Monday, May 22, 2006

What's it worth to you?

Gather a group of working storytellers together, whether in the real world or virtual, and at some point, someone will ask the question, "What should I charge for my programs?" I've seen this discussion played out many times on the storytell listserv, of which I've been a member since about 1994. Everyone has a different idea on pricing; one person simply states a flat fee, with room for negotiation, no matter what the program length. Another will have various rates dependent on the program length. Some tellers will do free or greatly reduced programs, usually for a special cause, but most will caution against underpricing oneself. It's tough stuff. Hopefully, by the time one of my fellow tellers or myself appears in front of your group, we've put in the time to make it look effortless, and your audience leaves feeling richer for the experience.

On some level, I'd often thought this was the heart of the problem. What we do should look effortless and natural. Especially in workshop or school residency settings, our goal is often to inspire others to tell stories. If everyone can tell stories, why should an organization pay much to have me do the same thing?

My thinking on the mystery of fees has experienced a shift. I just finished reading an excellent special report on "Why We Need the Arts," in the current issue of The Tapestry Magazine. Tapestry is an area lifestyle monthly, one I eagerly anticipate each month. Its masthead describes it as "an independent monthly magazine about the people and lifestyles of the Upper Mississippi River valley," and is published by Village Creek Press of Lansing Iowa. Under the inspired direction of Julie Berg-Raymond, the monthly promises me musings about arts events, features on interesting little locally owned shops and eateries, and issues of interest in our Driftless Region of the Upper Mississippi River. It's where I hope to find out about those pockets of independent thinking, hiding, like a Mississippi pearl inside an ugly mussel, within the endless and growing chain stores and strip malls of the region. It's the one place where I've actually taken out print ads for my storytelling a couple times, both times netting a gig. Enough of my commercial, which absolutely no one has asked me to do!

In the introduction to her special report on the arts, Ms. Berg-Raymond ponders the state of affairs in which we'll spend large sums of cash for a poster print of a Terry Redlin print, but balk at paying a similar price for a local artist's original piece. She doesn't draw the obvious conclusion many might about the artist's recognition. Instead, she asks her readers to consider that seeking out art takes time, something we have trouble finding in our frenetically paced lives. How much easier to run to the mall, snatch up that Terry Redlin print and then grab a latte from the drive-through coffeehouse? To search out that perfect piece that is original art requires time seeking out the small nooks and crannies where these artists might work, often in out-of-the-way locales; Mineral Point or Viroqua in Wisconsin, Lansing in Iowa or any number of backroads to artist studio/homes. It is this searching that yields not only an original work of art, but a story to go along with it, the story of how you discovered that delightful little place and connected with that fascinating artist, savoring all she had for offer, hearing the stories of each piece in order to choose the perfect one.

People don't have time, and so the thought process that follows is that I must be that way, too. I don't have time, so don't take lots of it to bring together the right mix of stories for their event. There may be times when I actually do have a nice mix of stories that I can practice before telling, just to avoid the rough edges of disuse. Rarely. Even then, I appreciated an anecdote shared by Joeann Tesar, Prairie du Chien art instructor, one of the artists interviewed by Ms. Berg-Raymond. I hope she will not mind my quoting it here.

"In the late '60s or early '70s I remember watching Peter Max on Johnny Carson....He quickly drew a sketch (within 30 seconds), and turned it around to show everyone. Johnny asked him, well, how much would that be worth? Without hesitation, he said, 'at least $15,000.' Seeing Carson's reaction--being visibly taken aback by this answer--Peter Max added calmly, 'I drew this within a minute, but it took me over 20 years to get to this point.'"
The Tapestry Magazine, May 2006

Like all artists, whether working in ink, fiber, metal, paint or words, to reach a point where I might sometimes be able to plan a program from material well-honed, many years of hard work have gone before. Time and personal expense in the form of attending workshops, working with a storytelling coach, traveling to storytelling retreats and events, not to mention the time spent developing or researching a story, all come before I even start to practice the actual telling. So....should you be in the position of hiring a storyteller, before balking at the fee quoted, ask yourself this question; What's my time worth? Can I put in all the time that this teller has logged to reach this level of skill? A storyteller can take you to another time, another place, even suspend time for awhile as you become immersed in the dance between teller's words and listener's images. In this fast-paced world, moments like these are golden.

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Telling a cautionary tale of a fearsome beast and responsibility, seventy-five fifth graders, all equally quiet and rapt--it's worth its weight in gold.