WHEREFORE ART THOU, STORYTELLING?
My young acquaintance was holding her first baby, who looked to be about a year old. I had just told her about the exciting storytelling at the Nebraska Storytelling Festival in Omaha that June. "Well," she said, nodding at her little one, "four years or so from now you can expect us to be there."
While it was good to hear that the young woman planned to attend the festival, it was not good to realize that she thought of storytelling as something just for families and little children. While there are many people who know of the tremendous range that storytelling has to offer, there are unfortunately many more people who are still quite ignorant about this art form, assuming it is folk art at best, and childrenís entertainment at worst. I say, "childrenís entertainment at worst," not unmindful of the fact that some of the loveliest works of literature, theatre, music and dance are childrenís entertainment. But it is frustrating and sad to realize that the word "storytelling" has such limited connotations for most of the public; and those limitations are working against us. Say "storytelling" and the majority of the population thinks of story hour at the library, or Mom and Dad with a bedtime story, or Grandpa reminiscing in his rocking chair, all of which are valuable and honorable venues, but it stops there. Say "storytelling" and for most people it does not bring to mind the incredible breadth and depth and range of work that this art form has to offer.
I have been guilty of this ignorance myself. I had been performing one-woman shows for a number of years when someone called my attention to storytelling. I had no idea at the time (this was in the early to mid 90s) of the hundreds of festivals worldwide, the hundreds of tellers worldwide, or, mea culpa, the range of story and telling styles and the excitement of it all. Why does storytelling have such a low profile?
I have come up with several answers of my own.
1) Storytelling is at odds with popular culture. Popular culture is glitzy, fast paced, and generally superficial. Storytelling is none of those things. That storytelling has much to offer to a world sated with over stimulation goes without saying, but we have a quiet, subtle voice in a noisy, unsubtle world, so I suppose we should be prepared for an uphill struggle.
2) By the same token, storytelling is marginal, not mainstream. The value of what we have to offer lies precisely in the fact that we are off the beaten track. Leave the worship of wealth and celebrity to television and Madison Avenue. Leave the myths and the tall tales and the poetry and the wisdom of the ages to us. But again, as strong and sure as our voices may be, we face stiff competition that sometimes pushes us to the side.
3) Storytelling is hard to take seriously. "What line of work are you in?" Replies include "Iím a lawyer," "Iím a teacher," "Iím a neurosurgeon," "Iím a social worker." But when you say, "Iím a storyteller," though it may elicit surprise, delight and interest, it is so out of the ordinary that some people assume it is nothing but a hobby, or an avocation. And as most people are ignorant of the exciting things happening in the storytelling world, itís understandable they would question the legitimacy of such a career. I once had a dancer friend suggest I call myself a monologist because it sounded more sophisticated and upscale than storyteller. Iíve had a performing arts center director suggest I not use the word storytelling in my promotional materials because it might result in work lost rather than gained. And Iíve heard some very successful and well-known storytellers themselves say that storytelling has a cult following.
Years ago, I was a hostess of a live morning television show. The work was demanding, lonely and stressful. Yet frequently people would say things like, "I have to work for a living," implying I was not working. After a performance in a musical comedy I was in, a friend said, "Itís not fair that you get paid for having that much fun." This is the burden all performing artists carry. We slave to make our work look effortless and then the outsider assumes we hardly work at all. This is a common attitude, and though Iím sure those outsiders donít realize it, it is belittling, not just to the artist, but to the arts in general.
Is there anything we can do to change some of these misconceptions? Probably not very much. Storytelling is what it is, and better we should stand tall and proclaim it for what it is, rather than try to dress it up as what it isnít, or appear weak by attempting to justify it.
But I do hope it grows in popularity, and that more and more people will experience its delights, and claim it for the charming, valid art form that it is.
(Written by Pippa White)