Fringe Festival Basics for Storytellers

By: Tim Ereneta

Did you ever wish you were recognized as a storyteller regionally, or nationally? Did you ever think that your pathway to recognition depended on appearing at a storytelling festival? Did you ever ask how you might get to be invited to a festival, only to be told that the festivals only hires storytellers with previous festival experience? A conundrum, to be sure.

One strategy for storytellers to consider is to “go outside the lines,” and develop experience at other performing arts festivals. One democratic avenue to consider in this regard is the Fringe Festival circuit.

Generally, a Fringe Festival is organized as multi-venue festivals where dozens (if not hundreds) of performing arts companies stage their work. These festivals aren’t limited to storytellers: in fact, they take all comers. Dancers, jugglers, magicians, theatre companies, burlesque troupes, stand up comics, improv troupes, rappers, poets, multimedia artists, and street performers fill the stage over a week or two. A Fringe is not the kind of festival with headliners, “first namers” (artists who are so well known you only have to mention their first name), or VIPs. In fact, the talent is usually chosen by lottery! If you participate in a Fringe as a performer, Continue reading →

Frequently Asked Questions for Storytellers and Those Who Hire Them

Frequently Asked Questions for Storytellers and those who want to hire them!
By True Thomas

1. What should I expect at a storytelling event?
2. How do I hire a Storyteller?
3. What should I expect from a professional Storyteller?
4. What will ’Tellers expect from you?
5. How do I find a Storyteller?
6. How do I find Storytellers in Southern California?

1. What should I expect at a storytelling event? Storytelling is a strange thing. I belong to the Storytell Listserv where time and again people have tried to define what “storytelling” is. It can involve music, puppets, multiple tellers, props, improvisation, and more. Likewise, each storytelling event is a little different. Some feature a group of master tellers exploring themes like Fools and Wise Men, Tales of the Sea etc, Scary Stories, etc. Others feature one or two tellers, for an in-depth show. Yet another features up to 5 tellers in a great show…. At a festival, you get Olio’s (a group of tellers within a certain time) and features, showcases, etc. where a certain teller or group will hold the stage. These are examples, and there is a lot of variety. By and large storytelling events are on weekends and evenings, seating is a portable chair, indoors or outdoors, with snacks on hand (or for sale) and the show will last 2-3 hours. A festival can last up to 2-3 days, but you can come and go as you please. Unlike most performance type events, Storytellers interact at various levels with the audience, and storytelling audiences that “get into” stories are really fun. You meet great people, and might get to share a few of your own. And afterward, you’ll say, wow, I’ve got to tell my friends about this!

true thomas the storyteller in a black shirt and a red waistcoat storytelling2. How do I hire a Storyteller? First- GREAT! Thinking about hiring a teller! Bless you, spread the word, and keep the faith! Before you pick up the phone, here are some things to consider. Every Storyteller is different, but let’s make some assumptions. If you are hiring a storyteller, this is a business type decision. So just as any business would, you are hiring a contractor to come in and do a certain task. Storytellers are the most flexible people I know in terms of capabilities. Part of that comes from the art, as you can weave a story around almost anything. If you are hiring a storyteller, you’ll need to know your specifics, the Who/When/Where/Why/What/ and How.

A. Date, time, Location, Duration:

B. Type of stories/entertainment you want: What is the theme of the event, or type of audience. Often times the Teller can work with you to get “Just that special note” that makes an event memorable.

C. What kind of event it is: Quiet, rowdy, indoor, outdoors, etc.

D. What kind of audience: This is very important to the teller, as Traditional Whaling songs may not be appropriate for Greenpeace, etc. The teller will need to know as much as you can tell them about the type of people you are expecting. You need to know what your budget is: Generally professional Tellers have 4 deciding factors for gigs-

a. How big (30? 300? 1000?)
b. duration (several class rooms over a day, 1 half hour show, etc.)
c. How much Pre-work will be necessary (Am I researching stories for this event i.e. Stories about Garlic for a Garlic Festival, or just telling fun stories to a group of Adults/Kids/Prisoners, etc.)
d. How far the teller needs to go. (How much time will it take to get there, and back, etc.)

