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Storytelling Groups

Advice on storytelling guilds and storytelling circles

Compiled by Tim Sheppard, from posts to Storytell

For an introduction to this subject and further resources, also see the Storytelling FAQ on Community Storytelling.

Subject: Storytelling Groups

Ellen Cannon Reed <ellen@westworld.com> March 19, 2002 6:22 PM

Will those of you who are involved in storytelling groups, especially in "running" one, please offer advice on how to get folks to be active? I don't have a cattleprod.

Angela Davis < yarnspinner@mindspring.com>

Have fun activities such as:

  • Host a winter or summer solstice storytelling get together. Every member must bring a dish to eat and a story that goes along with the dish. Or my favorite--host a meeting at someone's home and everyone brings a dish.
  • Sponsor a storytelling pioneer day. Invite storytellers who have been instrumental in your community in storytelling's resurgence. Honor the pioneers with certificates. Take pictures. Our group put together a list of folks who'd been telling for 20 years or more or sponsored an early storytelling festival. Allow tellers in the guild to give the awards at a banquet or in combination with a local storytelling festival.
  • Produce a storytelling guild tape. Each member should contribute $100 to the cost of the tape or CD. Provide each teller with at least 10 copies of the CD/tape to sell once the project is complete to recoup the $100 outlay. Guild should get the profits for the sale of the CD/tapes, after an agreed upon number has been given to the guilds members.
  • Write a book with each teller contributing one story. Write for more details.
  • Offer rewards for members: a) who bring in the most nonmembers to a meeting. b) attend three meetings without being absent one.
  • Get community businesses to donate the rewards. Borders Bookstore gave our group $10 gift certificates. A local restaurant offered a two for one meal.
  • Invite storytellers visiting the city to speak at your group. This one's tricky, but can be done. You have to scour the newspaper and talk to arts groups to find out who's coming to town. Sometimes you can offer a honorarium to the visiting storyteller.
  • Invite a librarian, she will have lots to say and may offer a suggestion to you for her topic.
  • Invite a news reporter to a meeting and suggest s/he speak on a colorful story s/he has covered in the news.
  • Advertise your meetings and special invitees.
  • Have a phone tree, so that each person is responsible for calling so many people in the guild to remind about the meeting.
  • Have a jar during meetings, for the purpose members will dispose an agreed-upon amount into the jar each meeting. At the end of a designated time period, either award the winnings to someone for special work done or treat yourselves to a cup of coffee.
  • People are busy. So host your meeting where food is easily accessible.
  • Have a mystery person. Tell he group there will be a mystery person at the meeting. Hold a contest to see if anyone can guess who it will be.

    Hope these ideas help and open up a channel for your own creative ideas to flow.

    Linda King Pruitt <storytaler@hotmail.com>

    Laura Beasely and I were co-presidents of our Guild for two years. She still continues to head our School Focus Committee. Laura has a world of patience and she calls each person involved in this committee prior to the meeting, reminding them of the date and time. Laura also heads a coaching circle for our group. She does the same thing for this group. She takes a larger number of sign-ups for the coaching dates, because she KNOWS there will be people who suddenly can't make their commitment and she wants to have 4 people for the sessions.

    I don't have the time (nor patience) for reminder phone calls, but a phone tree has been established within the Guild to get news out to members without the burden falling upon one person.

    We try to have great snacks at the meetings (I love going to meetings knowing that Betsy is bringing snacks - this woman makes cookies with real butter!!!). And after a while the folk in the meetings come to be family that you just look forward to seeing once a month - hearing their stories and seeing what new storytelling events are coming up that you might want to participate in.

    South Coast Storytellers Guild started in 1991 and has slowly built membership. It still ebbs and flows, and we're still trying to figure out how to help the membership grow.

    Sheila Darr <sojourner@austin.rr.com>

    Here's something to try instead of a phone tree... a new guild member has just created a listserv on Yahoo.groups for tellers in our area. We haven't yet taken the next step, which is to send out the invitations to join. We will reach beyond our guild and include all the tellers we know of--both in other guilds and un-guilded. It may take a while to get it going well, but in terms of simplifying communications and creating an extended community of tellers in our area... well, I have great hopes!

