BY JANET MANDELSTAM
There’s a big difference between telling a story and reading a story from a book. A “told” story, says Stephanie Holman, is a performance that requires “a lot of preparation and a little bit of theater.”
Holman is a member of the Bloomington Storytellers Guild, an organization formed in 1974 to keep alive the oral storytelling tradition.
A children’s librarian in Ellettsville, Holman took a storytelling class at IU “and it changed my life,” she says. She told her first story, “Wicked Jack and the Devil,” to students at a southern Indiana school and was hooked. As a professional storyteller, she’s been performing for 20 years at libraries, schools, parks, and festivals.
Story selection, Holman says, “is the key to the whole art form.” Stories can be from literary sources, but most come from folklore or fairytales. “You can stick to the text or add personal touches,” she says. “If you love your story and know it well, it will come out beautifully. You’re not memorizing; you’re conveying what you know. It’s like a movie that you see in your brain.”
And sometimes you create the story. Holman has been commissioned to tell stories based on Indiana history. In one performance piece, “Skirting the Issue,” she told the story of Indiana women artists. In another, she drew upon letters from servicemen and women at home “to tell stories of Indiana during World War II at the war front and on the home front.”
Not everyone starts out as a natural storyteller. Mary Frasier, a guild member who teaches storytelling in IU’s library and information science graduate program, says she begins the class by handing out “really short” exercises. “You want to create a space where students can take risks, overcome the barrier of speaking in public.”
A good storyteller, says Holman, “has a huge desire to share their stories,” and, adds Frasier, “will make a really good human connection with an audience.” In addition to entertaining, she says, storytelling encourages use of the imagination, hones listening skills, and promotes an interest in reading.
The Storytellers Guild (btownstorytellers.blogspot.com) presents two community programs in Bloomington each year: Wintertelling for an adult audience in February, and the Festival of Ghost Stories for families in October. The tradition is likely to continue. “Storytelling,” says Holman, “is as old as humans and still going strong.”