Understand that a storyteller is just like anyone else, in that they need to make a living. Things like Medical, Dental, Taxes, Insurance, Rent, Food, Kids, Computers, Publicity, Gas, Auto maintenance, etc. all need to be taken into consideration of the rate of a teller. You as an event producer, have some things you can sweeten the deal with- If a Teller is going to get a lot publicity, spend the night in a great seaside hotel, etc. Fun enters into it- if this is a worthy cause, they could be more flexible. Likewise, if you want a certain teller but your budget is tight, with a little legwork, you could maybe help line up some other gigs at schools etc. Then as a package, everyone will get a lower rate, and a lot more storytelling. Most tellers will be happy to give you a rate, and explain it over the phone. Tellers depend on good word of mouth (literally) and so if the teller is a working professional, they’ll be able to help you. My observations as to the types of tellers… (These are the opinions of True, and not those of anyone else….)

“A Full time Teller”

Usually has literature, a website, tapes, etc. They run it as a business, and make their living telling stories, offering workshops, etc. They have contracts and info packages. (Pro’s and Con’s: Pro- High reliability, consistent performances, more flexible schedules, and usually better known. Cons: Booking needs to be done earlier, sometimes tellers get a little burned out, prices can be higher.)

“A Part-Time Teller” Is somebody who does not do it full time. Storytelling supplements their income, and there may not be a big enough market in their area to support a full time teller, etc. The Full-time teller life is a hard one, and the fluctuations of the freelance market are not well understood by landlords and kids. It’s not for everyone. Also, some tellers come to storytelling later in life- and want to finish their 20 years as an executive, or whatever. I want to point out that many of these “Part-Time” tellers can be every bit as good as a “Full-time teller”.

(Pro’s and Con’s: Pro- Reliable, more flexible in terms of creating/researching, etc. usually not as expensive. Con’s: Schedule is not as flexible {A teacher might have mornings locked up etc.} so availability increases with notice. They may not be as well known. Consistency is less “locked”)

“Pro-bono Teller/ Almost free”

This could be a retiree, a person just doing it for the love of telling, someone developing their chops, etc. Most Pro and Semi-Pro tellers do a number of Pro-bono gigs for good causes as well. In this case, things like reliability, and ability are totally subjective. You get what you pay for. Sometimes you can get an incredible teller for nothing. Or one that blows you off, or goes on and on, and on.

The important thing to remember is that whenever a teller endeavors to entertain, this is a skill, and effort. Do what you can to repay the intent and effort, even if that’s a thank you note, gift bag, etc.

True’s hiring tips:

– Sometimes a teller who is “known” for a certain thing- kids, Celtic, etc. is dying to try out some new material, new audiences. This can help you get some tellers who are looking to expand their markets! And get you a great teller who has their “chops” down.

– Lead-time is a great thing- and a locked in gig, with months in advance and with creative license for the teller can really be enticing.

– The more you do follow-up, write thank you letters, get positive comments from the audience and pass them on, etc, the more you support the teller.

– This is an art form, and one that needs promoters. In turn that Teller can turn you onto a lot of other good tellers, make suggestions and more!

3. What should I expect from a professional Storyteller? Every teller is different, just like most businesses. Some are happy with a verbal contract over the phone (and legally binding), and others might fax you a contract. A Pro should give you the following:

A. Show up on time, with a little lead-time for “surprises”

B. Appropriate dress, and performance material. Material should be pre-agreed on.

C. PR photos/ headshots for you to use, as well as a bio and introduction.

D. They should hit their marks in terms of length, and produce a “quality product” (No two audiences are alike, so you never know. The important thing is that the teller gets up and delivers a consistent and reasonable story)

E. They should be able to furnish you with a receipt, upon request. (It will usually be sent once they get home).

F. They telephone/e-mail contact numbers to get a hold of them in case of emergencies.

G. When dealing with guests, VIP’s and audience members, they should reflect well on the craft of Storytelling and your event (patience, charming, etc.)