    Setting up a listserv on Yahoo is really easy (although I didn't do it personally, I believe my friend when he says so!). If you think you'd like to try it and want info about how to get started, just let me know.

    Linda Spitzer <Miamistory@aol.com>

    It doesn't always work, but a pot luck dinner has been a help. I also invite guest speakers or do a 30 minute workshop. There are just not that many storytellers in each small guild, so they don't have the same interest as those of us trying to get better, more stories, find more jobs and marketing techniques. And that's the truth all over. So don't feel bad. It's not just your group. The group in Ft. Myers, FL meets in a retirement home auditorium so has an audience no matter what.

    Steve Otto <i-tell@juno.com>

    Without the cattle prod you are doomed! No really folks . I have found that you continually have to be recruiting new members. The old ones get tired and burned out because there is a cadre of only 10-12 people and you have to have new blood constantly being recycled to keep the organization alive. Your 10-12 base will remain, but they need to be able to accept and give responsibility to the new folks. Not having any input or responsibility drives people away quickly.

    marilyn kinsella <markinsella19@hotmail.com>

    I have been with the Riverwind Storytellers since 1982 and president for 11 years. It has been my experience that the club is going to run on the effort of 3 or 4 dedicated people. The rest usually help in smaller ways, but the bulk of the jobs go to a chosen few. I have received many wonderful gifts as a Riverwinder - much more than I ever gave. But I have to say (in all humility) that if not for me and 2 or 3 others, stuff just wouldn't get done. I am not complaining. Perhaps, some of it I put on myself. If you want things done the way you want it or if you want to try something new or if you want to write a grant, you do it yourself.

    Linda Spitzer <Miamistory@aol.com>

    Dear all, I too have been president more years than I care to say. I took a break for 3 years and the guild survived, but I was still in there directing and active. Yes it's usually 3-4 people if you're lucky.I'm back as president again. Just can't let go.

    Mary G. Ketner <mketner@lonestar.utsa.edu>

    Our group, San Antonio Storytellers Association is 12 years old, and I think that the part I may have contributed to its success is to always have the (secret) goal of training and recruiting not just members, but leadership--that is, the leadership among the membership. Never having wanted to be "president," I was nonetheless "president by default" for many of the early growing years, which meant that I did a lot of the tedious, everyday work of keeping a group going PLUS had to be the public face of it. I still do a lot of both, but I'm not doing it alone any more. (The "training," of course, is on-the-job training.)

    Another thing I/we have consciously done is to find venues for beginning tellers--especially those volunteer requests that seasoned tellers get tired of dealing with. When someone calls and asks for a storyteller for a certain event, we say "How about 3 storytellers?" then ask for 3 volunteers to tell one story each in a half-hour or hour venue. Maybe one will be fairly experienced and will emcee and coordinate, and the other two will be telling their "one" story. The overall program will be terrific, with the experienced teller and the newer ones all gaining experience and moving up the ladder in their skills.

    Sometimes that works like a tree: Borders wants 3 "volunteer" tellers at 4 sites; we ask someone to coordinate it, and s/he asks for volunteers, then asks the most responsible to be emcee/coordinator and together (as needed) they fill out their program with other volunteers. We are also lucky to have some established tellers who often say "I'll come if you need me."

    We have long passed around the emceeing job at our swaps, and we have many very capable emcees. Recently we added a 20-minute mini-workshop to our monthly meeting because we had a few newcomers who seemed a bit intimidated by seeing so many seasoned tellers. This does two things: it gives Storytelling 101 training (and courage) to beginners, and it gives mid-level tellers a place to learn how to do workshops.

    So, I guess my "advice" is this: Focus on finding ways for every level of storyteller or storytelling interest to learn and grow so that members won't just "flow through"; they won't have to leave you to increase their storytelling skills, their exposure possibilities, and their leadership skills. They can stay right where they are and have plenty of opportunities and challenges to grow and develop personally as storytellers and plenty of reason to want the organization to flourish.


    Subject: New Guild ideas?

