How long have you been a storyteller?
My family has informed that I was always the one telling stories, creating little plays and forcing people to listen and participate. However, I consider my start when my son was born. I was a single mother, and worked hard and long hours. For a while I worked at a group home for aggressive kids, where I was onsite for 3 full days and then 2 days off. When I had days off, I kept my son home from day care, and the day care didn’t like that, asking me to give my son “consistency.” I told them if I didn’t keep him home, I’d come with him. They said “fine”, but were certainly surprised when I came. They set me to the side to read books to the children. The books bored me, so I did what I thought all parents did, I created songs and stories and they were well received by the children and the teachers.
They then began to recommend until finally some libraries and outdoor festivals paid me small amounts. When I moved to Hampton, VA, I began working at Colonial Williamsburg and did evening work as a paid storyteller and received the best experience of working with all types of audiences. I also began to do Historic Character Presentations. In 2003, I resigned from Colonial Williamsburg to begin work as a full-time storyteller. And the rest is history….
What kind of audiences (children/adults) have you told stories to?
Every audience. My favorites: Middle Schoolers, because if I can grab their attention then I have done very well. My least favorite: College students, because sometimes they are so used to lecture they have forgotten how to interact.
What kind of stories do you tell?
I LOVE stories! And what sounds good to me, I like to share. I read a lot and spend time researching stories as well. I also write many of my stories, and some of them are my best and most fun. I don’t believe in keeping the stories I write to myself, so any of my originals can be told by anyone, just tell who the author is.
The stories I feel called to are “stories of faith” and “stories of justice.” And storyteller Syd Lieberman gave me great advice, “Sheila, always start with a folktale.”, so I have learned lots of folktales as well.
How do you keep your audience engaged in your stories and what techniques do you use to keep your audience captivated if they seem to lose interest?
I like interactive stories, but have learned that I need to trust the story. If my story is good, then I don’t have to force people to laugh, I don’t have to add props or do a ton of gestures, I just need to tell the story. I do add voices and sometimes song, which I like. I believe in researching the stories I tell, so that I actually “know” more about the story than I ever tell; and that makes the story more delightful for me to tell, making it more delightful for folks to hear.
What do you do to prepare yourself for telling stories?
Uh….well, I’m supposed to warm up my voice and body, but I am not regular in this. If I have time, I plan my program of stories, always having an extra or two listed, and then I read them over, read them outloud, time them, continue to do more research on them, and sometimes videotape or audio-record myself.
I don’t do as well with poetry and things that need exact “wording”. Now, there are stories that I tell exactly the same, but I created the pattern, not that it was written for me. Here is my scary part of performing, sometimes, I improvise or create a story while on stage. If an idea has been knocking around my head or heart, it will one day just come out, and many times while on stage. Most of those work well and make their way into my regular repertoire.
Do you use props or costumes while telling your stories; if so what do you use?
I use costumes when doing my Historic Character Presentations. I don’t usually use any props, although I will sometimes pantomime props.
What is the most memorable experience you had in telling stories?
There are many, but one I don’t think I’ll forget is at Spratley Gifted Middle School, Hampton, VA. I was brought in to present my “Keeping Heritage Alive: African-American Stories” Storytelling Program. The 6th and 7th graders were very good. However, something happened with the 8th graders. I began the program with the song, “Wade in the Water”, and many of the students knew the song and they sang with me and we got a little loud and had fun. I told a Brer Rabbit story and they really liked it. I sang another spiritual and they sang with me. Then I told “The People Could Fly” and we all went on the story ride. They were with me inside the story and it was amazing. After the story was told, we had a moment of just silence as we landed safely back in the auditorium, and then the clapping led to a standing ovation. We ended with a song, with some encouraging words, and then they came. Student after student after student came up and talked with me, hugged me, expressed their thanks, their joy, their empowerment. It was beautiful!
What are your strengths and weaknesses in storytelling?
My strength in storytelling is I have a good storytelling voice; it brings people in (I’m basing this on what people say to me). I also have a variety of stories and can adjust my stories for audiences and to different time lengths.
My greatest weakness is boredom; I sometimes don’t spend enough telling a story over and over again to let it grow and breathe and mature. Then when I pick it up again, it is too rusty. I also have been known to have a hard time with critique, although I constantly am working to remove that weakness, by asking for critique often and being obedient. And apologizing when I become defensive.
When did you join VASA and why?
