August 19, 2012

Conference Reflections: Liz Nichols

Liz with Painted Face
Why does Liz look like
Jaguar? Keep reading!
Liz Nichols got lost in the 398 (Folklore & Mythology) section of the public library at age ten, and hasn't found her way out yet! Liz is a professional storyteller, educator & Certified Laughter Leader, and was a presenter at the 2012 National Storytelling Conference, sharing her work as a TimeSlips™ facilitator, a creative storytelling method for people with dementia or memory loss. You can learn more about Liz's storytelling at her website,

 I have been to 4 NSN Conferences over the past 15 years and enjoyed each in its own way. Of course it’s great to reconnect with folks and feel continuity, but for me discovering something or someone new and different is always the highlight.
At this year’s Conference one thing that was new to me was the programming of swaps and fringe performances concurrent with the workshop sessions. The idea of missing a workshop to attend a swap or fringe was tough for me, but I did it several times, and on Saturday afternoon I hit the jackpot. I’d already picked up “gig postcards” for various Fringes (just that self-promotional practice felt like the wider theater arts world permeating the storyteller atmosphere), and I couldn’t resist the sight of Christopher Agostino in the hotel hallway outside his session space, prepping the biggest, most colorful, most artsy box of face paints I’ve ever seen. When I heard the NYC accent from my hometown, that clinched it.
The show was called “Before Cave Walls... The Story on Our Skin”. Here’s what Christopher’s website ( ) says about what he does:
Agostino & Co. Performing Arts presents exciting, innovative performances and entertainment for family audiences. We employ storytelling, movement, clowning, masks and costumes, sound and text, and "Transformation! Facepainting" to create original theatre which is both thought-provoking and entertaining for schools, theatres and events. Our "Transformation! Artists" are regularly seen at events and parties throughout the New York area turning thousands of people each year into fantastic works of art.
About 25–30 of us sat mesmerized as he started with a lecture/demo on the human history of self-transformation through mask and body art, calling up volunteer after volunteer to be painted as he talked. Then he wove several stories in, some traditional and some in a folktale mode that he and his kids had created – and he used us as his canvas to show characters like jaguar, snake and lizard, and settings like tropical island and African savannah.
Participants in Agostino's Fringe Show
While the performance itself was terrific, even more fun was the way those of us who volunteered became an instant family of sorts. Some of us decided to go to dinner together at a nearby restaurant, where we got lots of stares and some great conversations. Even Charlotte Blake Alston got up on stage for her Oracle Award presentation duties in her face paint, and at the reception that followed it was surreal to chat and sip wine, slipping in and out of the awareness that people seeing me were actually seeing Jaguar instead.
The larger importance of all this for me boiled down to a couple of insights:
1)   That it took an “oddball” experience for me to make a very special connection with a group of people who didn’t know each other at all before the conference.  It transcended the usual categories we fall into.
2)   The value of truly opening up our storytelling world to allies and friends with different backgrounds and identities – those for whom “storyteller” is a secondary aspect of their art and work.
Christopher told us that he had not been sure he would be welcome—he wouldn’t have come except that his Fringe application had been picked out of the hat. I’m glad to say he got a great response. It was an example of what Bill Harley talked about in his very thought-provoking closing address—that for the broader world, storytelling may be better recognized and valued as a “seed art” than stand-alone. And that rather than always complaining about that, we should see it as a positive, as a bridge.

July 24, 2012

Shout Out: JustStories Online Storytelling Festival August 1, 2, and 3, 2012

I've known about the diversity work of Susan O'Halloran and Angels Studio in Chicago for many years, and was delighted to see that this year, they will hold their annual storytelling festival online. Susan sent along this announcement:

Join us for the first ever JustStories Online Storytelling Festival August 1, 2 & 3 – a free Facebook event. Every hour from 8 am to midnight (CDT) a new video will post on the JustStories Facebook Page (—stories that can help heal our racial and ethnic divides. Over 70 humorous, heartwarming and thought provoking stories by 43 professional story artists! You can comment, ask questions and share your stories, too. Storytelling + Facebook = a worldwide FUN and RESPECTFUL conversation that celebrates our differences and all that connects us.

