When asked about being a professional storyteller, Judith Heineman consistently fields the same question: “Do you read stories to children?” As the activities of Heineman and the Chicago Storytelling Guild show, this question hardly brushes the surface of the art, a skill that appeals to the young and the old through a wide variety of media and many approaches. According to Heineman, who has been named an Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar for her craft, being a storyteller is about relating to people, becoming one with your material, and finding your voice.
The Chicago Storytelling Guild meets on the third Tuesday of every month at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, drawing a constituency from all over the city to teach, support new tellers, and reinforce the methods of storytelling. The meetings, Heineman says, “give people a chance to network, to hone their craft, to think about what this thing called ‘storytelling’ is.”
In order to be a good teller, according to Heineman, you must “truly love your story.” Whether it is a personal narrative or a twist on an ancient tale, becoming a good storyteller relies on practice, and a lot of it. “After repeating your story aloud for day and days and days, it becomes an organic part of you. You feel its power, and telling it is like giving a gift. It is no longer about the teller; it is about serving the story and the audience,” Heineman says. Unlike in the theater, tellers can adjust their stories according to what they think the audience needs, adding an element of spontaneity to every performance, and the lights are left on during the performance so that the teller and the audience can interact. Heineman advises the budding storyteller, “Tell [your story], and tell it again! Tell it to anyone who will listen to you. As you tell it, you create a powerful beginning, middle, and a fine ending with plenty of imagery and detail. Know the purpose of your story, and who your audience is. As you tell it, the story will serve itself.”
Heineman and the Guild are gearing up for their thirteenth annual festival of storytelling, called “Tellabration!” Part of a worldwide celebration of the storytelling arts that takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving, Tellabration is meant to build interest in and support for the art of storytelling, dispelling the myth that it’s just for kids. According to Heineman, who is producing this year’s event at the Experimental Station, Tellabration will be “an evening of power, of story, of the human connection, a chance to get away from electronics, to the raw power of the human voice.”
This year’s Tellabration will feature more than a dozen accomplished storytellers and monologists, including Jim May, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of the Illinois Storytelling Festival; Megan Wells, a Jeff Award-winning director who tells complicated, convoluted myths; and Loren Niemi, a Minnesotan and the author of “Inviting the Wolf In: Telling the Difficult Story.” Sandi Sylver, a storyteller, singer and ventriloquist, will perform, as well as Mama Edie, who accompanies her stories with a shekere, an African percussion instrument made from a dried gourd. Heineman herself will perform, and the entire event will be interpreted in sign language by Liz Bartlow Breslin in order to open the event to deaf audiences. Tellabration, according to Heineman, is “the one night of the year that professional tellers give back by performing without pay. It is an opportunity to educate the public about what storytelling for grownups is,” an art form that can confront difficult subjects and be complicated, personal, and exciting. Tellabration aims to show that storytelling can change the world by bringing people together through commonality of goals and dreams in a shared experience.
Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. November 22. Sunday: family program 3-5pm, storytelling for adults 6:30-9pm. A $5 suggested donation will help provide storytelling to patients in hospitals in the Chicago area.
Heineman will also offer an all-day course on Saturday, November 21, through the University of Chicago’s Graham School; the course, “Storytelling for Adults,” will be held at the Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza, and will offer five professional development credits for Chicago Public School teachers.