― William Shakespeare
Eileen Beckowitz always loved stories, but the first time she told one to a gathering of adults, it was a disaster.
“It was a Yugoslavian fairy tale, and fairy tales weren’t my niche,” she said. “I know it seemed to go on and on. More experienced storytellers told me that’s the first lesson to learn – keep your stories to five or 10 minutes.
It can be the first of many lessons for a storyteller, and all are taught by experience and listening to those who have it. It’s one reason storytellers seek out both stories and their tellers.
Beckowitz, a Tacoma woman who is now 90, went looking for them more than 50 years ago.
“There was a national story league founded in Tennessee back in 1903 by a professor who discovered it had become a lost art,” Beckowitz said. “I joined the Fireside Storytelling League in 1963, and we were committed to the same thing: Not to let the art of storytelling die.”
There are professional storytellers and amateurs, and the difference is based almost entirely upon money.
“Professionals discovered there can be big money in it if you advertise yourself,” Beckowitz said. “It can be big business.”
Those in Tacoma’s Fireside Storytelling League aren’t in it for the money. They have their own reasons.
Penny Tennyson was an accountant and wanted to add something to her life purely for fun. She chose storytelling.
Since joining Fireside in ‘94, she has mined bookstores and libraries for material and told stories to all manner of audiences.
“Nursing homes and retirements centers are hungry for storytellers, and one Saturday a month at one, I tell humorous folk tales and light historical stories,” Tennyson said. “I’ve done Veterans Day stories at American Lake, children’s stories at Halloween and Christmas.”
Tennyson, 68, has delivered sailing stories at tall ships festivals, animal stories at Northwest Trek, bird stories to the Audubon Society and stories of nature and wilderness at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge.
She may enjoy telling stories to children the most.
“It should be a part of growing up. Stories provide information you don’t always come across in school,” she said. “It anchors you to your culture, your nature.”
“We ask for a $25 stipend, which goes to Fireside,” said Tennyson, who lives in Gig Harbor. “Our storytellers only get reimbursed for their travel — and most times, no one puts in even for that.”
Bonnie Anderson is the Puyallup Library’s children’s librarian. She reads stories to kids each week. And along with reading, she tells them stories.
“Once a week at the South Hill Mall, I tell stories to children near the food court,” Anderson said. “We did the same thing last year, and besides the kids, there was a nearby table of older gentleman sitting.
“At first I worried I might be bothering them, but they didn’t move. When we were done and the children had gone, they came up and told me how much they’d all enjoyed the children’s stories I’d told.”
A member of Fireside since 1999, Anderson has told stories to a cross section of audiences. She said the key is always to match the material to the group. Like Tennyson and Beckowitz, she is always looking for a good story —and doesn’t care where she finds it.
“For children, my signature story is probably ‘Rindercella’ — the fractured fairy tale version of Cinderella,” Anderson said.
Where did she come up with that story?
“I learned it watching the barber on ‘Hee-Haw,” Anderson said. “The best stories make you laugh and make you think, but you’ve got to make them laugh, first.”
Anderson, 58, first learned the craft in her teens, when she earned a Girl Scout merit badge in storytelling.
“I was shy growing up, and in storytelling and acting, it’s not me up there. I’m the character in the story,” she said. “It’s not easy compiling dozens of stories for all occasions, and all of us will tell you how time-consuming it can be practicing them again and again to get them right.
“But it’s not just keeping the art of storytelling alive. Everyone in our group loves telling stories, and we miss it when we don’t do it.”