    Mel Davenport <LuvandStories@aol.com>

    OK, Great Minds, give 'em up. I need suggestions, policies and procedures, membership form ideas, the whole nine yards in organizing a guild. We have the meeting place, the go-ahead from the arts council, and the enthusiastic storytelling folks waiting in the wings. I guess I will be running the first meeting, but want this to be done "with liberty and justice for all," so if you have suggestions on ways to make things run more smoothly, please send them to me. I know there must be stuff like this in the archives somewhere, but I have never been able to get there from this machine, so just send what ya got handy.

    The group will be centralized around a town named Grand Prairie, so if you have name suggestions, I'd entertain them too. My first thought was Grand Prairie Winds, but not sure if that name would clearly identify us. It was my thought that the initial members might want to have the privilege of naming the group, but ideas for them to consider might be helpful. This guild will be much closer to where I live and I am really looking forward to being able to take in even more storytelling and listening.

    Mary Grace Ketner" <mketner@lonestar.utsa.edu>

    I love your goal of "liberty and justice for all!" At our first meeting, we asked the basic workshop question and wrote down everyone's answer: What do you want in a storytelling guild? We formed a steering committee from volunteers, which keeps anyone from being stuck with a "real" office if they don't want it or shouldn't have it. Over the next few months we talked about names and wrote a mission statement consolidating everyone's ideas, and finally elected real officers, most of whom were the same--but they had a chance not to be! We also set a meeting time and day, which we have stuck with ever since--a tenacity which I highly recommend!

    (People who say they WOULD come if we met at another time or place usually don't really mean it; they are not malicious or "liars"--it's just their way of expressing joy that we've found something good for us--and they don't really want you to change for them. We never changed the time, but we changed the location several times out of necessity or to meet people's expressed whims, and it didn't change attendance. There actually have been some who could not come on the third Tuesday, our day, but changing the day means you will lose someone who presently IS coming, so get a day that fits current members/leaders schedules and stick with it!)

    Since we meet free at the public library, we have open storytelling for members and visitors alike. I even send folks newsletters for a few months after they visit. For only for a few privileges does one have to be a member: To appear in Tellabration, to participate in public performances credited to SASA (even at Barnes & Noble and suchlike, where SASA or the individual tellers get an honorarium or a gift certificate), to participate in several ongoing relationships SASA establishes from time to time (telling at a senior center or preschool where SASA is paid and the teller gets paid by SASA).


    Subject: A mini-workshop for new guild--ideas, reactions

    Karl Hallsten <storytell@COMCAST.NET>

    I made a suggestion at our last, my first meeting of a new guild--I am the only professional teller in the group. That we have the first 30 minutes--a mini-workshop or discussion of some aspect or application of storytelling and then the other 90 minutes in story swap. Last time nearly everone told. Mostly they were very interesting but unformated personal experiences. IMHO--most everyone showed outstanding potential.

    Well he who opens mouth--makes suggestion--got stuck doing the first one. I decided to focus it on adapting or retelling traditional stories---I have a Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Crow that I have had a lot of fun with. and thought I would essentially do a case study of how this story evolved for me. With a hand out of principles that could be applied to other stories. Then I thought I would give them another Aesop's Fable and have them brainstorm ideas for its retelling.

    I started making a handout with several other ideas for approaching a rewrite or making a traditional story your own--many with examples but decided that in respect of the 30 minute time frame--I would stick with only those things emerging from the case study. Here is what I came up with.

    Ideas for learning to like a story--you've been given or asked to tell a story you don't particularly like.

    Making the story your own--place and time--maybe your place and time.

    Ideas for fleshing out the characters---motivations, actions, voices

    Changing the story genre and ending.

    Model Story Fox and Crow as retold by Karl Hallsten

    One day--several years ago now--Mr Fox was out walking in Peninsula State Park. Now he was just out walking and looking---not really knowing what he was looking for but quite sure he would know what it was when he saw it. He was going along the bluff high above the waters of Eagle Harbor on Green Bay when he came to Eagle Bluff where a large old Maple Tree stood with big ranches reaching out over the bluff.

    When he looked up in the tree he saw Miss Crow perched there. Now let me tell you--Mr Fox was not interested in Miss Crow---he had seen her many times before. Frankly, he thought she was booooriiinnggg! But, upon taking a second look, he noticed that Miss Crow had in her beak the most beautiful wedge of Wisconsin's finest Cheddar Cheese.

