $5.00-10.00.
*The setting affected ticket price. The lowest ticket price was found in a library or educational setting; the highest  in a theatre or art museum.
*Some series offered advance ticket prices and/or senior or student or membership discounts.
*Those offering a season ticket found that 15-20% of their attendees became season ticket holders.
*Heavy walk-up traffic was noted, often as much as 50% of the audience.
*Artist fees ranged from about $500-2,500 with transportation and housing sometimes paid extra.
*For the most part, the series were begun by storytelling practitioners and were run on a shoestring, break-even budget.
*In some cases, however, the producers had outside funding from grants or partial funding and/or in-kind donations from the venue.

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Here’s what the producers had to say…

…about venues:

I wanted to create an adult setting for storytelling, redefine it for my community in a different setting from a park, a library, a public school. So, the setting, an art museum, is a classy site. Seventy people fit into the space so it’s easy to succeed. It is sold out regularly two weeks ahead, whereas no other museum show ever is. — Heather Forest (NY)

We wanted to get reviews in the theatre section of the papers, so we set up a theatre run to get reviews and attract a theatrical audience. We had been in too folksy a space (a church in Cambridge). We went to Lesley College and moved into a theatre. Then we ran two series simultaneously. — Judith Black (MA)

It’s been at the Indianapolis Art Museum since 1990. Before that we held a spring and fall concert at an old movie theatre. Bob Sander, co-director of series, is the resident storyteller at the museum, and asked them to host it. We get the space for free, and the museum supplies the sound system, a sound technician, lighting, and security, all for free. — Ellen Munds (IN)

…about audience behavior:

We have folks coming to Indianapolis from Ohio and from all over the state depending on the storyteller. — Ellen Munds (IN)

There was a core of folks who came to everything we presented, but 40% were different for every show. These were drawn in by wanting to try out the art form, the subject matter or the teller. Halloween and Valentine’s Day audiences tended to be younger – college students – and we did some midnight shows for these. Theme shows were catchy, including Mother’s Day. — Judith Black (MA)

Our audience came from Pasadena, the West Side and some regulars from as far as 60-100 miles away —  from Lancaster, Victorville and San Diego. — Milbre Burch  (CA)

…about funding:

Funding comes from a flat fee from the museum which takes the gate, is in charge of ticket sales and box office, and does a monthly mailing to the community and to my list. I write a grant for the difference between the artists’ fees and the museum’s flat rate plus my time.  — Heather Forest  (NY)

We have been self-funding, including a $15,000 grant from an appreciative audience member. — Jo Radner (DC)

The series is funded by the Monterey Public Library Trust, comprised of funds donated by the community for enhancements to the library’s budget, which comes from the city’s general fund. — Jeanne McCombs (CA)

…about getting an audience:

We’ve had some success targeting specific audience for specific shows. For Gayle Ross, we contacted every Native American organization we knew.  We handed out flyers at the Powwow, the Smithsonian, and the Native American Department at American University. We try to use specialized networks — Jo Radner (DC)

We use statewide press releases, occasional newspaper stories, and newspaper calender listings. The museum lists the series in Preview magazine. Brochures are distributed to all libraries and bookstores in a nine-county area through a group of volunteers. We utilize the free courier system to all the libraries — Ellen Munds (IN)

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The power of storytelling is tailor-made to penetrate deep in the human brain and reside in the human heart. Without million-dollar special effects you can give your audiences an experience they will remember for a lifetime. How else can you get such high impact performance for nominal production costs? Try it. Your audiences will like it.

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About the Editor:
An internationally known performer, an author, an award-winning recording artist and a teacher of her craft, Milbre Burch is a storyteller in every sense of the word. A thirty-year veteran of the contemporary American storytelling movement, she is also a storytelling studies scholar.

Special thanks to these survey contributors:

Carol Birch, producer from 1990-2008 of the Adult Storytelling Series at the Chappaqua Library in Westchester County, MA.

Judith Black of the Storytellers Collective of Boston, Inc., producers from 1981 to 1991 of Storytellers in Concert in Cambridge, MA.

Milbre Burch and Berkley Hudson of Kind Crone Productions, producers from 1988-1994 of BY WORD OF MOUTH Adult Storytelling Series in Pasadena, CA.

Heather Forest of Cartoon Opera, producer since 1989 of Tales for a Winter’s Eve,a Storytelling Chamber Concert Series for Adults in Long Island, NY.

Bill Harley of the Spellbinders, the RI Storytelling Collective, since 1982 producers and presenters of The Spellbinders’ Adult Storytelling Series  in Providence, RI.

Jeanne McCombs, producer since 1986 of the Monterey Library Adult Storytelling Series in Monterey, CA.

Ellen Munds of Stories Inc., producer since 1990 of  Storytellers Theatre in Indianapolis, IN.

Jo Radner, producer from 1990-2006 of the Washington Storytellers Theatre in DC.

Vicky Reed, producer since 1989 of the University of San Diego Concert Series in San Diego, CA.

Kathleen Zundell, co-producer with Pam Greene of the Beverly Hills Library from 1994-2006 of the With Our Words Storytellers’ Collective Adult Series in Beverly Hills, CA.

And very special thanks to Sandy Robertson, Lindsey Nelson and Hortensia Chu.

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Copyright, Milbre Burch, 1997 and 2012. 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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