Please share this invitation with all your friends so they, too, can have a front row seat to the JustStories Online Festival right in the comfort of their homes! Anyone can view the Festival at any time at, but with a Facebook user name and password you can comment, ask questions, and share your stories, too. (You don’t have to fill out a full profile and you can cancel the account after the Festival.)

Full schedule and story descriptions at:

Sue also noted:

Often you hear leaders declare “It’s time to have a national conversation on race”. But how do we do that without causing more division and hard feelings?

One of the best ways to reflect on difficult issues is through the use of shared stories. Stories can be entertaining, engaging and emotionally touching. When you hear other people’s stories you realize how unique each person and each group is as well as all we have in common. When we’re able to walk in each other’s shoes, even for a few minutes, the stranger becomes a friend.

For the last nine years, the JustStories Storytelling Festival has been a live storytelling event in the Chicago area, a co-production of Angels Studio, a communications ministry of The Society of the Divine Word and O’Halloran Diversity Productions. But this year for its 10th anniversary the festival is going to the web in hopes of reaching an even bigger audience with stories that can heal our racial and ethnic divides. Think of it – on the internet there are no geographic boundaries or time limitations. This storytelling festival about inclusivity can now include everyone!

July 20, 2012

2012 Post-Conference Reflections Across the Interwebs

NSN Conference Logo

You can find more reflections from attendees of the 2012 National Storytelling Conference—it was just 3 weeks ago—if you know where to look. This week, I've been reading accounts from three members of the storytelling tribe who made the recent journey to Cincinnati:

The Storytelling Adventures of Red Phoenix (link)

Lois Sprengnether Keel posted her conference experiences on her blog, Storytelling + Research = LoiS, as well as photos of photos of earlier conferences taken by the late storyteller Mark Wilson (link)

Fauxklore's livejournal site (link)

July 14, 2012

Conference Reflections: An Open Letter from Camille Born

storyteller Camille Born
Camille Born (Mahomet, Illinois) became a professional storyteller when she realized that her skills in telling personal anecdotes, sharing historical tidbits and giving her younger brother a life-long fear of closets could all be put together in a career. She was delighted, at age 50, to finally find out “what she wanted to be when she grew up”.  Besides telling folk tales, she writes original historical stories for performance. 
Learn more about Camille at her website:

An Open Letter to My Storytelling Guild and Storytellers Everywhere:

This is a cool idea:!/StoriesInTheStreets/info by Andrea Lovett of Massachusetts.

And now, I am stepping onto my soapbox. (you've been warned)

Lots of times, as individual storytellers and as a guild, we lament about being asked to appear at events where the crowd is "just passing by." We want a seated crowd, good sound, etc. etc. etc. All the keynote speakers at the 2012 National Storytelling Conference talked about the need to build our audience—and to do it in whatever way we can; even for free. (not all of the comments in the keynotes were cheered by the audience). From young audience members will come future audience members and future tellers. We need to spread the word about storytelling to the public in general, to as many people as we can, in order to grow our audiences for future gigs—paid, "free-will" or otherwise.

To grow storytelling—and of course, get more work for all of us—we need to be bringing stories to people wherever they are. If there's a good idea out there, we should replicate it. I bet we even all have good ideas of our own. Yes, we all have done free work and really want to be paid. Me too. To get paid, we need people to show up. How can we expect people to show up to concerts—especially adults—if people don't know what storytelling is?? I did tell stories at the Champaign Farmer's Market last summer... and maybe only to one family each time, and maybe only 2–5 minutes stories, but it did spread the word. I did have a follow up visit from someone who heard me there. I did hand out brochures to adults passing by who said, "I never thought I would be so interested in a fairy tale." What I did was spread the word about—gave people a taste of—storytelling. Maybe some of those people showed up at your events. Who knows?