H. They are guests, and should not breach etiquette or hospitality.

I. They should be willing to allow for publicity both for and after events. (The event producer should tell them ahead of time what this might entail….)

J. Every Teller should leave an event with good thoughts about storytelling in the minds of the producers and audience about them, and storytelling in general.

4. What will ’Tellers expect from you? Tellers need you to help create the mood, the environment where they can work their magic. The producer is the unseen partner of the teller. Here are some suggestions, no particular order.

Well, first, the tellers are going to need all the information covered in “how to hire a teller”. Care and feeding of a Teller is not that hard. Tellers will need accurate maps and contact numbers to get a hold of you. One of these numbers has to be a way to get a hold of you just before a gig (if someone gets lost, calling your home won’t help…)

Most tellers are pretty flexible, but “big surprises” like promising an audience of 30 and ending up with a hall of 300, is likely to be a bit flustering. They will need a “handler” who will meet the teller, get them situated, and help move them and their gear as need be. If your venue includes kids, kid wranglers are a must, and they should know not to interrupt the teller if at all possible (quietly removing unruly kids, etc.)

If dealing with kids, sitting some adults in the audience is a good idea. Sometimes, tellers get treated like “a video tape” and the parents/ teachers/hosts proceed to talk loudly in the background. Likewise, if a teller is performing at a large function, giving them a quiet corner, or room to perform in will make all the difference. Let your crew know that the respect they pay the teller will influence the audience.

Having a quiet place to change clothes, rehearse, and stow gear securely is very handy. For the record, changing clothes in a public bathroom is awkward at best. If you will need sound or lighting, these need to be resolved and tested before the teller arrives. Any gig with more than 30 people could require a sound system. Having water available, and place for the teller to rest, and eat off stage is good too!

Most tellers would prefer a check made out to them, given to them at the end of the performance. They will need to examine it (nothing personal, just to make certain names, and prices are correct) on site. With any publicity (clippings, posters, etc.), copies should be given to the teller. Likewise, taking photo’s at the gig is usually okay, but not during a dramatic part of the story (unless you are using a professionally “blimped”) camera. Tellers and producers always need new photos.

A teller may leave a follow up sheet, for you to make suggestions and offer compliments, likewise getting feedback from the audience and passing that on that as well can be truly helpful. Always keep track of what stories a teller tells, just in case they’ll be back- and you may or may not want a repeat.

If the Teller has a lot of gear, or needs to deal with a dark parking lot at night, be aware- the teller does not know what you know. A little help can go a long way, so the “handlers” should make certain everything is okay from beginning to end. (The handlers are best if they are calm types, who know who the players are.)

Onstage, a Teller may need a mike either on a stand or a clip on. Plan for sound checks. Tell your sound person that tellers have a pretty big dynamic range. Often times, Full or Part time tellers will have their own mikes, and sound systems. Check compatibilities and needs. Tellers might need a stool to sit on (not too low) or table to set stuff on. Lighting should be high enough in the audience for the teller to make eye contact (and if the house spot is on, it’s like being speared like a bug) – tellers like to see their audiences.

Audiences- not too warm, not too long, not too noisy. If you’ve parked the audience in a thoroughfare, with an electric band and a jumper nearby, and with no shade… then the teller will be talking to only a few people. This is what we call “Storytelling Hell”. Give the teller a pleasant non-distracting environment, cool-ish, and a visual place to look for cues from the stage manager. Some tellers make ask you to give them time cues, or be in a certain place if they need to ask someone to adjust audio, or deal with an audience member.

All in all, a little planning and consideration can make for an incredible storytelling event.

5. How do I find a Storyteller? Before you look for one, have in mind the kind of event and teller you might need. Because once you get on the phone, the creative part of you joins the business part of you. Hopefully when you talk to the teller you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want. This will cut down on the phone time, and let the teller work with you on the creative side. What kind of stories do we want to do! Every teller has specialties and strengths. Some are good with kids, others with adults, and some with corporate types.

