A German proverb states, "If you have no arrows in your quiver, do not go with archers." However, often storytellers feel they dont have time to re-charge or reload before proceeding to a booking. I have met countless storytellers who feel alone in their art. They tell me they have been telling for such and such years with no guidance except themselves. Even though I marvel at the work they have done, I wonder how much the work would be improved if they had the guidance of a listener or coach for their stories. I guess sometimes artists can be like the man in the folktale who once boasted about his ax chopping skills, but as he grew older, his ability diminished. He dismissed the reason for his lack of ability due to his age, until a friend showed him that he hadnt sharpened his ax for as long as he had it. As soon as the ax was sharp, so were his skills.
Sometimes storytellers are amazed when they discover not only are their storytelling guilds near them but storytellers who will take time to listen to their work.
However as of late other storytellers are coaching more and more storytellers. They are learning what I heard from tellers like Jay O’Callahan and Doug Lipman and Jane Yolen have echoed for years, it is essential to have an audience for your stories. In order to see improvement, coaching is vital to the development of the teller.
Storytellers are keeping their axes sharp by involving themselves in coaching sessions. Not only are their coaching sessions at the National Storytelling Conference, but there are wonderful storytelling coaches like Marni Gillard and Doug Lipman who are spearheading "Coaching Coaches" workshops, an experience not to be missed, along with other programs sprouting up all over the country. I want to tell you about a national first that occurred in Leesville Louisiana. Reverend Neil and Mary Early realized that along with storytellers needing coaching so did teachers in Louisiana. With the support of a grant from the Rapides Foundation and the Louisiana Division of the Arts along with his local guild, he was able to bring 10 storytellers from across the country to not only help guild members, but educators as well. I was fortunate to be one of these storytellers. For two days we were catered to and well cared for as we concentrated our skills on our task, coaching.
The Story Coaches came from everywhere. From California, along with myself, Debra Olsan Tollar joined us, from Texas Mel Davenport and "Doc" Moore, from Arkansas Jerre Roberts, from Ohio, Jim Flanagan, from West Virgina, "Granny Sue" Holstein, and from Pennsylvania, Beth Philips Brown and from Georgia, Chuck Larkin and from Louisiana, Diane De Las Casas.
Not only was this event novel because of the coaches from across the country, a fine company to be in I would like to add, but because we all represented varying backgrounds along with the participants or "coachees." Some of the participants were experienced tellers and some were trying storytelling for the first time. Story Coach Beth Phillips Brown best sums up the experience. She stated that with her coaching group there was a glow from the teller. "It was the same kind of glow Ive seen on the faces of brand-new parents. I loved being there as a kind of storyteller midwife. I kept thinking of how a woman in labor has a coach and there we were, helping birth stories, tellers and styles in 10 different rooms and that the group was a welcoming committee for all! That was exciting!"
As storytellers we have a vital role to birth stories and other storytellers into our community. That is how the tales continue to be told. As Tolar points out, "Coaching is such an intimate experience we all become vulnerable."
But is this vulnerability not good for us as tellers? When we truly listen to each other including our problem areas, when true listening is established, are we not destined to improve? I once heard a Storyteller state, "I tell stories, but I listen to far more than I tell. That is what makes me a good teller." Isnt it about time that we establish more coaching workshops or gatherings like the one in Leesville?
In this type of environment, coaching moments are priceless. Like the one that occurred when Mel Davenport served as coach, "One of my least experienced tellers told of nearly being run over by a train. You could have heard a pin drop while she was telling, and the others were all physically leaning toward her with rapt attention."
Chuck Larkin suggests that a coaching weekend like this will last long after it is over.
"It is another way of introducing skills and knowledge from each coaches into the local community of storytellers. The new knowledge and skills of the few from each coach will pass on to many storytellers in the community as the local storytellers interact. This will over time increase the quality of storytelling."
Unfortunately, the connotation of the word "coaching" can emit images of a bad football coach who yelled at you every time a play was wrong, a speech coach who berated your performance, or in general, an unknown and sometimes scary element. This applied here, Dianne de Las Casas stated "My participants told me that they didnt know coaching was ‘going to be like this.’ They thought that their stories were going to be torn apart by the coach and didnt expect the session to have the level of group community and thoughtful coaching that it had."
As Storytellers we need to continue to build that community and more trust in story coaching will follow. As Casas suggests this method could be a model "this one event could branch out, much in the same way Tellabration has "branched out." However, Brown, cautions us to be weary of any model. There should always be room for individual growth as well.
"I think this model can be used very successfully yet I have concerns that it would become some kind of dogma. As long as anything that is done well and is intended to be a "model" is good and valuable, there is also the danger that it will become written in stone as the only way. While I think workshops, conferences and intensives are valuable and that community is important, I also feel the solitary work that one does in preparing and other parts is very valuable."
That is why it is essential that as storytellers we find balance between our shared time with other tellers and our personal reflection/telling time. Yes this is difficult to established, however, they are essential for the growth of the teller. As Granny Sue points out,
"The experience also caused, for me, a stronger commitment of what I do, a better understanding of the power of storytelling, and awe, actually of what it is we do. What an amazing art this is, that it can reach out and bring people together in their minds to one place where all are experiencing the same story in uniquely individual interpretations."
Neil and Mary Early set a tone for me at this workshop, one of a community effort to help storytellers and coaches. I would encourage others to experiment and continue their coaching, it is invaluable. However, better yet if you are going to build a community-coaching workshop, here are a few key points to remember when building your workshop. This is from feedback and Neil Early himself.
1. Treat Your Storytellers As Honored Guests Care for their needs. He states too often at conferences the workshop presenters are treated as second class citizens. The treatment is Arent you glad we are allowing you to present a workshop here? He states this mentality damages the conference from the onset.
2. Be in Constant Contact before, during, and after the workshop with all involved and never fail to say Thank You.
3. Seek Funding to Help Offset (or even fray) cost for Coaches and Participants. If there has to be a cost, keep it low. Your turnout will be better.
4. Arrange informal "Getting to Know You" Gatherings. This helps offset "stage fright" or storytelling apprehension.
5. Establish "Debriefing" times where Story Coaches and others can share an oral as well as written evaluation of the work.
6. Privacy, Trust, and Respect are the Tenets of a Good Workshop.
A Coach is more than someone that tells you that you got the plays right, a coach is someone who helps to remind you when your axe becomes dull or you need to find new ground. As we seek to build our own stories, let us not forget to take time to listen to others. Then we can truly say our art is flourishing!
***Permission to quote and talk of coaching sessions was given for this article. Confidentially is a major concern in coaching.