Storytelling has been good to me lately. Though I would certainly not eat well from my earnings, I've been staying busy without even trying too hard to find bookings. In fact, I strayed from my usual practice of donating storytelling earnings to a couple of favorite causes and donated to my own cause, buying myself a nice kayak. Life has been stressful for me the past few months and I felt as if I had become a cause worthy of donation!
A constant source of discussion among the storytelling world is what constitutes a "professional." The immediate response is often "someone who gets paid to tell stories." There are those who will debate this point. We have all heard stories of groups that hired a storyteller and don't want to do so again. Why? The storyteller was someone who had built up confidence to put out their business cards, but wasn't prepared for all the many unknowns that can happen. People with their cell phones. A dog walking through the stage. A drunk standing up right in front of you, annnouncing loudly "I gotta take a piss!" Of course, in school settings there is always the PA system and the rambunctious children in the back row. These are all true life examples I've faced over the years. Those people who don't know how to manage these disruptions and recapture the story will alienate potential clients from considering storytellers for a future event. They aren't professionals...yet.
A couple months ago, I was contacted by someone about telling stories at an event for free. I will consider such requests very carefully. If an event sounds fun, supports a vision in which I believe, and doesn't require me to come up with new material, I might accept such an invitation. I don't accept them as often as I once did, however, because over the years, I have had plenty of practice in front of an audience and don't need to take on freebies for experience. I have experience.
The event was the Grand Opening of the T. Denney Sanford Pediatric Center at the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic? I had to think about this one. Though not far from my home, with gas at its current prices, I had to weigh the benefits of accepting a non-paying gig. The event organizers had chosen the natural world as the theme, and were seeking unplugged entertainment to get the visitors reconnected with the joy of nature and live entertainment. These are ideals about which I feel strongly. I was assured that there would be an actual stage, that I could put out any brochures I wanted and they'd cover my parking.
I still had to think about it, but not for long. When I posted my consternation on the storytell listserv, fellow tellers worldwide knew the Mayo Clinic. I called my contact back and accepted.
The day I arrived, I entered the new center and saw people milling around all over the place. A young man was on the stage singing and playing guitar. I thought to myself, "Yikes, no one's listening!" I sat down and became his audience while taking in the incredibly beautiful new Pediatric Center. The center was redone with each wing reflecting one of the biomes of Minnesota. The main lobby had support pillars that look like birch trees. Look carefully and a bunny might peek out of one of the holes. The ceiling baffles were giant birch leaves floating overhead. Fireflies flickered in the walls. The whole place is serene and gives visitors much to explore visually. I would never have seen this had I not accepted their invitation.
My turn on the stage arrived. At this point, all those years of experience paid off. I pulled a nearby child on stage to hold a puppet for me. Her parents sat down to listen. A few other children pulled their families over to see what was happening. Then the story drew them all in.
I used this approach throughout my hour of telling and had nice audiences, given the open house setting. Even folks over by the mural were turning and listening to a story before moving on.
I realized as I was heading home that this is the mark of a professional teller. Instead of panicking at the challenging setting, I assessed it, modified my sets and made a performance decision that pulled in audiences. Having this epiphany was worth the donation of my time. The new booking I got last week as a result of it is just gravy.