One of the best ways to find storytellers is to go to storytelling events. You get to see them in action. Talk to the event coordinators (usually a few days after the show). Check web pages (like ours) or the National Storytelling Network –This is a directory on the network, as well as the regional Liaisons at who can give you recommendations. Likewise, here at , there is a handy directory. Every teller I know has favorite tellers they like- and will be glad to refer you. If at all possible talk to people who have seen the teller in action, and see if there are tapes, audio or video available.

Tellers come from all walks of life, and there are people who might not think of themselves as storytellers, but are absolutely wonderful speakers, and natural tellers. So keep an open mind, and look for those people. But remember that this person may not be comfortable in front of a mike with 50 people watching them intently. So a few dry runs might be in order.

Good Luck and may your stories be Legendary!-

True Thomas is an experienced storyteller, performer and author living in California.

This article first appeared in 2001. The contents expressed in any article on are solely the opinion of author. Articles are under © and should not be used without permission of the author. Contact us if you have questions.

Review: Mischief Adventures of a Daydreamy Child

We’re reviewing Lynn Ruehlmann’s CD: “Mischief: Adventures of a Daydreamy Child.”

From bringing down the house (really) to singing sacred music in the bathroom of the Chinese restaurant, young Lynn kept her parents and older sister busy with her wild imagination and imaginary playmate.

In this CD of personal tales, Lynn takes her listeners on a fun ride through childhood events remembered innocently and playfully. In each piece, she recreates the many players in a subtle shifting of voice, intonation and enunciation.

Lynn incorporates the tunes of folk musicians as she enters into each story. The music is fun to listen to and we are always glad to see collaborative projects between artists. Next time, rather than random folk music, we would suggest that the musicians reinterpret some old hymns into their bluegrass sound, should Lynn decide to share more of her “church kid” adventures.

The CD is professionally recorded and produced. While the title does feature the word “child” in it, we think these stories are best suited for adults and older teens that may be looking for “remember when you might have acted like this” nostalgia. We’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want to inspire any young children to use Lynn’s stories as a road map for their own adventures. Or perhaps you would- if you love mischief as Lynn does.

We received a complimentary copy of the recording for this review. Get your copy from

This review is written by the Staff of It first appeared 2012.


Shadow Stories: Beyond the Veneer of Niceness in Sacred Storytelling

(Note- Originally written for Youthworker Journal, May 2004, by Sean Buvala.)

a single candle in a carved glass casting shadows out at night take by the storytellerIt was 12:30 in the morning. I thought I’d finally gotten them all bedded down for the night. You know how they can be, very wound up with being in a new place and all. Their energy was building on each other and when one started to chatter, the rest joined in. No matter how many times I told them to be quiet, they wouldn’t. I thought retreats were for quiet. Ha!

Finally, Stephen yelled to me from across the cabin, “Sean, tell us a story and we’ll shut up.”

The other adult cabin leader looked at me as if to say, “Do something!”

“What do you want to hear?” I responded. I was actually thinking: “Is this going to work? Nine fifteen-year-old guys in a cabin and me telling them bedtime stories? I don’t think so.”

“The thing about the King and the other guy’s wife. It’s my favorite,” said another boy, Zach, one of my guys who was having a really hard time with a relationship that was boiling between him and his girlfriend.

“Your favorite, Zach? I never knew you listened that close,” I replied. For Zach, the whole camp had appeared to be an endless bore, with his girlfriend and team sports beckoning him back home.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, more contemplatively than I expected. I guess I was wrong.
For the next eleven minutes, with the moonlight streaming in the windows, I told the story of David and Bathsheba, stripped of its pretentiousness and told for the mythic and earthy tale it is. However, rather than killing their energy and stopping them talking, it merely changed the energy in the room. They became calmer, more focused—and the conversation flowed about the use and abuse of sexuality, sin, and forgiveness. The loss of sleep was more than offset by the opportunity to delve deeply into issues these guys wouldn’t deal with in a normal church class.

