Storytelling_Past – Present – Future

By: Jim Woodard

Storytelling is as old as speech itself. As society developed, people wanted to keep a historical account of events that affected their people. Storytellers carried the key role in the preservation of historical information and communicating it to new generations. In some cases, stories featured animals to satirize tribal events. By using animals, storytellers could make fun of tribal leaders without fear of retribution. Thus, fables were born.

Basically, people felt a strong need to share emotions and experiences. And they often did so in very creative, imaginative ways. Indeed, all our classic literature developed from storytelling.

Storytelling has been on a wild roller coaster ride during the past 500 years. During the Middle Ages, it was riding high as one of the most admired and respected of all professions. Then, due to a particular invention, it almost dropped into total oblivion. Now it’s rising high again as the popularity of this age-old art form enjoys a revival in popularity.

Middle Age storytellers were busy, highly respected and often affluent. Also called troubadours or bards, these tellers of tales traveled from town to town, village to village, tribe to tribe, castle to castle — wherever a group could afford the services of a professional storyteller. They were in great demand for entertainment or educational events. In some cases, they provided a link to the history of local areas and peoples. They usually had busy schedules, presenting programs and constantly learning new stories. Storytellers of different tribes competed with one another to come up with the most creative and captivating stories. It became something of a status symbol for tribes.

Then something happened that had a major impact on the life and professional of the storyteller. In the early 1500s, the printing press was invented — that clunky old Gutenberg Press. It was the forerunner of many more constantly improved printing presses. And books and magazines were rolling off those presses. The need for an oral storyteller almost evaporated.

Then in the early 1900s, along came radio and movies — followed in the 40s and 50s with television and videos. The fate of the storyteller fell even further into the abyss of forgotten art forms.


Today, it seems nothing is impossible in the area of creating and distributing stories via high-tech electronics. Highly sophisticated story scenes are packaged into video taped presentations, beamed up to and bounced off satellites and sent directly into homes, TV stations and cable systems throughout the world. When a producer wants a unique special effect in a story scene, he just reaches into his bag of electronic goodies and gimmicks and comes up with anything he wants. There seems to be no limit to the magic of electronic image making.

But in spite of these great technological advancements, storytelling — the simple practice of an individual telling a story to a group of people — is experiencing a revival in popularity. Since the early 1970s, there has been a steady increase in the number of professional or semi-professional storytellers.

The number of storytelling associations or leagues has been increasing. The largest, the National Storytelling Association has increased its membership significantly every year since it was founded in 1975. This organization has grown to the point where its leaders feel it must be divided into two distinct sections. One will focus on continuing support of its growing membership. The other will develop and operate a National Storytelling Center where national and international outreach programs will be launched to make the public more aware of and appreciate the reviving storytelling art.

There is also an increasing number of storytelling festivals, and generally a growing demand for the services of oral storytellers. Maybe storytelling is enjoying a revival in spite of all the recent technological advancements, or maybe it’s because of it. I have a hunch the revival has been sparked by today’s high-tech world. People may be getting tired of looking at a flickering screen — big or small — and being spoon-fed images into their brains. They want to go back to the time when individuals produced and directed their own images in just the way they want it — following scenes described by a storyteller. We all, young and old, have that natural capability to create images in our minds. And we have an innate desire to exercise that capability. That’s my personal opinion.

Here’s another factor I believe contributes to the current revival. The public seems to have a growing realization that they need to keep their minds active with creative pursuits if they are to enjoy a good and healthy lifestyle. They’re resisting the tendency to develop lazy, sluggish minds while slipping into a TV watching, couch-potato mode.

Studies show that young persons who become addicted to TV programs and movies crammed with violent scenes (enhanced by computerized special effects) and degrading rap music lyrics, are most apt to develop violent behavior themselves. By listening to and telling positive stories, and pursuing other cultural activities, they stimulate their thinking processes and widen the horizons of special interests. Thus, a movement is underway by progressive people who want to break through the barrier of high-tech electronically packaged images to once again enjoy the stimulating experience of thinking and using their imaginations.

In a report from the National Storytelling Association (NSA), the current revival was described this way:

“In recent times, the age-old art of storytelling was almost drowned out by the clamorous din of contemporary culture until the human yearning for genuine one-on-one communication sparked a revival of the art. Today, a renaissance of storytelling is cascading across the country — a renaissance heard in the strong voices of teachers, librarians, corporate executives, therapists, ministers, parents and others who make storytelling a vibrant part of their everyday lives and work.”

To individualize and humanize the storytelling revival, NSA lists these examples:

· In New York, a counselor uses storytelling to help patients overcome grief.

· The public speaking organization Toastmasters International added storytelling as an advanced program so its members can learn how to enliven their speeches by incorporating a well-told tale.

· At the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, a special program provides a storyteller to accompany children on a tour of artwork.

· In classrooms across the country, educators are turning to storytelling as a way to teach language skills, combat illiteracy, allow history to come alive, and bridge cultural differences.