    Well, suddenly Mr Fox became interested, very interested and he went and stood under her and looked up and said, "Ohhhh! Miss Crow, you are one fine beautiful bird. You must be able to sing as beautiful as you look. Well, that was more than enough encouragement for Miss Crow. She ruffled up her wing feathers, fluffed up her breast feathers, threw back her head and let loose with one magnifent CAAAAAWWWWW!

    Now, as you must already know, she no more than opened her beak when that magnificent piece of cheese feel from her clasp. Immediately, she knew shed been had by that sly fox and looked down just in time to watch her beautiful piece of cheese land right on Mr. Fox's head. In utter and magnificent contempt she Cawed out--CHEESE HEAD! CHEESE HEAD!

    And so you see Ladies and Gentlemen--it is since that very day in Penninsula Park that men parading as sly foxes have been walking around Wisconsin being called, "Cheese Heads!"

    Well, that's my plan. Any last minute suggestions, ideas, reactions before tomorrow night.

    How does this sound to you folks?

    Mary G. Ketner <mketner@LONESTAR.UTSA.EDU>

    Karl--I love your cheese head story for tomorrow night! and, having used resetting folktales and fables in workshops, I must agree that it is a very workable idea and one that can be done as individuals, pairs, or small groups. It gets people away from the written text immediately!

    One of my favorite participant tales was a Cajun version of the fools who can't count themselves done by a group of about SEVEN at a workshop in Louisiana, and a musical version (with a singing three-person mountain!) of the Two Frogs (Kyoto and Osaka frogs who meet each other?--remember that one?). Actually, some student and workshop participant ideas have worked their ways into my telling of the stories, too, so everybody wins! On the other topic, our guild (San Antonio Storytellers Association) started doing mini-workshops just this year, a half-hour at the beginning of each meeting, like yours. We have a number of full or part-time professional storytellers, and we pass the workshopping around and invite in visiting experts (like John Roe and Sheila Darr) to present to us as well.

    I'm saving your topic list for future planning, but, in case it might help you, what we have done or planned so far this year are:

    January--Finding your Story (me)
    Feb--Learning your story (Larry Thompson)
    March--Delivering your story (Mark Babino)
    April--Age-appropriate Stories (Sue Kuentz)
    May--Storytelling in Prisons (John Roe)
    June (Tonight) The future of Storytelling in Central Texas (Sheila Darr)
    July--Using a microphone (Elder Stone)
    August--Storycrafting/making a story your own (Donna Ingham)
    September--All Things Irish (Jane McDaniel)
    October--(WE HOPE!) Emceeing (Doc Moore)

    Of course, all of these could be full-fledged workshops or inspirational lectures, but even a little taste each month makes newbies feel at least a bit grounded while giving mid-level tellers an opportunity to develop their workshop/leadership skills, prepare handouts and bibliographies, and organize their own experiences in a safe environment.

    I suspect that, once you get the show on the road, you will be able to call upon the resources of others in the group or nearby--or passing through! Best of luck with your project


    I love the idea of meetings that incorporate mini-workshops. However, it takes a high level of commitment on the parts of all concerned to keep it going at a satisfying level.

    I have seen two storytelling groups that employed this idea try to continue it past its natural life with disappointing results. In one case, the workshops degenerated into chapter readings from various "how to" storytelling books. Visitors rarely returned, attendance fell off, and eventually the group stopped meeting. There may have been other factors, but I think the readings, although easy to prepare, were disasterous.

    In the second case, I understand the workshops had been initially successful, but by the time I started attending, I think most members had run out of ideas and interest. Volunteers would be assigned dates maybe 2-4 months in advance, but with no indication of what the topic would be. Quite often, the presenter would arrive with a half-baked scheme that had little real thought and planning behind it. They would apologize on account of how busy they had been lately and we would struggle through it. Basically, I think the practice just outlived the group's interest in it. Luckily, the group finally changed the meeting format.

    It sounds like the approach those folks are taking in San Antonio is a lot more grounded. They have not only assigned responsibility far in advance, but they made the workshop topics specific. I imagine that their approach has a much better chance of success. And I happen to know that they do have a large number of talented tellers.