“Sean,” said Zach, “I need to talk to you in the morning…”

You’re a What?
I’ve found that usually when I explain to someone that I’m a storyteller, the first image people have is that of a gentle teller sharing tales with children. Although that certainly is a form of telling and valid in its own right, my telling is focused on teenagers and adults in ministry and corporate settings. “Telling stories to teenagers? How could you do that?” they ask as Disney-fied images of fairytales play about in their heads.
It doesn’t get much clearer for them when I say I primarily re-tell scripture stories. It seems that most people I speak with have never thought about storytelling as a tool for change.

I get to explain that I tell mostly the shadow stories of Scripture. Shadow stories are those stories that are found behind the gentle and tame front end of the scriptural stories as told so often in our churches. Although we can cast the story of the Prodigal Son in the light of forgiveness and homecoming, there’s also the story in the shadows of the father’s fear, the younger son’s debauchery, and the older son’s arrogance. The story of King David and his son Absalom never really sees the light of day at all, just dwelling in the shadows as a wildly unhappy father-and-son relationship.

In these shadows I’ve discovered many young people find themselves. St. Paul describes this shadow as seeing “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It’s been my duty as a performing arts minister, storyteller, and preacher to acknowledge the shadows exist. My basic assumption is this: being unafraid to use the shadow side of Scripture stories—the death and resurrection contained in each one—creates opportunities for listeners to confront their own shadows and be unafraid to bring them before the Lord. After all, if the great people of the Scriptures had dark sides, yet triumphed with God’s power, why can’t we? There’s a deep power in telling stories without the veneer of niceness.

Scriptural Shadows
Let’s play for a bit with the story of Jesus and the crowd who wanted to stone the woman for her adultery. Jesus has an opportunity to speak at length to the crowd, telling them of God’s love, proclaiming the word and wonder of God. But he doesn’t. He draws in the sand. What’s he doing? One of my favorite explanations is that Jesus begins to list the sins of the crowd. With his list completed, he points to the shadow side of their lives and says, “If you are without sin, then throw the first stone.”

Our young people are sometimes victims of the shadow, and by scraping off the veneer from the perfect people in the Scriptures, we let our kids recognize that all of our shadows can be overcome. There’s a certain fear in Western cultures of dealing with shadows. We may have a tendency to ignore the shadow stories in our lives. There seems to be some discomfort in talking about tough times and events.

Professional storyteller Eric Cyrs, who specializes in telling African stories in the Southern California area, states that “the more Western perspective on topics, such as death and violence, can be very negative, but for (some) other cultures it’s not….death and life are part of the same continuation.” Christians should feel that way even more.

Like Paul’s mirror, shadow stories can reflect for us things God wants us to know, but we have to dig through the more uncomfortable shadow themes. The story of David and Bathsheba is a good example. It’s the story I told my wound-up, 15-year-old boys.

Adolescents today are bombarded with sexual images, images of adultery and criminal activity. Are teens ready for the shadow version of the David and Bathsheba story? For most of the teens I’ve worked with, the answer was “yes.” When it comes time to present and process the story, I’ve always had a choice. I could tell the story in code. I could say that the two were in a relationship. I could say she was “with child.” I could say that David had Uriah “eliminated.” But when I do, teens will respond in Christian-ese code for “no thanks.” They’ll nod and say that maybe God has something to “teach me” in this story and thank you for sharing it. And when they leave, they’ll know once more that the Scriptures have nothing to do with their lives today. They’ll go home and flick on the tube, and many of the things I’ve hinted at are presented in full color by the 24-7 MTV / reality show / pay per view culture.

Or I could tell the story in its true shadow version. The story is about sex, lust, abuse, infidelity, and deceit. When I tell it for what it is, in its true shadow, with all the questions (Did God kill Bathsheba’s baby for justice?) I get teens who can draw comparisons to what they see and hear everyday. And finally, I get to tell the resolution of the tale—from all of this pain, let’s be honest with the shadows—King David tried to get away with a horrendous crime. He didn’t simply walk away from this. There must have been some long, deep, sobbing nights for David and Bathsheba. How many of our young people and the families we minister to can relate to this deep sorrow, this pain caused by poor choices? “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light” (Matthew 10:27). How many times have I truly spoken it to them?