Storyteller David Novak offered an interesting perspective on storytelling at this point in its continuing evolution.

“We’re now at a crossroads in the storytelling revival,” he said. “When presenting or listening to stories, we’re thinking of the present and future, but are very aware of the past. We’re experiencing something of an identity crisis. We need to clearly establish where we are, and where we’re going. That’s the role of the storyteller in today’s society.”


As technology continues to advance in the new millenium, we will see the storytelling revival continue to grow. That’s good news for all of us who enjoy a good story related by an oral storyteller. It’s particularly good news for youngsters, because selective storytelling enhances their academic capabilities substantially. Thus, it helps push school grades up, and prepares them for more advanced academic pursuits and successful careers.

Jim Woodard started storytelling when working as a counselor at Boys Town, NE. He has presented hundreds of programs in California in recent years – for youth and adult audiences — and is the resident storyteller at the Reagan Presidential Library. His e-mail address: , Web site: By Jim Woodard

Norman Rockwell, more than any other American artist-illustrator, effectively captured drama in the lifestyle of common people doing common, ordinary things. Sometimes his illustrations made people laugh, sometimes cry, but viewing those creative images made people feel good about life in this country. He described himself as a visual storyteller.

I never realized the strong impact of Rockwell’s artistry until I studied his life and started a series of storytelling programs at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on that very special life. The series of programs, currently scheduled every Saturday, ties in with an exhibition of Norman Rockwell works at the Library.

Responses from the full-theater audiences and comments from individuals following the presentations made me realize what a great influence this man and his talents had on the people of this nation over the past seven decades. He acquired this power with the creative use of paint brushes and charcoals. And his heroes, championed in about 4,000 illustrations, were common people.

Several aspects of his life really seemed to surprise my audiences. For example, when Rockwell was a boy he was constantly recognized for his outstanding ability at drawing pictures, but that’s not what he wanted most at that point in his life. His greatest desire was to be a good athlete. He particularly wanted to excel in baseball, because the most successful and popular boys in his school and neighborhood were good at baseball.

His body, however, was not athletically suited by any stretch of the imagination. He was tall and skinny, had very narrow shoulders and a disproportionately long neck with a protruding adams apple. He was awkward, poorly coordinated and pigeoned-toed. He had to wear corrective shoes by age 10, glasses by 12.

After a gallant effort to excel in sports, he finally realized he was just not suited for sports activities and decided to concentrate on becoming an accomplished artist.

At age 22, while creating illustrations for Boys Life magazine, he decided to raise his sights and try for assignments to create illustrations for the biggest, most popular magazine in the country at that time – the Saturday Evening Post. When he received a letter from the Post agreeing to interview him, he was really excited. He didn’t have any idea how to prepare for such a high-level interview, but he just knew he wanted to impress that Post art director in any way he could.

He thought if he had a large, important looking art portfolio case it might be impressive. So he asked a friend — a fledgling carpenter — to make a special wooden portfolio case for him. When it was completed it was impressive all right. It was much larger than it needed to be. It looked more like a small coffin than an art portfolio case.

But he put his best sample sketches into that huge case and carried it to his appointment with the Post art director. As he walked into his office, the art director stared at that big case for a moment, then looked up at Rockwell and said, “Young man, I hope you don’t have a body in that coffin your bringing in here.”

Rockwell was embarrassed, of course – but not for long. As he started pulling his sketches out of that case, the art director was very impressed with what he saw. So much so that before Rockwell left that office he had an assignment to create several illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post.

His first Post cover illustration was carried on the issue of May, 1916. That was the first of over 300 covers illustrated by Rockwell, and started a 47 year working relationship. The Rockwell covers became so popular, sales of the magazine increased by about 250,000 copies every time one was featured.

Rockwell worked extensively with models when developing a new illustration. He would line up models, costumes and props, representing each segment of a new sketch – then have the scene photographed from several angles. He had a very special and effective way of working with models.

I learned about this immediately after completing my first Rockwell storytelling program at the Reagan Library. An attractive woman, appearing to be in her 60s, approach me, introducing herself as Joyce from Thousand Oaks. She said both she and her mother modeled for Rockwell many years ago and showed me a Rockwell illustration where both of them were featured. She was an 8-year-old girl at the time.

“When we went to the studio for our modeling assignment, Rockwell didn’t start working immediately,” Joyce said. “He just sat there visiting and telling us stories for quite a while. By the time we started modeling, we felt very comfortable, like we’d known Rockwell for many years. It was a very pleasant experience.”

Shortly before Rockwell died in 1978, he was visiting with a good friend. He said, “An artist like me gets out of his work exactly what he puts into it. If you’re really interested in the characters you’re drawing – if you truly understand and love them – then the people who look at your sketches will feel the same way about them.”


C. 199-2002. Jim Woodard is a storyteller-writer from Ventura. He is the featured storyteller at the Reagan Presidential Library and presents programs for a variety of audiences – adults and youths.

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