Telling at a farmer's market, or on the steps of the courthouse, or at an event when people are just passing by isn't "the best" for us, or for showing off our profession. If the goal is spreading the power of Story, however, those type of opportunities shouldn't be missed—especially if the reason for missing is "that's not how it should be done." Below, see the picture and post from Massachusetts teller Karen Chace who with two other tellers told to lines of people waiting to get into a park!

When next we gather—or perhaps at a meeting just to discuss possible events—I would like us to consider some "out of the box" functions. Why? because of all the above reasons and because: 2 years ago, I appeared as part of 40North's [Champaign County IL] Arts Council program in downtown Champaign, telling in the evening on a street corner. And then I told them, "y'know, telling to people just walking by doesn't work for storytelling..." and I've never been asked back. And now I see that there's art performances on the street corners of downtown Champaign every Friday night this summer: dance, fire breathing, magic, music, spoken word. Maybe if I hadn't been so rigid about "what storytelling needs" I would have been asked to participate this summer.

We all make our own choices, and do what we see is best for our careers, and our profession. I'm committed to jumping out of the storytelling box more often. Just call me Jack.

NEXT STEP: A guild in France is telling stories poolside this summer! What "out-of-traditional-storytelling box" places have you told at? Have you ever "taken it to the streets"? Where might you tell next?

Screenshot of Karen Chace's Facebook page used by permission. Photo copyright 2012 by Andrea Lovett, used by permission.

July 10, 2012

Conference Reflections: Lorna MacDonald Czarnota

Lorna MacDonald Czarnota is a professional storyteller based in Buffalo, New York, who specializes  in healing story. She  is the founder and Executive Director of  Crossroads Story Center, Inc, a not-for-profit reaching at-risk youth through storytelling. In 2006, the National Storytelling Network honored Lorna with an Oracle Award for exemplary leadership and service and significant contributions to community through storytelling. The following post originally appeared on Facebook. It is reprinted here with Lorna's permission.
Follow Lorna on Twitter @StoryLornaMac, and learn more about Lorna at her website,
 Reflecting on Bill Harley's keynote address

I came to storytelling to share my stories and started by familiarizing myself with its history. I spent years studying this art and how it was used for entertainment, education, spiritually, for dissemination of knowledge and as a means for keeping the culture of a people. I told stories in all those ways.

I came to a deep understanding of the art of storytelling and how story is structured, as well as the significance of the storyteller in a community, small and large. I was called to story for healing and like others, I continue to learn.

In the beginning, I believed I would only be successful as a storyteller if I was recognizable on the "big" stage. Yet venues like Jonesborough and others continued to elude me. I wondered if I would ever be successful and at times thought about quitting. But there came a day when I asked this, with somewhat of a whine, to two of the storytellers who had the frustratingly recognizable name I thought I could not achieve. Those two tellers were David Holt and Jim May. I was a shadow, a speck compared to them and I found it frustrating. I cannot remember their exact words to me but I know when they were finished I left feeling like I had received a beat-down. They didn't give me the coddling I had expected, and thank goodness! That moment, and a little more ripening on the vine, changed how I viewed myself and my work, and in turn it changed how others saw me. That was years ago but this past weekend, Bill Harley's keynote took me to the next level of understanding the significance.

In a nutshell, Bill said we made a mistake when we allowed our art to become synonymous with Jonesborough and the big stage. He said telling to 1000 people in a tent isn't storytelling (by definition of intimacy). He said "Important things happen at the edges." He meant that about our art, that storytelling is at the edge or fringe of our society's ideals, but I think it also connects with what we do as "applied" storytellers - tellers using the art not only to entertain but specifically to educate, heal and enhance spirituality.

Like any good story, I imagine others took away a different message from Bill's keynote. And like any good story, it touched us where we needed to be touched. I guess I needed to hear once more that what I do is as important, if not more so, than what happens on a stage in a tent with 1000 people. How as a storyteller, I can listen as well as I tell and still make a difference in this world. I can tell to one lady in an elevator or listen to a dying friend's story, or sit in a room with five struggling teens, and have the world call me a storyteller. I can be proud of what I do, continue to marvel at the power of this thing called story, and know I have been successful. I have believed for a long time that once you give yourself to story, you serve it more than it serves you. You are the story, live and work in it, becoming so much a part of it that you cannot imagine doing anything else in your life. You realize story is all around you, you can not escape it nor do you want to.

