December 13, 2007

Where are the Thought Leaders in Storytelling?

If you want to learn about storytelling as an art form, good luck using the Web.

There are plenty of talented storytellers and storytelling mentors out there. Good resources: courses, books, conferences.

The national and regional conferences are excellent places to not only learn storytelling, but network with storytellers, and most importantly, hear from the "big picture" thinkers-- the folks who have been doing this for years, who care passionately about this, and have challenging ideas about where the American storytelling revival has come from, where it is now, and where it's going.

But, by and large, you won't find them online.

(One exception: the Storytelling in Business movement, which has been growing rapidly in recent years, where business leaders harness organizational knowledge through storytelling, narrative, and applying the lens of anthropological collection of folklore to the corporate organization, has always maintained a healthy presence online (in part, because it has grown contemporaneously with the Web, and in part because business folks are quick to realize (unlike many storytellers) the value proposition of being seen online).

Google the phrase, "storytelling," and see what resources are on the first page.

Today, the only single storyteller to appear on that first page, is Heather Forest. Since 2000, she's provided the world with Story Arts Online, a web site with resources for storytelling in the classroom. The site is customer focused, that is, its for teachers to use. It's actually difficult to find any info about Heather on the site and how to hire her (this may be intentional on her part-- after thirty years of performing, you might want to slow down).

You can find the International Storytelling Center... but the web site is a promotional and professional site for the Center's real-world site. Nothing wrong with that, but their web site is not contributing anything to the understanding of the art form.

The National Storytelling Network's site only appears on the second page (and I would argue that, though its mission is different that that of the ISC, its Web site is also not contributing anything to the understanding of the art form).

Granted, there's a problem with the query itself, as "Storytelling" is too broad a term to focus solely on the performing art.

But I would argue that the "thought leaders" of the storytelling field, apart from Storytelling in Business group, and Heather Forest, have abandoned the Web as a means of getting the word out.

Actually, "abandon" means that they were there in the first place. Hmm. What's the word I'm looking for?


Take a look who's advertising on this Google results page in the right hand column for a clue as to who does understand the importance of Web presence: Doug Lipman, Aneeta Sundararaj, and Sean Buvala. Through Google's ad program, they have paid for links to their sites to appear on that front page.
(Today, the ad list also includes a link to an entertainment design firm... I suspect that they will find the clickthrough from the term "storytelling" disappointing)

I'm not sure why children's literature proponent Esmé Raji Codell's single page on storytelling in the classroom appears on the first page of results. It may be that Google's algorithm for ranking is simply weighting it more because the set of all web pages linking to it (presumably from educational web sites) is larger than the set of all web pages linking to any other storytelling web site.

So, our elders in the field are mostly ignoring the Web.

We can see them at Festivals, but there we usually only hear them tell stories. At conferences, we invite those in our community that we feel have wisdom to impart to be keynote speakers, or lead intensives, or workshops, but their thoughts, however valuable, are lost. Conference proceedings aren't published. Recordings are not disseminated.

So wisdom --or challenges to accepted wisdom-- appears once a year, at a conference in just one place, at one time. Maybe an abbreviated version appears in Storytelling magazine, but that's a dead end too (An article in storytelling magazine is akin to packing knowledge away in a crate never to be seen again, like at the end of "Raiders
of the Lost Ark). Coincidentally, via a used book trading website, I just found a grad student in the library program at University of Illinois who unearthered twenty copies of a state-of-the-field collection of white papers (from Joseph Sobol, Karen Morgan, Janice del Negro, et. al) circa 1998 which I'll be distributing to people who can use this info. If you want a copy immediately, UI has put the papers on the Internet Archive here. (Story, from fireplace to cyberspace : connecting children and narrative (1998). Allerton Park Institute (39th : 1997 : Monticello, Ill.))

In some cases, we have to wait multiple years while our leaders in our field write a book.

A book is not a conversation, and neither is a keynote speech.

Now, there are some folks in the storytelling community who blow my mind every time I talk with them. They're sharp, insightful, wise, and open to being challenged. And they do spread their vision, share it, pass it along... one on one, or in workshops, or at conferences.

But it's slooooow.

Enter blogging.

In many industries, notably the tech industry, authorities in the field write on the state of their industry via a blog.

If you're reading this, this is not news.

My favorite "industry" that's blogging right now is theatre. Some bloggers are
professional critics, some are amateur critics. Some are directors, some are producers, some are playwrights, some are in-the-trenches administrators. And they are having passionate discussions and arguments about the state of theatre in America, in the UK, in Australia. About the art form and where its going, why its dying, what's exciting and what's cutting edge and what's going to keep the theatre world alive.

And you can see, via the comments, and the blogs, that ideas are zipping back and forth. Arguments, agreements, conversations... all virtual, but they are happening.

And its not being driven by one institution, but by impassioned people who believe in an art form.

Does storytelling have these folks? Yes.

Are they blogging?

They're starting to. It's taking a while. (Heck, I registered this blog in 2000. It took me 7 years to get around to posting anything here)

But those that are using the Web are becoming de facto thought leaders of the storytelling movement.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting reviews, shout outs, and links to these blogs and podcasters, who are utilizing the Web the way it was meant to be used: as a way to share content, to participate in media, and as a way to reach out to those interested in a field and invite them to learn more.

Who these folks are won't be a surprise (I've had links on the left hand side of this blog for a while). But I do want to start a fire under the conversation, and, while we're at it, boost our respective Google rankings;-).


About Sean Buvala said...

I just wrote a nice, comprehensive answer to your post.

Then I erased it.

So, Google "storyteller" and see who comes up. It took a lot of years to get to that space. A good chunk of our 10 total years.

Oh, look, I finally have a working RSS.

Now, I am taking your post, printing it and taping it to my wall across from my laptop. That will remind me to Blog more.

I will. I will. I will.

Oh, look, I found a scrap of the post I wrote and erased: Our national and regional events need a complete revamp. We have to move beyond the "echo chamber" of the same people, saying the same thing, hiring the same people.

I'm doing that in my emergent corner of the world. Perhaps you know the very first storyteller who will be our "guest teller?

I love the way you think.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

I would attend a conference purely to talk technology and storytelling.

I may be part of Generation Y but I am one of the early Generation Y and all the online know-how is not all there. I do what I can though I am always learning. The Communications Marketing side of me knows that I need to jump into the possibilities. . .fast!

Perhaps we should create a Technology check-list that can be distributed at the next National Storytelling Conference? People can see where they are at and rank the order of importance of what project to start first.

I know Eric Wolf will have a panel on technology in Gatlinburg, TN for it.

If the Conference Center has wireless capability, there could even be a booth so storytellers could set up with social networking sites like Professional Storyteller and Facebook as well as blogs right there on the spot.

Maybe Sean, Eric, Dianne and myself (at least to the degree that I know the system) could make this happen and help with the booth?

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
(801) 870-5799