    So my counsel would be to take a clue from Mary Grace about planning and to also remain alert to any possible, future cooling of your group to the workshop idea. Then you can make timely adjustments as appropriate. No meeting format should become enshrined in tradition and unchangeable. Just my 2-cents worth,

    Karl Hallsten <storytell@COMCAST.NET>

    Tom Thanks for your response and sharing your experience. I certainly can see this happen. I also think that meeting formats need to be reviewed and kept fresh. The reading from a book sounds deadly as it no doubt was.

    I participated in a group using this format in Minneapolis several years ago. At that time is was facilitated by Andre Heuer and each month someone came in to do the mini-workshop and it was very useful to me at that time. I understand they have "moved on to other things in the ensuing years.


    Subject: Storytelling Guilds

    Pat Musselman <MissPatTlr@AOL.COM>

    Would those of you who are in storytelling guilds be so kind as to share some information? What makes your guild "work"? Do you use committees or volunteers to handle the publicity, special events, etc? Do you set time limits to handle business at your meetings? Do you use an audition process for performances?

    Since I have been elected President of the Jonesborough Storytelling Guild for 2002 and 2003, I am interested in how other guilds manage themselves. We are a very active guild with weekly venues and special events throughout the year. However, this creates a large amount of "business" to discuss at our bi-monthly meetings. One of my main goals is to streamline the business part of the meetings so that we can have more story sharing time. Let me thank you in advance for any information or pointers that you share.

    Steve Otto <i-tell@JUNO.COM>

    River and Prairie Storyweavers of Kansas City tries to get away from "Business" as much as possible. We have the Executive Board which takes care of most of the business activities and the general meeting is a report of the actions of the board. We have six members on the executive board and anyone can attend the meetings anytime they want, but they do not have a vote in the Exec meeting. We have two year terms of offices with three people elected each year so if anyone is really upset by board action they can run for office. The best way we have of handling complaints is to say "OK, we will have you up for ________ office next August". That calms things in a hurry and they usually decide that maybe the board action was OK.

    I know that you have regular meetings with telling and I think that is the most important thing to do. Organizations for Organizations sake are killers of Organizations.

    Ardyce Chidester <achidester@EARTHLINK.NET>

    Steve Otto wrote:

    We have the Executive Board which takes care of most of the business activities and the general meeting is a report of the actions of the board. We have six members on the executive board and anyone can attend the meetings anytime they want, but they do not have a vote in the Exec meeting.

    This is exactly what we do in the Sacramento Guild except that we have nine members whose terms stagger every three years. A nominating committee seeks out candidates to serve in the three vacant positions each January. The board members themselves elect the three new members. Then the executive board elects officers from among its members each January.We also have a few non-board positions such as newsletter editor and publicity person that are appointed by the pres. with consent of the board. Our executive board meets quarterly with an annual meeting in January to which the entire membership is invited, although all board meetings are open.

    Board meetings are separate from performance meetings. The Sacramento Guild meets twice a month for performance. The executive board meets quarterly.

    The best way we have of handling complaints is to say "OK, we will have you up for ________ office next August". That calms things in a hurry and they usually decide that maybe the board action was OK.

    Yup. We just threaten 'em with the nominating committee for January elections.

    Do you use committees or volunteers to handle the publicity, special events, etc? Do you set time limits to handle business at your meetings? Do you use an audition process for performances?

    We have a publiciity chairperson whose job it is to notify all the local media of Guild events on a regular basis. This is a big job and we've not been totally successful with it except in terms of our November Festival which had its own executive body. My personal opinion is that the publicity person is critical, needs to know all the local media outlets, their contact persons and deadlines. In the Sacramento area, that's a sizeable job. i think we need to improve on this.

    Example: Our second Wednesday meeting is a Performance Night open and free to the public. Our Guild has just moved to a new neighborhood because the lovely Victorian mansion in which we were meeting is being moved to make way for city office space. For our December Performance Night, we made up just 100 flyers, and distributed them to the businesses and library on the street to which we've moved, introducing ourselves and inviting everyone to a holiday storytelling night. We increased our usual audience so much that we had to move to a larger room. We counted over 50 adults and 25 children, on a Wednesday school night. The Neighborhood Association in our new home will henceforth print our flyers for us, and for the January Performance Night we intend to blanket the neighborhood schools, which we had not done in December.

