Here is the deceptively short answer to Why I Do This. I am a storyteller, story coach, artist/activist because storytelling is who I am to my bones, the frame through which I understand the world, my purpose for existence. It's not what I do; it is who I am.
That's very grand but not exactly specific. We'll come back to Why in a bit after a foray into How. .
How I Got Here in 10 Plot Points
My second grade teacher, Miss Czyzewski asks me to narrate our Christmas play.
2) When I Am 20 (1980)
As a theater major at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I have to take a required directing class. I find I like it. A lot.
3) When I Am 25 (1985)
Milwaukee Rep actor/playwright Larry Shue dies in a plane crash. He is 39 and about to have his first play produced on Broadway. I quit my job as a receptionist/assistant PR writer and apply to graduate school.
4) When I Am 26 (1986)
My study carrel (desk/locker) as an MFA/Directing student at Northwestern University is directly across from Rives Collins' office. We become friends.
5) Still 26 (Still 1926)
Rives tells me about an art form called storytelling. I take my first storytelling class so it can be my day job to support my real career as a director. Yes, it's true. I first became a storyteller for the money.
6) When I Am 28 or 29 (1988 or 1989)
A director friend offers me a job as his assistant director for a show at an Equity theater. To do the gig I must stop my storytelling work in schools. I turn down the job and I take the fork in the road marked Storytelling.
7) When I Am 41 (2001)
I move to Minneapolis (temporarily!) for an odd jumble of reasons: health, housing and romance. I am a well-established storyteller in Chicago performing and doing residencies at schools, teaching night courses at Northwestern, co-founding (and Executive Producer) of the Wild Onion Storytelling Festival and training ad execs in how to do better business presentations through storytelling. So I'll be here for one year, two at the absolute most then we are heading back to Chicago. (BTW, I'm still in Minneapolis, 13 years and counting.)
8) When I Am 42 (2002)
I do my first one-woman show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. "Attack of the Killer What Ifs" tells my story of surviving date rape in college.
9) When I Am 44 (2004)
I am featured at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN -- a very narrow eye of a needle through which to pass. This leads to performing at festivals around the country and expansion of my work as a story coach and workshop leader.
10) When I Am 50 (2010)
I tell my story about surviving date rape (eventually called The Road to Shameless) at Augsburg College. I make a very conscious choice to full steam ahead pursue work as an artist/activist for the awareness and prevention of sexual violence on college campuses.
As with most bare bones plot outlines, the relationship between events (and their individual importance) is oblique and I guarantee you invisible to me at the time each occurred. How they are connected as major turning points is the story of:
Why I Do This
So I was wary of getting back into performance. I didn't want to do something I couldn't do really, really well. Rives told me that I already told stories. I did it in his office, at lunch, he suspected in the women's restroom. He told me my training in voice and movement would be helpful but being a storyteller used fundamentally different muscles than acting. He asked me to give him a year to try it out. And that was that. It took me a couple of years to realize that storytelling was what I'd really fallen in love with as a seven-year-old; it just took 20 years to find the true name of my calling
When I started teaching storytelling I often had to explain the difference between theater and storytelling. Theater is like a big grown-up game of Let's Pretend. The actors are pretending to be somebody else, somewhere else, somewhen else and that all the other people on stage are somebody else in that same elsewhere and elsewhen. The audience members sit in the dark and pretend the actors are all those elses. And, while the actors would hate it if this were true, essentially everyone is pretending the audience isn't there -- unless there is specific breakage of that fourth wall. Theater is a glorious game that let's us look through the lens of mostly fictional lives to understand our own better. It is where I was first planted and my roots still grow from and I love it.
Storytelling, on the other hand, is all about being who you are, where you are, when you are, with the people who are actually in the room with you right at this moment. There (usually) aren't costumes or sets or fancy lighting. The audience (usually) isn't in the dark and you look people directly in the eye. Together you create the world of the story with your words, voice, gesture and the combined imaginations of everyone in the room. For me, storytelling at its core is all about getting better and better at being yourself--in front of people.
That striving for the authentic self is at the heart of why I do this and can't ever imagine not telling stories and helping others tell theirs. Prepping for writing these posts, I went back and read my artist statement from my first fellowship application in 2004. For the first time I was required to write cogently about Who Am I, What Do I Do, Why Do I Do It. As I worked on it, I was amazed to realize that I'd been a working professional artist for 15 years or so without ever articulating any of that.
Here is what I wrote 10 years ago. Every word still rings true. It was true almost as soon as I became a storyteller. I just hadn't named it so I could see it clearly.
I am interested in exploring the way memory shapes identity—how we are the stories we tell. So, I tell stories about moments that shaped me. Large moments, such as the week my father died when I was fifteen. Small moments, such as the day my 2nd grade teacher took us on a field trip to the bathrooms of the opposite gender. Smaller moments still, like the childhood family ritual of looking ourselves up in the new phone book each year when it arrived. The most ordinary of memories also make us who we are.
In each of these moments, I go digging for the universal. What in the specifics of this moment in my life is about something larger? What will resonate with the audience and call forth stories from their own lives?
Sometimes those universals are easy to find. When I tell the story of my father’s death, I know that almost everyone has suffered loss of one kind or another. For other stories the universal takes longer to unearth. It took me a while to discover that the phone book ritual was a story about a yearning for family history and cultural heritage. After 15 years of looking for a way into a story about surviving date rape, I realized that it was actually about all the moments in our lives we try to wish away—it was a story about the ‘what ifs’ that haunt us all.
Storytelling is the stuff of real life. Stories rise from the compelling human need to give voice, to name our experience so that we can understand it. I believe passionately in the power of telling stories about that which we are conditioned not to talk about. I believe in telling the difficult stories, the ones we are afraid to acknowledge. These moments make us who we are too and by not telling them we deny parts of ourselves. I also believe these stories can be funny—that laughter can be a subversive force allowing us to visit our darkest experiences and transform the place they hold in our lives.
Not only am I committed to telling these stories; I am committed to helping other artists find their ways safely through the mazes and minefields of personal narrative. My training and experience as a director working with playwrights and actors has translated into being a story coach; and my work as a midwife for what can be a difficult birthing process is as much a part of my art as the stories that I tell.
My work, as storyteller and as story coach, is all about giving permission. Once, after hearing the story about my father’s death, a woman in her 70’s told me that I’d just told her story. She told me how her father died when she was 16 and she had missed him every day of her life but she had never talked about him. Now she was going home to gather her grandchildren and tell them about the wonderful great-grandfather they had never met.
That’s why I tell stories.
I can't tell you how relieved I am that my Why I Do This has stayed consistent though the application of it changes over time. And the specific nature of the permission I strive to offer varies depending on the purpose and audience for any given performance or coaching session.
When I tell The Road to Shameless (significantly different now than its first incarnation as Attack of the Killer What Ifs in 2002) as part of campus sexual violence awareness/prevention work, I am quite intentionally modeling lack of shame. Giving permission to forgive ourselves for the wacky choices we make in the aftermath of trauma, choices that in hindsight may seem unhealthy and even wildly contradictory, but at the time were necessary coping behaviors. I model talking without shame and with compassion about what it means to be survivors, secondary survivors (friends, family of survivors) and potential bystanders and even potential perpetrators.
All my years as a storyteller, story coach, and storytelling theorist have pointed me towards doing this work and doing it very, very well. The key comes back to that journey of getting better and better at being myself in front of an audience. How else can I give permission to others accept and embrace their authentic, imperfect selves and all their experiences, large and small, light and dark, that make them who they are.