The Valley of the Shadow…
Of course, I’m aware that sometimes there’s a risk with shadow stories. What if the person listening doesn’t get the message I think they should get? I’ve come to believe the power of the Holy Spirit can and does lead the listener to the “right” conclusion, even as that person is free to reject the message itself. I’ve had to pay deep attention to the fact that the primary method of teaching that Jesus chose was telling stories. At one point, the disciples had to seek Jesus out and essentially ask him what some of his stories meant. Although he had many ways of teaching available to him, even with this confusion, he chose the telling of story most often to carry his message.

Looking at it another way, Cathy Mosley, a professional storyteller in Illinois, cautions that the teller shouldn’t try to force a moral or agenda onto their shadow stories. “Let’s face it; the power of story can be a dangerous tool. As we know, a good teller or speaker will let a story do its own work, [to] simmer in the listener’s memory and imagination, nudging thought and problem-solving into action. [Forcing interpretation] also exhibits a lack of trust in people’s ability to grasp meaning and problem solve.”

I’ve found that when I make the commitment to tell a scriptural shadow story, I must tell it all, even the parts that confuse me. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with the death of the first child of David and Bathsheba. It confuses and angers me, and I’m not sure I completely understand this vengeful God. However, following my own rule, I must tell the whole story: God brings forth King Solomon out of the union of David and Bathsheba. I let my listeners, and myself, wrestle with that conclusion, that even in the shadow, God can create true life, light, and future.

Our Own Shadow Stories
Another option in telling shadow stories is to use stories from our own lives. These personal shadow stories are the times in our lives when we struggled with our choices and decisions. In some cases, we first made poor choices or had less than Christian initial responses. Although this can be effective, there are several guidelines I try to remember.
It’s important for me to limit how often I talk about myself. My focus needs to stay on God, and my responsibility lies in encouraging the listeners to pay attention to the greater truth, not just my experience. I use personal shadow stories infrequently, and I only have one or two that I’ve chosen to tell.

I’ve also learned to be sure that I’ve done my emotional and therapeutic homework before I tell any personal shadow tale. My job as a teller is to never “dump” on an audience. I’ve had to be sure that my stories won’t bind me emotionally as I tell them. For example, I tell a story entitled “Drunk Mr. Daniels,” where I had a run-in (nearly literally) with a drunken man in a fast-food parking lot. Although I was angry at the time of the story and didn’t react in a way that would earn me a Sunday school ribbon, I’ve since worked out this experience with not only a counselor but a sounding board of several other people who could tell me when and if my story should be added to my repertoire. Through this process of prayer, counseling, and good challenging friends, I’ve learned which personal shadow stories I can tell and which aren’t for public consumption.
As the words of Jesus the master storyteller are still being misunderstood and misrepresented today, the teller of personal shadow stories must carefully decide if, when, and with whom they’ll share their shadow stories. Greg Sweeney, a youth ministry veteran of 19 years who serves as the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Christ the King and St. Joseph Catholic parishes in South Bend, Indiana says it this way. “As authentic as we want to be with teens, we must measure what we say in front of them. It’s like the telephone game that we’ve all used as an icebreaker. Somewhere the message is going to break down, and the only thing left that resembles the original story is maybe a few of the words or a couple of the names. I think there are times in our ministry that the words we use can come back and bite us. No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how well thought out, no matter how pertinent, somebody is going to misunderstand what we have to say.”

With personal shadow stories, I’ve learned to be very selective in who hears the full story. Using my “Mr.Daniels” story as an example, I do not tell it to every group that I work with. I specifically crafted the story for talks with adolescent boys. It’s a story of controlling my anger and not giving in to what I really wanted to do that particular night. Most of the males I’ve worked with easily relate to my struggle between my base anger and my need to do the correct thing as a Christian—even if I didn’t in the end do everything I should have. This is a shadow story that begs the question, “Do good Christian men get angry?” Does every group get the full story? No; they do not and should not. Not every story I know gets told to every group.