I joined VASA sometime around 2006?, I think. I joined because I wanted to connect to storytellers in Virginia. I wanted to connect to those who were professional in storytelling, who were doing the work of storytelling, and I wanted to be a help to promote storytelling.
How has VASA served you? And how have you served VASA?
VASA has served me through contacts and networking. I have been able to practice new stories with VASA members and try out workshops at gatherings. I was vice president for a while and although I was overwhelmed, I really loved it. I wanted for us have more storytelling festivals, to go to places where storytelling is not always seen, and to add younger tellers to VASA. I support VASA.
Also, VASA has been a supporter for the Tucker-Arnold Storytelling Concert and Retreat for a few years and I will always be thankful for that. Oh, I also the like the discount for NSN membership because of my VASA membership.
What advice would you give newer storytellers?
Tell often. Love what you tell. Connect with tellers. See and hear more and more storytelling. Drag along a friend each time you go to a storytelling event. Be eager to get critique and open to the words of advice, but choose what you really love about a story and stick to it. Take risks and find a mentor that will help you take risks. Make your own stages, your own venues, be out of the box.
Sheila Arnold currently resides in Hampton, VA. She is a Professional Storyteller, Character Interpreter and Teaching Artist. Through her company, History’s Alive!, Sheila has provided storytelling programs, historic character presentations, Christian monologues, dramatic/creative writing workshops, professional development for educators and inspirational/motivational speeches at schools, churches, libraries, professional organizations and museums, in 29 states since 2003. She has 2 books: a picture book, “Weeping Willow, or, Why the Leaves Change their Colors”, and an historical fiction using biblical persons, “David’s Mighty Man: Benaiah”. She also has two storytelling CD’s, “Mini, Many, Minnie Tales” and “Hands Wide Open”. Books can be purchased by contacting Sheila and the CD’s are available through her website, www.mssheila.org and for download at CDbaby.com. An new addition to Sheila’s titles is “historical consultant” – helping museums and exhibit designers find the story, and how to share it, from historical documents, artifacts, buildings and the historical use of land and water.
Sheila has been a featured Storyteller at several Storytelling Festivals: National Storytelling Festival (Jonesborough, TN); Paris Storytelling Festival (Paris, KY); Connecticut Storytelling Festival; Georgia Mountain Storytelling Festival (Young Harris, GA); Hearts Afire Storytelling Weekend (Richmond, VA); Stories: From Sea to Shore Storytelling Weekend (Norfolk, VA); twice at Culpeper Tells (Culpeper, VA); twice at Storytelling Festival of the Southeast (Laurinburg, NC); three times at Southern Ohio Storytelling Festival (Chilicothee, OH), Moonshell Storytelling Festival (Omaha, NE), Stone Soup Storytelling Festival (Woodruff, SC); and twice at Colonial Williamsburg Storytelling Festival (Williamsburg, VA). She also has been a Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center, Jonesborough, TN. Sheila collaborates with storyteller, Darci Tucker, to produce the Tucker-Arnold Storytelling Concert and Retreat in Williamsburg, VA featuring nationally known Storytellers. Ms. Sheila, what she is commonly called, has also presented Professional Development sessions, Storytelling Programs and Character Presentations at educational conferences, including Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, Valley Forge Teacher Institute, Mt. Vernon Teacher Institute, and Social Studies and Reading Association Conferences in New York, Louisiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi, the National Council of Social Studies and for many Teaching American History Grant programs around the country and has presented and performed on a variety of topics.
Previously, Sheila worked at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a Coordinator with the Teacher Institute, in Public Relations and Event Manager, and as a Storyteller and Theatrical Interpreter. Also, she was a Social Worker, Hampton City Schools Substitute Teacher and a Mary Kay, Inc. Independent Senior Beauty Consultant. She is a graduate of UNC-Charlotte with a B.A. in African-American & African History.
Christian Monologues are another area where Sheila has shown her talent for presentation, research and message. She wrote and produced the full-length play, “And the Women Were There”, which focuses on 7 women who followed Jesus, and received local acclaim for this work. She is currently a co-leader of First Baptist Norfolk’s Drama Ministry. Sheila rounds out her talents by also being a Drama and Creative Writing workshop leader for children and adults.
Sheila is the mother of Krisstopher Arnold – her reason for becoming a Storyteller; daughter of Wallace and Earlene Arnold, sister of Stephanie Arnold, and proud grandmother of Brooklyn Stutts.
Video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qecYcEXNtaU&t=1s