Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Storytellers: Adopt a school!

I am not trying to re-invent the wheel here. Many storytellers already practice this idea, and we have discussed it in class when Elizabeth Ellis was teaching us Advanced Storytelling. But I don't think I have blogged about it before, and it has been a big part of my life as a storyteller.

The basic idea is that a storyteller should adopt a school as a regular telling place.

It gets tricky when you think about it. Us storytellers spend a great portion of our work time trying to convince people to accept storytelling not only as a legitimate art form, but also as a profession, and as such, pay us for it. One way to support this claim is to not "give away" your storytelling work for free. As promotion it doesn't work, simply because people value stuff more if they have to pay for it - they assume free is "not that good." Quoting the Joker on this: "If you are good at something, never do it for free."

So, why offer a free pass to an entire school?

Because it's good for everyone. May schools struggle to make place in their budget for the arts, let alone visiting artists, and it goes without saying that storytelling is good (I could go for 'essential') for the kids. They could probably not afford to pay a resident storyteller, and even if they could, it would probably take a lot of convincing on everyone's part to do so.
Storytellers, on the other hand, need a solid testing audience.

When I first stumbled upon the idea of storytelling, my mother was the first one to offer a test audience. She teaches ESL in high school, so she took me to her classes and allowed me to tell stories in English as "listening practice," day after day, class after class. I didn't only get to practice my English telling and test my new stories, but I also got an idea of how audiences work, what they like, and how they interact with me. It was priceless in the first year of my storytelling career.

When I attended ETSU, I had a "performance scholarship" - I paid in-state tuition in exchange for regular storytelling work at the University School. It was another of those win-win situations. This time, I got to work with all ages, first grade though seniors in high school, which prepared me for pretty much any audience I can possibly run into (with the exception of seniors).

Regularly returning to the same "telling grounds" works wonders with one's repertoire. You can't tell the same story twice. If you tell to one class once a week, over the course of a school year you will develop a repertoire for that age group that will hold you over for years to come. At the same time, you can tell the same story in different classes, practice and polish it over and over again, and see how far it stretches over age groups. It's. Good. Practice.

And, apart from all the practical reasons and benefits, there is one more very important aspect: Emotional attachment. Storytellers spend their life breezing in and out of schools, libraries and other venues, forming a connection with an audience for a short period of time, and then moving on. We rarely get the chance to really get to know an audience. When one adopts a school, something great happens. After a while, when you walk into a classroom, the kids' faces will light up and they will greet you like the coolest person in the world. They will tell you things. They will follow the stories, and remember them. You no longer have to restrict your story choices to 45 minutes tops. You can do full series of stories, you can do themes, you can take requests for next time. And suddenly, you are working for an audience that is fully invested in storytelling, and they will have a deeper, more permanent understanding of what it is, and why it is fun.

Giving up one's professional convictions for the sake of one very important exception does not ruin one's storytelling career. Quite the opposite. It has given me so much extra in so many ways, I can only recommend it to anyone who has not done it before.

After I worked in a story-deprived environment for almost a year, this pretty much saved my life. The day after I finally quit work my first thing to do was to pick up the phone and call back to the University School. All I had to say was "please give me a class, any class" and I could walk in, get all the hugs, and tell some stories. I needed it as much as they did.


  1. I so agree with you! As a beginning storyteller I got the opportunity for a weekly 25 min. performance at a primary school. I've done this for 3 years now. They pay me, less than I'd ask usually, but it pays back as you wrote: I have a playground to experiment and I have an audience that knows me and welcomes me enthusiastly every week. I've learned a lot there!

  2. I've done several storytelling sessions in schools with kids and I've never charged for it. Schools are strapped enough for cash as it is, and I always feel so bad that the kids don't get the things they should because of that. And this way, they get to learn about the value of storytelling from an early age.


  3. I agree! I have not YET adopt a school, but on reading your blog I like the idea. A lot! I have, however, adopted a summer camp - about 9 or 10 years ago. Very underprivileged and challenged kids (want to come next year? It's in Fairlee VT!) and I began to be called The Story Guy, but now most kids there know my name. It is THE BEST place in the world to be, for all the reasons you outlined in your post. Thank you for opening me up to what I was already doing, but to do it bigger!