How long have you been a storyteller?
Probably most of my life. I was always telling stories to myself and, as my parents defined it “lies” to others. In elementary school, I would rather make up a book rather than read someone elses’ for a book report. In 1984, I heard my first professional tellers in Seattle at the Northwest Folklife Festival and thought it was possible that I could do that. The next year I took a week-long class, with Andrena Belcher at the Augusta Heritage Festival and had my first public telling at the end of that week under the Festival’s Children’s Tent.
Although, I did choose to make storytelling my primary activity, I think it’s more that storytelling chose me to be one of its practitioners. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really a sort of positive addiction.
What kind of audiences (children/adults) have you told stories to?
You name it, I’ve probably been there done that. I’ve told to audiences of one or two folks and to full tents or auditoriums at various events.
What kind of stories do you tell?
I mostly tell what touches me. Right this moment, I’m working on a biographical story/music project for a friend to do as a solo show, a collaboration between myself, Judith Onesty (my Tandem Telling partner) and an ethnic Belly Dance Troupe featuring stories with Near or Mid-Eastern themes, an ongoing set of autobiographic stories. prepping for an upcoming show of Celestial Stories; working with a cinematographer on a documentary about a rapidly aging storyteller; and other projects. If this sounds like too much, you’re right, it is! I know that I’m not going to live long enough to tell them all.
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?
Great question. This is one of the ways I know that I may be maturing as a teller. First step is awareness of what’s happening, checking with myself and getting energy-clarity-focus. Then I start really looking at individual audience members, ask them if I’m boring or ask quick questions about whatever I’m telling. Joking about it, letting the audience know that I’m aware of what’s going on. Sometimes ask forbearance getting through draggy spots and throw in some fast audience participation stuff.
What do you do to prepare yourself for telling stories?
Man! This is the hard part. Often I start by writing out the story. Luckily, I’m pretty good at writing in my speaking voice. Then do a lot of editing, which is followed by me taking the story to the Gym and work on the sound and voice of it while I’m struggling on the Treadmill. People avoid me ’cause they think I’m some kind of crazy talking to myself. I often get coaching from Judith and waste a lot of time justifying wanting never to kill off, as Elizabeth Gray Vining would say, “my little purple darlings.” When it feels ready, I try the story out on as many live audiences as possible.
Do you use props or costumes while telling your stories; if so what do you use?
Occasionally. I’ll use a hand drum or Kalimba with kids, though I can’t really play them well, and I usually carry a puppet stash when working with young audiences, though I’m also not very proficient as a puppeteer, but kids love them and they help focus attention and besides, I like having one in my hands.
What is the most memorable experience you had in telling stories?
Wow! Only one? One was years ago, I’d been invited to tell in the Norfolk/VA Beach area and we were telling in a good size amphitheater, with the tellers at the bottom of the cone shaped facility. I told about one of my heroes, the mystical miracle rabbi of the Holocaust, Israel Spira, and his tales of survival in the camps. I must have been the last teller for the event, because when I was done telling the crowd started to talk, move and disperse. That’s when I noticed a woman pushing her way through the crowd and could see by her dress that she was an Orthodox or Hasidic Jewess. I thought she might be coming to talk to me, so I stayed put. I have to confess that in my own anxiety, I feared that she was coming to tell me what I’d gotten wrong or perhaps chide me for telling such a holy tale to such a secular audience. But no, she wanted to invite me to the top of the amphitheater because she had someone up there who wanted to talk to me. I followed her up to the last or next to last row in the house and was introduced to an old, fragile looking couple, dressed as if they had stepped out of a hundred year-old photo album. The couple thanked me for the story and added that they were disciples of Rabbi Spira, and that they were Holocaust Survivors themselves following their Rabbi to America after the war. They said that I’d told the stories about the same way their Rabbi had and then they also gave me some insight into his personality and how he received one of his nicknames. [Note: Les gave two stories, but you’ll have to ask him directly about the second experience. He’s a storyteller so get ready for a great tale.]
What are your strengths and weaknesses in storytelling?
I guess my greatest strength is my enthusiasm for what I do, the fun I have telling and sharing my enthusiasm with the audience. I have a good sense of humor; an eclectic far reaching taste in stories; and a willingness to really go after an audience. There’s also a sense that it’s not really the “me” that inhabits my everyday life up there telling. A side benefit is that while I’m telling, I completely lose the sense of being at the very end of my 8th decade and living in this often creaky, tired, painful body.
I haven’t got enough time, space or inclination to go through all my weaknesses as a teller. Suffice to say that it’s really hard for me to remember stories, events, faces, details, dates, tasks, etc. I don’t have a lot of ambition to be on the big stage, yet can feel resentful when it doesn’t happen. I’m a terrible self-promoter and I’ve been told that I’m a procrastinator, and will have to think about this – one day.
When did you join VASA? And Why?
I joined VASA whenever it was we started the organization, I believe in Williamsburg. Seems like a hundred years ago. I was a new storyteller, at least in the sense most understand, and wanted to feel connected with, as I sort of felt then, ‘the real storytellers’.
How has VASA served you? And how have you served VASA?
VASA really did serve to connect me to the world of storytelling and storytellers. It offered numerous opportunities to learn, to establish lasting friendships, expand my world and to help me find my voice and to grow and practice whatever leadership skills I might possess. Overall, I was probably on the Board for a total of perhaps 15 or so years. I’ve served as Treasurer, worked on the Gatherings, helped write our By-Laws and other corporate paperwork. I’ve always pushed hard for VASA to go into those areas of our big state, to help reach out to those we’re under or not serving.
What advice would you give newer storytellers?
Get and stay connected to the larger storytelling community. Take advantage of training and learning opportunities. Find, feed and cherish a mentor/coach and as soon as you feel ready, do the same for someone else, especially a prospective youth teller. Don’t wait around for telling opportunities to come to you, make or create them in as many ways that you can. I think that creating a niche that’s truly yours is extremely valuable.
Audio clip: Hanukah stories by Les Shaffer presented for Virginia Voice.
Les Schaffer listens to, teaches and tells stories in theater, therapeutic, classroom and workshop settings. Les has presented workshops, one-man and tandem-telling shows, at the Virginia, Kentucky, Texas State Storytelling Conferences and National Storytelling Network Conferences. For the past three years, Les has been leading and coaching the Richmond Story Warriors, a youth storytelling group based at Richmond’s Church Hill Library. Loving the Story-Slam format, Les tells at Slams up and down the East Coast. He is a co-founder of The Tell Tale Hearts Storyteller’s Theater and, with Judith Onesty, TwoTellersTelling Tandem Storytellers. Les was a founding member of VASA and a multi-time board member. After telling at Takoma Park Maryland’s Grapevine event, co-teller Chris Potts described Les’s telling as, “…like scenes from a screenplay starring Christopher Walken.”
Les is a popular storytelling teacher at the LifeLong Learning Center in Chesterfield County. This fall, he will be teaching a course on Fairy Tales for Adults. As a licensed professional counselor, Les is a frequent workshop presenter and speaker on the uses of story, storytelling and story-listening in mental health, school counseling and addiction treatment services.
A retired child and family counselor, Les is proud of previous lives as a professional photographer, advertising and marketing executive and clay manufacturer. Married to a wonderful woman who also successfully juggles two simultaneous careers, Les is a father, grand and great-grandfather.