    Publicity. Publicity. Publicity.

    The Guild has a Special Events Coordinator who is one of the executive board members. Her job is to coordinate and produce all the special events scheduled under the Guild's sponsorship, such as Guild appearances at local museums, fairs, etc. Any chairperson, such as Special Events Coordinator or Publicity, may solicit volunteers to form an ad hoc committee for any project, depending on need.

    I've served as president for the past two years, and I tend to try to run a tight ship so that we don't get off task and lose track of time. I email a proposed agenda to board members the week before a meeting and solicit agenda items to add to my own. Then I send an agenda with time allottments the day before the meeting. The secretary emails minutes immediately after each meeting which are read and approved by email. The board I serve with is generally happy to remind everybody to keep to the agenda. Any new business that comes up between quarterly meetings is often discussed via email so that it is resolved by the time we meet. It REALLY HELPS if everybody is on email! Actually, we have all the Guild members who have email on our address books (which is about 50 out of the 50+ members) and we send practically everything to everybody. One of our board members spent the summer in Ireland, Belgium and Czechoslovakia and got all the board business on his palm pilot. He would then send his comments back and was never out of touch.

    The executive board has been known to have an occasional extra meeting in the summer while we're preparing for November. Of course, committees may meet any time there's a need. And do. Often at the local bistro.

    As I said, we have a Public Performance Night on the second Wednesday of each month and a Workshop/Storyswap Night on the fourth Wednesday SEPARATE from the board meetings. Since the fourth Wednesday gives us a chance to practice on each other and hone our craft, we regard the Performance Night as just that - a chance to perform, with a program.

    Each month's Performance Night is hosted by a Guild member who volunteers to pull the program together, select the tellers, plan anything special such as music or decorations, etal. We do not have auditions, but with the exception of occasional "guests" from out of town, the host is familiar with the tellers who are going to perform. That's another purpose of the Workshop/Storyswap Nights. We make a conscious effort to include everyone who wants to tell as the months go by. The Guild is open to anybody who enjoys storytelling, so we do have members who are supporters rather than storytellers - at least at first. In fact, a couple of members who had been coming to Workshop/Storyswap Nights for some months, finally got up their courage to perform at the Performance Night recently. Each was a hit, BTW.

    My recommendation is to keep business and performance meetings separate. Keep a strict, well- planned, time-allotted agenda and stick to it. I get a couple of complaints about this now and then from folks who want more time to "discuss." But as we all know, "discussion" often degenerates into "brainstorming" or "bellyaching" and I have little patience with that use of meeting time. Luckily for me, I get lots of support in this. Turns out, people are happy to come to meetings if they know when the gavel is going to fall. We have developed a pleasant tradition in which folks who care to join together at the local bistro after performance nights or meetings. Our rent at the Musicians' Hall where we meet is paid until 9 pm, so we adjourn to a cup of tea and piece of pie while we "come down" from the evening. It's bad for the waistline, but good for the troops.

    Steve Otto <i-tell@JUNO.COM>

    One thing I forgot to tell you is the way our Exec committee is set up. We have a Director, and the Assistant Director is also the Events Coordinator. That person is in charge of the festivals and Tellabration. The events coordinator doesn't have to DO the work but makes sure that everything flows. usually that person is someone who has run one or more of the Festivals and Tellabration in the past. The Assistant events coordinator runs the monthly meetings. We try to have themes for a lot of meetings where we will tell "new beginnings" stories in January, love Stories in Feb. etc. It makes our members stretch a little to find new material to tell.

    Also we do NOT have open critique time at our meeting. We have educational opportunities for learning, and this time is for telling, listening and enjoying. We started having critiques and found that it took so much time that we could not get telling done. Also in an open meeting people who know nothing about critiquing were sometimes the most vocal and new tellers were not coming back.

    Compiled by Tim Sheppard, from posts to Storytell

    For an introduction to this subject and further resources, also see the Storytelling FAQ on Community Storytelling.

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