Penelope Starr Q&A

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I believe I learned about Penelope Starr when she kindly cited this blog in one of her columns for the Tucson Citizen. I’ve followed her columns about storytelling since. I’m so pleased to present this Q&A with Penelope.

PenelopeStarr.jpg Bio: Penelope Starr founded Odyssey Storytelling, a monthly, volunteer-run storytelling event in Tucson, AZ, in 2004. As producer and artistic director, she’s coached hundreds of people who have told personal stories at the performances. She has taught storytelling classes at Pima Community College and Casa Libre en Solano and has conducted workshops for community groups, businesses and organizations. Her blog for the online Tucson Citizen is called “Telling Stories.” Adam Hostetter joined Odyssey in 2009 as assistant producer. They are developing curriculum for bringing community storytelling “on the road” to share their knowledge of how to create a personal storytelling event with other communities. Odyssey is now a program of StoryArts Group, Inc, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.




Q&A with Penelope Starr:

Q: You are founder and producer of Odyssey Storytelling, a community storytelling event in Tucson in which you invite local people to share 10-minute personal stories based on a changing theme. How did you get the idea for this event?

A: The first time I went to Porchlight Storytelling in San Francisco, I was hooked on personal storytelling. Listening to an eclectic collection of people tell funny, tragic, amazing, and touching stories from their lives ran me through a gamut of emotions and admiration for each teller brave enough to get up in front of a room full of strangers and share their lives. Right then decided that I would bring this stunning event to Tucson.

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And I was the most unlikely person to undertake this venture. I was a visual artist with little experience in performing arts, but I did have some experience in organizing events. And I knew a lot of people.
With some guidance about the basic structure from my daughter-in-law Beth Lisick (co-producer of Porchlight along with Arline Klatte) I jumped into a foreign world. In the past six years I have learned how to emcee, tell a story, recruit volunteer storytellers and help them form their stories, run a rehearsal, negotiate for space, get the word out and be the spokesperson. I have been interviewed for TV, written a magazine article, kept a blog, given workshops and taught classes on personal storytelling.
I have learned by reading everything I can find in books and online and from hands-on experience. I keep saying I’ve made every mistake that can be made, but then I find new ones!
Now Odyssey Storytelling is a nonprofit as a program of the newly formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit StoryArts Group and many more challenges are ahead. One of my goals is to go “on the road” with Odyssey and teach people in other places how to produce their own community storytelling.

Q: How do you go about choosing the people who participate in Odyssey Storytelling (See yesterday’s entry)? Do you ensure that they are good storytellers? What has the audience response to the event been like?

Q: For the first show on March 4, 2004, I had to do a lot of fast talking to convince some of my friends to go on stage at this untried event. I could tell them the concept but I couldn’t answer any questions yet. Now we have a reputation as a fun and interesting monthly event, a large mailing list and a pool of fans that spread the word.
We have posted the themes for the rest of the year so people can visit our website and see where their favorite story will fit in. They call or email with a synopsis of the story and a brief bio, and we go from there. We have a rehearsal before each show where they meet the other storytellers, practice their stories, and give and get feedback. Adam Hostetter, who joined Odyssey two years ago as assistant producer, and I offer coaching at the rehearsal and are available for 1:1 sessions if requested.

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Since one of our goals at Odyssey is diversity, sometimes a theme will need someone with a certain backgrounds and expertise. In that case, we will contact a community member and invite them to be a teller.
We do not “ensure that they are good storytellers;” we help each person be the best storyteller that they can be. Some are better than others; there is lots of variety. The main focus is on the sincerity and realness of each teller and that is what the audience responds to.
Audience response has generally been very positive, depending on the combination of the content and the skill of the teller. The most common feedback we hear is how a story touched a listener personally, evoking empathy and connection and triggering their own memories of similar situations.

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

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A: With people plugged into their own personal electronic devices, eating meals in their car, using the TV as a babysitter and turning to pharmaceuticals to control their moods, we have a desperate and truly human need to connect. And what better way than telling our stories? The time for community storytelling is now before we forget the stories, the skills and our basic humanness.

Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?

A: A personal story at Odyssey Storytelling is an individual’s narrative from their life that they have crafted into a 10-minute oral presentation. The stories are not read or memorized; they are told from the experiences and creativity of the teller.

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: If you want to tell a personal story then just BE YOURSELF!
When people ask if the stories are true, we say they come from the lives of the tellers; things they’ve experienced or have been told (i.e., family stories) and they tell their version of the truth from their memories.

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The tellers who have the hardest time with this form are professional storytellers, actors, and writers. Performers are used to learning their material and presenting a finished product to the audience. Writers fall in love with specific phrases and long to reproduce them orally. Neither of these approaches work especially well in personal storytelling.
We coach tellers to know the point of their story, have an opening line and an ending and remember a few points they want to make along the way. The stories we hear in rehearsal are always different from the ones people tell on stage when they are reacting to the response from the audience. The fluidity is part of the planned spontaneity of this unique artform.

Q: You blog for TucsonCitizen.com, where the tagline of your blog is “Creating Community One Story at a Time.” In your experience, what are some of the ways stories help to create community?

A: People come to Odyssey Storytelling because they want to hear stories from their friends and neighbors and because they want to hear from someone they might not meet in their everyday life. We are sensitive to being inclusive of people from different ethnicities, races, religions, social and economic groups, ages, gender expressions and sexual orientations. In this way we celebrate the diversity that Tucson has to offer.

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When Michael, a robust, bearded man told a story about when he was a little girl, many in the audience were very surprised. When Keon told a story about his father emigrating from a small town in a Middle Eastern country, an audience member (and stranger) was stunned because his father was from the same town. Doug would repeat the stories he heard at Odyssey to his elderly parents who where unable to leave their home.
An important part of every evening at Odyssey is the community announcements where we invite the audience to promote activities that they are involved in. These can range from Greyhound Rescue to political rallies, whatever our listeners what to share with each other.
These connections and many more are part of the magic of community storytelling. You’ll find this quote on the bottom of the program: “Because these stories are from our lives they may be amazing, messy, enlightening, disturbing, and entertaining … and more.”

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