Shadow-Storytelling 101
Here’s a few other things I’ve gleaned over the last twenty years of telling shadow stories.

<>Other than the Scriptures, I don’t tell other people’s shadow stories.
Storytellers refer to material like the Bible as a “world source.” As Christians, we know that thousands of years have passed, and these stories have stood the test of time as the Word of God. The “ownership” of the Scriptures is universal and therefore open for anyone to use, correctly or incorrectly. However, outside of the accepted stories of Scripture, telling of someone else’s shadow story rarely works. “I had a friend once who encountered a drunken man in a parking lot and rather than do the right thing as a Christian…” When I tell someone else’s shadow experience, I am forcing my own conclusions on another’s person’s untested life story. In the worldwide storytelling community, this idea of ownership is an issue of integrity and is the subject of fierce debate. I tell stories and I tell often in many places, but I tell the truth and only tell what I know.

<>If I have to explain everything, then it is not yet time for me to tell the shadow story.
When I am concerned that my personal or scriptural shadow story needs explanation for a group to understand it, then the time to tell it to that group has not yet come. I have found that often with the shadow tales, group members will be prompted by the Spirit to draw powerful lessons for themselves from shadow stories well told. When I’m not ready to believe that about an individual story, then I need to hold off on telling it while I learn more, pray more, practice more, and hone the telling.

<>I still practice my telling, even stories I’ve told for decades.
It’s a little known fact that the second unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is bad theater in church. This includes drama and storytelling. Telling shadow stories demands that I control what I will say and when I will say it. Rambling, unrehearsed tellings are not only poorly presented but can also lead to saying more than is needed or wise. When considering adding storytelling to youth ministry, it’s wise to break out the video camera or voice recorder and practice, practice, practice. I like to watch what I do, all the while asking myself: Will this story move people towards the Truth or am I just telling for my own personal therapy? And I must be deeply, richly honest. Maybe the time has not come for me to tell this particular story or maybe, yes, I’m finally ready. Although relying on the promptings of the Spirit to be a fine communicator offers incredible power, that’s no excuse for not practicing.

<>I have to earn the trust of the group and build up to telling shadow stories.
I must start simply with groups when I first begin to work with them as a teller. I build trust with the group by telling well the basic stories. I play with the Scriptures, adapting pieces like James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation” story. We use participatory telling, where my group members become part of the story. As my confidence builds and the trust of the group increases, I can begin to introduce the shadow stories.

A few well-placed stories where the moral isn’t clear, the conclusion a little vague, and the options are still open can be rich grounds in which the Holy Spirit can work. I move slowly with a group, because frankly, one of the first reactions when I move too fast, is “you can’t talk about that in church”—even when the story is scriptural. You’ll find that you can create more openness to shadow stories if you treat the group gently at first. Patience is important in telling shadow tales.

Shadow stories can serve as cathartic and healing moments for our young people. When using shadow stories, I must practice deep reflection, discretion in my choice of audience, and a clear understanding that God may work through the story in any way God pleases.

Zach didn’t say much more to me as we went through the next day, although he had asked to speak to me.

Later that evening, the entire camp went through a process of sacramental reconciliation and forgiveness. The David and Bathsheba story played a central part of those rites, so my boys who heard the story the night before got to hear it again.

At the end of the service, Zach finally caught up with me and said, perhaps more emotionally than he intended, “Man, if God can forgive King David for all that, then maybe there’s hope for me, too….” The conversation lasted the remainder of the evening.

