What Does a Storyteller Do Anyway?

I am often asked just what a storyteller does.  It is a good question, and the answer is not as easy as you might think.

Storytellers tell stories to people of all ages, not just children. Stories might be old tales or newly written, folktales, funny stories, family stories or historic pieces. All are carefully practiced and planned to meet the needs of each audience for which we perform. Sometimes it is a small group, sometimes there are several thousand in the audience. I have been part of many festivals: at WVU for Mountaineer Week, in Alabama for the Athens Storytelling Festival, in Ohio for a small theatre event, at the West Virginia Book Festival. Prickett’s Fort State Park Foundation, the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, the Inland Waterways Festival and many others. Variety is the spice of a storyteller’s life.

I perform frequently at schools for classroom programs, heritage festivals and fundraisers. Libraries are a frequent venue, especially during the summer for summer reading programs. Sometimes I offer a combination storytelling-and-craft program for libraries, usually including puppets and participation activities. I assisted with writing a grant and taught puppet workshops at the Ripley Library so that a teen puppetry troupe could be developed. At Migration Celebration near Beckley I have done crafts and stories for many years for Three Rivers Avian Center’s annual fundraiser. This year I am a presenter for the Sharing the Fire Storytelling Conference in Albany, New York and the OOPS Conference in Ohio.

Probably half of my schedule is events for adults or family audiences. Elderhostels, conference keynotes or entertainment and annual meetings are frequently on my calendar. I perform occasionally at state parks and last year told ghost stories for Tygart Lake Foundation’s first Haunted Trail. Last year’s schedule also included two programs special needs young adults and a ballad-singing workshop for the Ohio Order for the Preservation of Storytelling.

Like most storytellers, I write. I present programs for book groups, and last year was a presenter at the Bridgeport Library’s literary festival. I give writing workshops at libraries, for both children and adults, and teenagers were the target audience for a writing workshop in Princeton, WV. I plan and organize the Oral Traditions tent for the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville, combining poets, writers and storyteller  performances.

No storyteller is an island. I am a member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild, and we sponsor events too. We staffed a tent and performed at the Vandalia Festival, presented at the Mountain State Storytelling Institute at Fairmont State University, and gave workshops and concerts for the West Virginia Book Festival. The guild has published a CD and a book by guild members. An Ohio storyteller and I plan a series of events called Stories at the River’s Edge, sponsored by a grant from the Ohio River Border Initiative and contributions from participating organizations.

Storytelling does not mean just “getting up and telling stories.” Although it may look easy, much planning, research, practice and organizing precede each event. That work is done in the evenings after work; I often practice in my car during my two-hour daily commute to my full-time job. My library of folklore and folktales, ballad CDs and writing books grows every year, and my puppet and prop collection threatens to take over my home office.  I write contracts, produce a brochure and other literature, and maintain contact with a wide circle of storytelling friends and potential clients. I listen constantly; to be a good storyteller, one really must be a good listener.

What I haven’t mentioned is the joy of telling, the fun, the amazing people I meet, the interesting out-of-the-way places I visit, and the vast store of photos and memories from my fifteen years in this art. I continue to develop new stories, storing snippets of conversations, new songs and bits of folklore in that disorganized filing cabinet I call my mind. I hope to meet you if I visit your town, and I hope you will have a story to tell me.