The Storytelling Revival is over. The Revolution has begun.
I came to the National Storytelling Conference in Pittsburgh thinking mostly about my hosting a story swap on Thursday and my part in the Regional Concert on Friday. I came away from the conference on Sunday with a whole new set of thoughts.
What makes up storytelling? How do we change the perception of storytelling? What is our perception of storytelling? Where is storytelling going? These are question to which I thought I knew some answers before the conference. I now know I am only beginning to grasp the meaning of these questions.
Storytelling is changing. The change is in how we see ourselves as storytellers, and we need to change how others see us. “Storyteller” is an honorable title, but not very definitive. As Nancy Donoval got across to me during her workshop, almost no one goes to a music concert; they go to a blues concert, or a jazz concert, or a chamber music concert. We call people to come to a storytelling concert, as if there is only one type of storytelling. If too many in the public still think we are reading from books that is because we haven’t communicated to them the diversity of what we do.
The time has come to think about branding ourselves so as to distinguish ourselves from other tellers. I don’t mean branding in the clever/gimmick/logo sense, but in the sense that tells the public what to expect from each storyteller, and that we are all different. The brand “Storyteller” is a one-size-fits-all that may have worked during the storytelling revival, but is no longer useful all by itself.
As with all revolutions, the storytelling revolution has started before anyone has realized it. It started with the SIGs – special interest groups. It was here that tellers began to recognize themselves as tellers of a different ilk. Their interest was not quite the same as other tellers. They were pushing the boundaries of an earlier definition of “Storytelling.” Storytelling as a healing art. Storytelling in organizations. Storytelling in higher education. These are categories beyond the art of practicing storytelling.
During the Sunday General Session at the conference Gail Rosen pointed out that the SIGs had not been asked to give reports. I think she felt they were not being seen by NSN as (and I will restrict myself to this single pun) SIGnificant. Gail Rosen had this to say about the roll of SIGs in storytelling.
“I believe that the SIGs are a way into the world of storytelling for many people, a point of entry into discovering the vast diversity of stories, storytellers and applications for storytelling. The SIGs also have a huge outreach function for NSN and the future of storytelling. Because of our interest and belief in the power, inspiration, gifts and yes, utility of storytelling, SIG members make connections in many other fields. At the Healing Story Alliances conference in 2005, attendees came from medicine, psychology, social work, law enforcement, pastoral care and more. Some had just recently become aware of storytelling through HSA members or the conference invitation. Members of the Storytelling in Organizations SIG reach people in business, law, education, and any other venue where groups of people work together. The Storytelling in Higher Education SIG has already had an impact on academia though the publication of Storytelling, Self, Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Storytelling Studies, the first juried publication in the field.
“…And, I would suggest that "traditional" storytelling is not entirely separate from any of the SIGs endeavors, that within the "domain" of each SIG, there is a great variety of stories, storytellers and storytelling styles.
“By supporting and paying attention to the work and the needs of our special interest groups, NSN will benefit our entire community and further our mission of ‘Bringing together and nurturing individuals and organizations that use the power of storytelling in all its forms.’”
I talked with Karl Hallsten at the conference, who expressed a vision of better integration of the SIGs and the national organization. In a later correspondence with Karl, he explained it to me more fully.
“…That when you joined NSN you could elect one SIG for the same membership fee. Conversely if you joined a SIG you joined NSN at the same time for the same fee. SIGs would get an agreed on portion of the membership fee for their budget. Further SIGs should have direct representation on the NSN board.
“Whether it’s revolution or revival---the growing edge of storytelling is no longer performance storytelling but applied. Karen Dietz has been speaking about that throughout her tenure---but moving the organization from its obsession with performance telling to its broader mission is not easy. To balance the deal performance tellers need a SIG so that the playing field in the organization is level. So whether it happens by revolution or evolution--it needs to happen and I think will. I didnt say this last paragraph at the conference--though now I wish I had--like you the conference triggered ideas about our community.”
But the revolution may be just as evident in two other movements within storytelling; the fringe performances and the New Voices discussion group.
For years Loren Niemi, Susan OHalloran, Tim Ereneta and others have argued for fringe performances at national events. This has come about and is very popular, probably because it fills a need. There is the need to see storytelling venture out of the box in which many of us feel so comfortable. Let me confess to being one of those comfortable in the box. The box will always be there for us traditionalist. But still, I want to see storytelling move beyond and I enjoy watching it do just that.
It is in the fringe that new talent can find new ways to express themselves in the story format. It is in the fringe that established talent can explore other parts of their craft to an audience that expects them to do something new and not what the teller is known for doing.
Look to the members of New Voices, a NSN discussion group for tellers in their twenties and early thirties, to chart out their own territory within the storytelling community. They are a discussion group that has gone beyond just talking. They are networking, looking to enter new venues or creating their own. It is important for the community to accept new and young tellers on their own terms, and not as neophytes or dilettantes when their work speaks otherwise.
I feel a need to remind all those who were at the General Session and to inform those who were not, about Elizabeth Ellis’ plea to concern ourselves with storytelling in the video gaming industry. To date the storylines, such as they are, have been used as an excuse for blatant, all be it virtual, violence. That we should work with that industry to interject compassion into the storylines, she sees as a crucial matter to the present, evolving culture.
Elizabeth has said, "The video gaming industry is having an intense effect on nearly every aspect of our culture. We cannot rid our culture of them. That is beyond our power. The development of computer games that can teach compassion and empathy is vitally important. Any assistance we can give this industry in the development of games that are life affirming is a worthy goal."
As story ventures out of the box and finds itself in new rolls and take on new identities, it will become more obvious to the public that storytellers are not reading from a book. As we become more diverse (perhaps as different from each other as classical musicians and rap artists) as we find ourselves not speaking the same jargon as other tellers, as we find new audiences, storytelling will become more than it is now. However, we traditionalist need not fear. Even in the future, just as musicians play music, storytellers will still tell stories.