K. Sean Buvala is a storyteller and author in Arizona. Hear one of his podcasts at

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Retelling the Journeys of Abraham

How do you make a 4,000 year old story relevant to modern grade-school students? I faced that question while preparing to share Genesis 12-25 with a camp full of elementary school students. Somehow I needed to bridge the historical and cultural gaps between the story material and my audience, while treating the sacred story with the respect it deserves. What follows is how I tackled this task. I hope it benefits you as you retell meaningful stories.

the moon through the trees at nightSince this story is taken directly from scripture, I wanted to be especially sensitive to the exact wording. I began studying different translations of the passages, attempting to find a translation that would be friendly to a young audience. I eventually settled on Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase (The Message). Even this text seemed beyond the easy grasp of my hearers. Both the geography and the culture were foreign to my American audience. Adding to this foreignness were multiple appearances by minor characters with tongue-twisting names.

The process of reading multiple translations had one major payoff: the motif of the Abraham stories became clear. Abraham’s ultimate journey is not one of geography; it is one of faith.

I decided to move away from a retelling of the story that aimed for near-complete verbal accuracy. Instead, I wanted to clearly communicate the motif. Once the motif became clear to me, the structure of the story soon followed. The conflicts that Abraham experiences are tests of his faith (even if only in an implicit manner) and these conflicts are punctuated by promises from God and at least two major covenant ceremonies. Simply put, an outline of the life of Abraham can be generated based on Promises and Problems:

Promise – “Leave your home. I will bless you.”

Problem -­ Abraham decides to leave home and experiences a famine.

Problem – Abraham goes to Egypt and lies about his wife; then he returns to Canaan as a rich man.

Problem – Abraham and Lot separate. Lot captured by foreign kings

Promise – The Voice reaffirms the promise with a mysterious covenant ceremony.

Problem – Hagar is pregnant and disrespects Sarai

Promise – God reaffirms that Abraham will become a father of many nations, but not through Ishmael. A new kind of covenant ceremony given.

Problem – God’s plan to judge Sodom and Gomorrah

Problem – Abraham settles in the land of Abimelech and Abimelech takes Abraham’s wife.

Problem – Abraham told to sacrifice Isaac.

Promise – God spares Isaac and promises faithfulness to all Abraham’s descendants.

Promises fulfilled – Sarai dies and buried in the land of Canaan, Isaac marries Rebekah, and Abraham dies and is buried in the land of Canaan.

Now for the practical matter of how to divide the stories: I needed material for three twenty-minute sessions, and I wanted to end the first two sessions with a cliff-hanger. My printed copy of Abraham’s journey was 15 pages long, so I simply looked for a conflict I could use as a cliff-hanger on pages 5 and 10. Page five provided me with a covenant ceremony and a mysterious light source. Page ten contained a death threat for King Abimelech. Both of these cliff-hangers left the audience ready to hear more at the next session.

Since the covenant ceremonies were playing an important role in the motif of the story, and since these ceremonies are not native to modern culture, they needed extra explanation. The first covenant ceremony (and cliff-hanger) provided me the opportunity to explain the significance of cutting animals in half, and the implied oath that if God does not keep His promise to Abraham, then God says he will allow Himself to be torn apart like the sacrificed animals now dead before Abraham.

Now that my story’s structure was clear, I wanted to eliminate confusing geography and names, so my story contained only seven personal names: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Lot, Pharoah, Hagar, Ishmael, King Abimelech, and Isaac. In order to be sensitive to God’s transcendence, I used the epithet “The Voice” to refer to God. This title is intended as a sign of respect that provides an appropriate amount of other-worldliness and mystery for the Divine Being. I kept my list of geography short as well, focusing on Canaan, the Negev (which I also called the “Great Southern Desert”) and Egypt. To also assist my hearers in making the transition from the very modern world of Texas to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, I began each session by instructing my hearers: “Close your eyes and take a journey with me. We are traveling through both time and space. We are moving 4,000 years into the past, and nearly half-way around the world. Picture the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers on your far right and the Mediterranean Sea on your far left. As you zoom in on the land in the middle, open your eyes.” By the end of the weekend, that “land in the middle” had become a real place for both the teller and the audience.

Stan Ward is a storyteller and leadership coach in Texas.

This article first appeared on this site in 2007. The contents expressed in any article on are solely the opinion of author. Articles are under © and should not be used without permission of the author. Contact us if you have questions.