Logo for Story Circle Storytelling combines the intensity of a solo performance with the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation. "Storytelling at its best is mutual creation. Through the interaction between teller and listener, storytelling speaks to the inner child to nurture the human spirit." - Ellin Greene, author of Storytelling: Art & Technique.

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Telling Tales: Story Circle of the Capital District Widens

By Molly Belmont

Originally published in Capital District Home Style, May 2007

Everyone knows a good storyteller, someone who can command the attention of a room. This person always has a great story, an amazing tale, a hard-to-believe adventure.

Danny Finneran has always wanted to be a storyteller. Danny’s children – all 50 years or older – still remember the storyteller who used to visit their school in Ohio, Danny said. He’s impressed that they still remember her name and the stories she used to tell.

“I don’t know how good I’m going to get at it, but I’d like to get that good,” Danny said.

So, Danny joined a storytelling class at the Saratoga Public Library [taught by Jeannine Laverty]. The five-week class taught him how to find stories, helped him practice telling stories, and also gave him some exercises to strengthen his voice. He and many of his classmates went to Caffè Lena on a recent Monday night to tell their stories as part of the Saratoga Springs coffeehouse’s monthly open mic storytelling night. Danny has been practicing his story with a tape recorder all week, listening to himself tell the story, trying to get used to the words and the rhythm. As we waited for the first tellers to take the stage, he confessed, he was nervous.

Everyone’s nervous the first time, Christie Keegan told the crowd at the Caffè. Keegan is one of the co-founders of the open mic night. She, Jeannine Laverty and Marni Gillard wanted to create a performance space for local storytellers. A well-established storyteller herself, she tells an icebreaker to get the crowd relaxed. It was called, “One Good Dress.” It’s a true story about Keegan’s first big gig at an AIDS benefit in Boston. In it, Keegan was getting ready to take the stage and tell her tale, and was being fitted for a microphone. She couldn’t clip the battery pack on her “good dress,” and when the sound tech suggested she clip it to her underwear, she responded, “I’m not wearing any underwear.” The switch had been flipped just at that moment, and her announcement boomed across the crowded auditorium: “I’m not wearing any underwear.” Conversation halted. Talk about commanding attention. The room full of people at Caffè Lena laughed with Keegan, and the atmosphere lightened.

That’s the power of a good story. Keegan’s stories are primarily autobiographical. She often constructs complicated “stories within stories,” featuring two to three stories inside another story. These carefully-crafted pieces are meant to elicit a combination of emotions, and her audiences often alternate between crying and laughing, she said. Keegan, who is a rape crisis counselor, tends to address dark areas in her stories, like suicide, euthanasia, and recovery from grief. “For me it’s a way of allowing people to talk about topics that are often taboo,” Keegan said.

Many of the storytellers in the region belong to Story Circle of the Capital District, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of the art of storytelling. Story Circle is an organization founded 23 years ago to help promote storytelling as an art form and provide a roster of tellers for local organizations, including schools and libraries, said Carol Connolly, the group’s spokesperson. In addition to the open mic at Caffè Lena, Story Circle members also host another monthly performance night at the Moon and River Café in Schenectady. Story Circle also hold monthly meeting in Colonie and Guilderland, and member teach classes like the one Finneran took at the Saratoga library.

Story Circle “started as a place to come and try out stories and have an audience come and listen to you and give you feedback,” Connolly said. The monthly meetings offer a story sharing time, where the 55 members can come, sign in, and rehearse their stories. “Some are a bit more polished than others but basically, it gives people an opportunity to try out what they’ve been working on,” Connolly said.

The group’s members collect and tell all different kinds of stories, from folktales and fairytales to original stories, Connolly said.

Connolly, who’s been a professional storyteller for nearly two decades, specializes in children’s stories. She tells stories solo and also tours with her husband, Don Darmer. Their group, Tales ‘n Tunes, has produced two award-winning CDs for children. This summer they are “booked solid,” she said. Her evolution as a storyteller happened very gradually, she said. She was a fifth grade teacher who always enjoyed storytelling with her students, and she noticed that she always gravitated toward the story circle at folk festivals. At some point, she realized that the storytellers at these festivals were professionals and that this was a career choice. She took a storytelling class, and then had her first gig in 1969. She continued to tell stories for events, and then her husband began to come with her and play accompaniment. Then in 1995, she left teaching to tell stories full-time. Her husband retired early and joined her shortly thereafter, she said.

There are a number of professional storytellers in the Capital Region. Kate Dudding is one. Her business card features her name, contact information, and her picture. Her title is Storyteller.

Dudding specializes in bringing history to life, she said. Recently, she’s been working on a story about John Singer Sargent, called, “John Singer Sargent: A Hard Worker and a Good Friend.” She got started because she loved the artist’s paintings and wanted to find out about the stories behind the paintings.

“I’m not a visual artist, so I wasn’t interested in his techniques,” Dudding said. “I was interested in who he was, and what motivated him.”

Dudding did research into Sargent’s life and works. She took out a number of books, and also spent a great deal of time studying his paintings. She looked for important incidents in the artist’s life and for his words. “I search for a person’s words, because I find those are very revealing,” she said.

Ultimately, she looks for a crisis, and from there constructs a beginning, a middle, and an end. For Sargent, the crisis was his mid-career burnout on portrait painting.

One the story is written, Dudding practices the telling, modifying the piece as necessary, “when you see confused faces or when people seem to be drifting off,” she said. Over the years, Dudding has learned to recognize the responses of her audience and to tailor her stories appropriately.

Storytellers have to engage more directly with their audiences than writers or actors, and as a result they become very sensitive to body language and facial expressions. It’s important to be able to see people’s faces, Dudding said. She likes venues that allow that sort of intimacy.

Dudding is a co-producer for Story Sunday at Glen Sanders Mansion, a monthly dinner and story time for adults. For $27, guests get a three-course gourmet meal “and four courses of stories,” she said. Reservations are required. The upcoming May event is called, “Spring Into Summer,” and will feature stories of love, laughter and fun.

Every year, members of Story Circle help create two other storytelling events, the Riverway Storytelling Festival (a project of Upper Hudson Library System) in the spring and Tellabration in the fall. This year’s Riverway Storytelling Festival was held April 23-20 in locations throughout Albany County, and featured sixteen free concerts and events for adults and families, six different workshops for adults and children, and many well-known storytellers from around the world. Story Circle produces a local Tellabration event at the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady in November, part of an international storytelling event. For Tellabration, storytellers all over the world tell stories at the same time on the same night.

Monday night at Caffè Lena, the storytellers went up in turns to the small stage. First Margaret French, who told a Siberian folktale, then Keegan who told her icebreaker, then Sheila Naylor, who modernized a biblical tale, then it was Finneran’s turn. Finneran’s tale was, what he called a Euro-folktale because most European countries had a version of this tale. He called his tale, “The King’s Moment of Truth.”

In it, a young man accomplishes a difficult task to win the hand of the king’s daughter, but unwilling to give up the prize, the king sets another impossible task, to fill a sack with stories. The young man begins to recall all the things he’s seen, and in the end, in true folktale fashion, the sack is declared full. The crowd at Caffè Lena clapped loudly, and Finneran looking pleased but somewhat bashful, took his seat.

This story, like all stories, is a teaching story, Keegan said. Stories are the oldest teaching tool there is, she said.

People choose stories because it means something to them, Keegan said, and when they tell stories that are meaningful to them, they resonate with others, she said.

“We all bring to it who we are,” Keegan said. “I think that’s the virtue of storytelling.”