Storytelling school

Transmitting the living art of storytelling


By Shen Shellenberger,

originally published: 06/22/2022

Narration is one of those words that is not just a descriptive term. It is evocative. It’s personal. It is inclusive. It’s communal. And that’s what Storytelling Arts, Inc. is.

Maybe you remember your aunt, the one who always wore a big purple hat, recounting the days when she and your father were young. Or you flash back to a night when you and your friends tried to outdo each other with terrible stories of ghosts and one-legged men. Or you think of your mother making up silly, impulsive stories while you were at school. And while these experiences may come from a variety of sources, the root is the same.

“Storytelling is in our DNA,” said general manager Linda Helm Krapf. “It started out as drawing in the sand and evolved into language,” she said. “It was what the first humans had.”

“Then it took thousands of years to build hope that we would learn something new by listening to people’s stories,” she said.

Storytelling Arts is a nonprofit community of storytellers, writers, and artist teachers who work to protect, promote and transmit the living art of storytelling, and to be a resource for teachers and others who work with young people.

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Community is central to the organization’s mission, whether through partnerships with other groups, through professional development, such as the 4-day Transformative Storytelling program in Lambertville June 27-30, or events like Cranky Storytelling at the Birdhouse Center for the Arts in Lambertville on June 28.

And while teacher training is a priority, Krapf notes that the organization runs year-round programs on topics like storytelling in business, storytelling in marketing, development, and writing. storytelling and storytelling performance training.

Storytelling Arts is celebrating its 25th year with an anniversary celebration on June 16 that will include wine, dinner and, of course, storytelling. The event will also honor four individuals – Dr. Susan Cardillo, Edna Friman, Karen Lavallen and Ellen Musikant – who “have come forward and championed Storytelling Arts during significant transitions in the organization’s history,” Krapf said. . “They are truly the guardians of our special mission.”

Like the whole world, Storytelling Arts has felt the seismic impact of the pandemic.

“Watching everything,” Krapf said, “challenges you and gives you a reason to pause.”

“One thing we’ve learned is that crises, which are inevitable, require relevance, responsiveness and resilience,” Krapf said. “The last two and a half years have indicated how we should go forward in the world. We started to look at how to be in service in this time.

With schools closed, the organization has pivoted and learned to reach students and others virtually. When schools reopened to essential staff only, they responded by working with pupils after school hours and during the summer. And they also took inventory.

“Children need a learning environment that feels authentic to them,” she said. “They need to be able to see themselves through education and storytelling.”

“We also wondered how Storytelling Arts could apply its mission to equality work, how could we bring diverse stories to an integrated audience to build empathy and heal divisions,” Krapf said. “Society is more fractured now, and storytelling can be a way to bring people together.”

“The Untold Stories of Storied People project, led by Cynthia Renta, Director of Community Projects, is designed to do just that,” she said, “to put storytelling to work in the cause of equality and Justice”.

The program is in Phase I, developing partnerships in four New Jersey locations – Jersey City, New Brunswick, Morris County and Trenton – to identify community participants with stories to tell. Participants undergo training to learn how to carve their stories and build their skills, then they return to serve their communities.

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When I spoke to Renta, a multidisciplinary performance artist, folk dancer, and cultural producer from Jersey City, I asked her this basic question, “what is storytelling?”

“The traditional idea is that storytelling is verbal,” she said. “But I’ve been telling stories through my body for years.”

She learned the love of dancing from her mother. “And when I was living with my sister,” she said, “I used to go to a dance class at the Nuyorican (Puerto Rican New Yorkers) Poets Café.”

This experience led Renta to explore. “I was trying to push a square peg into a round hole,” she said. “My outlet has become these community arts venues.”

“Artists from folk communities often use movement to reinvent the future by drawing inspiration from traditional practices,” she said. “When I realized I wanted to say more than I could with words, I got a little experimental.”

“I started my travels by rooting myself in indigenous practices,” she said. “Now I use my daily life as inspiration and go with things that resonate with me.

“Through the Untold Stories project, we are trying to find a language around ritual performance art that is universal.

“As people age, they can become rigid and set in a long-held belief about who they are and their identity and sense of self.

“That’s why it’s so important to allow children the freedom of choice early in life.

“My goal is to link art and restorative practices to help heal communities.

“I believe Everybody is a storyteller,” Renta said. “It’s in all of us.”

Krapf agrees.

“We know in our hearts that all creatives are storytellers and love to collaborate,” Krapf said.

“Our oral tradition is more than story time at the library,” she said. “We need to replace that image with people around a campfire.”

“It’s our future.”

About the Author: Jersey girl, music lover and culture geek – Shen Shellenberger has made a career out of her lifelong love for the arts. From her jobs at WXPN-FM and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to her 25 years as a freelance writer, she instills her Jersey-born roots in everything she does. Whether it’s the beauty of a classic painting, the dynamics of contemporary dance, or the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, Shen brings her perspective to everything she covers.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Artsa project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.