Rachel Parkinson and Dr. Marsha Broadway, Harold B. Lee Library Juvenile Literature Librarian
Twenty-four storytellers and prominent people involved in the American storytelling movement were interviewed to gather information on the following research question: How has the American storytelling movement changed the identity and role of the storyteller?
Storytelling seems as definable as the taste of salt. Any definition can be deceiving. Even today, the storytelling community struggles with this definition. As the art becomes more visible in the public eye, the need for definitions arises. The public wants guidelines or at least a direction as to what this art and this profession are all about. As organized storytelling expands in the form of festivals, associations, and guilds, the need for definitions is not the only issue that has emerged. Through the American storytelling movement, the identity and role of the storyteller are being transformed.
The storyteller is a bridge of peace, a bridge of understanding, a bridge of memories, and a bridge of information. These are roles that the storyteller has had throughout the ages. The presence of organized storytelling has not altered these original roles or desires to hear stories, but other roles are added.
Suddenly, professional storytellers are traveling across the nation to storytelling events. It becomes more difficult for the storyteller to identify and address specific issues for the community because different communities face different issues. The interview respondents urged the need to have a large repertoire so as to be ready for any type of audience. If storytellers stay within their community, a larger repertoire may not be as urgently needed because the tellers know their communities’ issues. Storytellers who simply print business cards and have a couple of stories will not be able to successfully relate to communities outside their region.
Storytellers who enter the field are faced with questions to answer as how to go about storytelling as a profession. Without organizations, they are left to answer these questions alone. Linked through a network of storytellers, individuals can find mentors and friends to discuss the issues that they face. Also, observing the techniques of storytellers is a learning process for both seasoned and amateur storytellers.
The American storytelling movement continues to create structure, networks, and visibility for tellers. These elements of organized storytelling will continue to change depending on the needs of the storyteller. As of now, organized and traditional storytelling are welding and simultaneously helping and hindering each other. Although traditional and organized tellers have different needs, event organizers are attempting to honor both kinds of tellers. The visibility of the art in forms of festivals and guilds allow tellers to make a living and share to more diverse audiences. Using communication networks allows tellers to share their experience, concerns, and solutions.
To successfully incorporate traditional and organized storytelling, commercialization and politics must be put aside in order to honor both the traditional and platform tellers. Both types of storytellers desire the art form to have greater impact on society. By having a unifying definition of storytelling and established code of conduct, traditional and platform tellers gain the respect deserved. The tellers should uphold the original roles held by the storyteller of reminder, messenger, and educator while creating a balance with commercialism.
Storytelling must be visible to all generations in order to seek out the emerging tellers. Due to the creation of storytelling clubs in schools, youth are already exposed to the possibility of making storytelling a career. As the next generation of tellers continues the responsibility of linking the human race with storytelling, they will face the welding of traditional and organized storytelling. Current storytellers must give guidance, encouragement, and responsibility for the next generation of tellers to maintain the growth of the American storytelling movement.
Although storytelling is difficult to define and professional storytellers have not agreed to a single definition, for the emerging storyteller, a definition is essential to guide his or her actions. For the present time, this researcher has determined storytelling as a co-creative experience involving senses with an intentional storyteller and acknowledged listener(s). This definition is intended as a guideline—not to be engraved in stone—and provides an expansive view to the art form by including various styles of the art. With continued experience and research of storytelling, the definition will evolve.
I would like to thank my advisor, Dr. Marsha Broadway, and my referee advisor, Professor Jacqueline Thursby, for their constant support and knowledge.
This project was generously funded by two grants from the ORCA Scholarship Committee. Without this financial help, I could not have completed the work to the degree I desired.
I am extremely appreciative of the twenty-four respondents: Carol Birch, Judith Black, Milbre Burch, Donald Davis, Doug Elliott, Elizabeth Ellis, Jackson Gillman, Bill Harley, Beth Horner, Margaret Read MacDonald, Doc McConnell, Bill Mooney, Robin Moore, Sherry Norfolk, Anne Pellowski, Lee Pennington, Connie Regan-Blake, Peninnah Schram, Laura Simms, Jimmy Neil Smith, Joseph D. Sobol, Fran Stallings, Ed Stivender, Kathryn Windham. Their insights on the transformation of the storyteller’s identity and role have impacted my life. I could never fully show my appreciation to them.