Thank you Bill Harley. Thank you National Storytelling Network. And thank you to my fellow storytellers. Let's keep moving forward!

July 09, 2012

Conference Musings: An Open Invitation

Alas, my schedule this year has not permitted me to attend any storytelling conferences-- although if you follow my Twitter feed you may have noticed me plugging Sharing the Fire in March,  Northlands Storytelling Conference in April, the Tejas Storytelling Conference in early June, and the National Storytelling Conference at the very end of June. In my experience, attending a conference like these is a rewarding opportunity to immerse oneself in the tribe of storytellers, to share ideas with fellow artists, to geek out on the minutia of the storytelling art.

If you had a chance to attend, and were inspired, perplexed, challenged, or refreshed, you are welcome to share your reflections here in a guest post.

Drop me a line and we'll schedule you.

In the meantime, check out a few reflections on the National Storytelling Conference from Carolyn Stearns over at LANES/CT Stories+Storytellers, the always eloquent Laura Packer at True Stories, Honest Lies, and dlmar, The Memoir Writer.

OMG. Loren Niemi has started a blog. Why didn't I get the memo? Read his reflections on the National Storytelling Conference, "The Cincinnati Commentaries," here.

January 19, 2012

2012 International Storytelling Conference

April 7, in Istanbul, in case you were wondering. Link.

Pop quiz: what's this conference preview missing?

January 09, 2012

The Year Ahead

With 2012 still young, I thought I'd set my sights on the year ahead.

As usual, I've got some traditional folktales that I'm working on. And I'm one of many local storyellers learning part of the Kalevala for a day-long telling of this Finnish epic, hosted by our muse Cathryn Fairlee. I'm looking forward to getting to hear such an old story from the oral tradition told live, and if that weren't enough, this year Going Deep, the Long Traditional Story Retreat, is coming to my neighborhood! (I don't think that I can attend the retreat, but oh boy will I be there for the stories.)

I'm looking at possible telling far afield, but I don't think a Fringe Festival is in the cards for me this year. Instead, I might try a mini-tour in combination with a family vacation.

And I'm pledging to spend more time this year producing and curating content, rather than just consuming it. So, look for more blog posts here, as well as continuing efforts at my Tumblr sites: Story Lab X and Storytelling Looks Like This.


An audience member once asked me if I created my own material, and I confessed that much of my repertoire was ancient. But every once in a while, inspiration pokes its little head out of the compost heap, and sprouts.

Here are three seeds. I wonder if any of them will grow?

1. A character voice: A few nights ago while driving home, I tuned in a syndicated radio program whose host had a unique voice, very atypical for radio. So unusual, I started to speak aloud to myself, and play with sound production, in an effort to recreate the sound of his voice. I couldn't quite match the vocal quality I was trying to isolate, but the exercise reminded me of the variety of characterization possible... and created a challenge. The voice I'm aiming for could be quite comic. However, if I do it wrong, it could come across as mean-spirited mockery.

(I don't do extreme character voices in my performances. But that voice I heard really intrigued me.)

2. The second seed is a visual image. Not an image from a story, but an image of a storyteller. Only, a storyteller not dressed in what you expect a storyteller to dress like.

Do you dress up on stage? Do you have a storytelling outfit? Or even a costume?

has this guy got a story to tell!I have a storyteller costume, though I don't use it all the time (I'll use it in my Fringe show). When I don't wear the costume, I do think about what I'm going to wear when I tell. Certain clothes allow me to slide into my storytelling persona more easily.

But I'm really intrigued about the kind of stories that might come from a storyteller in this outfit.

It's a chicken and egg question. I don't have an outfit like this. Do the stories come first, then the outfit? Or if I get the outfit, will the stories come?

3. A song: this one has crawled straight into my heart, and evokes so many stories for me.

Happy 2012, everyone!