How long have you been a storyteller?
Since they were called lies. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying to make sense of life, and stories were my tool for that job. As I child I’d pick up snippets of conversation and I’d piece them together trying to understand their context. My compilations did not always jive with the truth as my parents and other authority figures saw it. Hence, I remember my dad once saying, “You wouldn’t recognize the truth if it smacked you upside the head.”
None the less, the role of story in my life as listener and teller has been a constant. I would hear something and repeat it. Occasionally, the order or context might be less than factually accurate, but as a later mentor used to say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
I learned early on that a story could influence people, only if it entertained them. I had to keep their attention, to touch their hearts and from there I could affect their behavior.
As such, I’ve told stories my whole life; in my professional roles and inter-personally. That said, the most important stories I tell are the ones I tell myself. Whether I’m envisioning myself as the righter of wrongs or the victim of injustice, the Hero or the Outlaw, the man on a quest or the man with the answers, those stories provide the frame within which I conceive my behavior.
So, how long have I been telling stories?
Since I could talk.
For what kind of audiences have you told stories?
I tell for anyone who will listen. I have performed for 60+ three to five -year-olds in childcare centers, 300+ elementary students in their gymnasium, adult audiences in theaters, bars and corporate auditoriums. I’ve told for audiences of all ages at fairs, church basements and around bon fires. My favorite place to tell stories is around the table after dinner with family and friends.
What kind of stories do you tell?
I enjoy telling folk tales, fairy tales, and stories from literature and history. I love telling personal stories. For years I have listened to people tell me their stories about their workplace, or their church or their community and then I have taken their stories and woven them into a verbal tapestry celebrating their shared story.
In Fall 2017, I’m going to be telling scary stories for the first time. I’ve several gigs lined up where I’ll be telling Edgar Allan Poe stories and a few from other sources, including a true story my sister told me.
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?
Sometimes I feel it’s sheer force of will. I want to share the story. I want to project the movie in my head. I want them to see it in their head. It’s theatre of the mind.
I do my best to look at people when I’m telling. The least satisfying environment for me to tell is when the stage lights are in my face and the house is dark and I can’t see anyone’s eyes. But even in those situations I’m telling to someone specific in the audience. I’ve picked a place out there and I’m telling to the person I envision sitting there.
My energy, my intensity and my passion are the manifestation of my desire to share my story.
At Storytellers Channel we say we help people tell the stories that matter to them to the people that matter to them. That said, I don’t tell stories unless they matter to me and if you’re listening to me, then you matter to me and so I throw my whole self into the telling. My daddy used to say, “Come or stay at home.” By that he meant don’t do things half-way. So, my primary technique for keeping my audience engaged with me is I’m engaged with them.
I’m not above speaking directly to someone in the audience whose attention has strayed. That said, don’t set yourself or your audience up for failure. Know your audience. Short is better than long. Tell where there are few distractions. Vary your speed and volume as appropriate. Remember your story is a gift you share with your audience, don’t make it a punishment.
What do you do to prepare yourself for telling stories?
I read. I listen. I make outlines in the form of notes. I talk out loud, so much so that I’m sure many people who see me walking around the neighborhood or see me when I’m driving think I’m crazy.
The most important thing I do is practice out loud. Particularly transitions, as they seldom sound as good when you’re talking out loud as they do when you’re running through them in your head.
Most recently, I’ve been recording myself on my phone and then listening to myself with pen and paper in hand. I’m able hear glitches in the structure of my story and occasionally, I’ll even make interpretational discoveries.
Do you use props or costumes while telling your stories; if so what do you use?
What is the most memorable experience you had in telling stories?
I’ve been performing on stage for over 60 years and I have many fond memories, but my most memorable experiences have been as an audience member. Whether sitting in an audience or across the table I continue to have my heart broken open and my spirit enflamed by the commonality of our human experience. By our immense capacity to weather and endure hardship and loss, as well as, our ability to respond with love.
I won’t dodge the question. My most memorable performance is always my last one. For I am constantly reviewing my work in terms of did I give them enough? Could I have done better? What did I learn?
And my favorite performance is always my next one, because next time there’s always the hope that I will nail it. That the magic between me, the story and my audience will be perfectly performed and we will be transported for the moment outside of ourselves to a place where we will be blissfully happy, transcending all our earthly woes.
What are your strengths and weaknesses in storytelling?
My passion is my two-edged sword. My desire to share the story fuels my connection with my audience and then I get excited and speak to quickly and even though I enunciate well, I can lose the connection.
When did you join VASA? And why?
I think it was 4 years ago. Whenever the Annual Virginia Storytelling Gathering was last held in Lynchburg. I attended because I wanted to know more about storytelling in Virginia. Anthony Burcher conducted the workshop and at lunch Sheila Arnold Jones and Linda Goodman invited me to sit with them. The quality of the workshop and the gracious, welcoming hospitality I experienced confirmed I was in the right place.
How has VASA served you? And how have you served VASA?
First and foremost, the camaraderie of the members has been a treat for me. I like listening to stories and our members need little prompting to tell. Second, their knowledge of story, and storytelling. I learn something about the craft every time I’m with our members at VASA events or workshops I’ve been made aware of because I’m a member and reading their comments on our Facebook groups. Third, I’ve learned a lot about the business of storytelling from my fellow members.
The second Annual Virginia Storytelling Gathering I attended was our first year meeting alongside Culpeper Tells. I attended the annual meeting of the Board of Directors. I asked a question and was promptly nominated to join the Board. I was flattered and happy to have the opportunity to give back to the community. The Board elected me Secretary and I kept the minutes for two years before being elected President.
While I have served on the Board, I have travelled to Salem Tell-a-bration, Sounds of the Mountains, Culpeper Tells, “Mountain Mack” Virginia Liars Contest, and Chincoteague to support VASA and promote those events. I was VASA’s liaison to Culpeper Friends of the Library planning the 2016 Annual Storytelling Gathering. Along with Norris Spencer, and Paul White I worked to plan and produce the 2017 Annual Storytelling Gathering. I have worked with Jim Lavender to recruit VASA members to tell at the 2017 Field Days of the Past in Rockville, VA.
I also founded the Hearts Afire Storytelling Festival (Richmond) in 2017, which I could not have done without the relationship I developed with Sheila Arnold Jones while working on the Board.
What advice would you give newer storytellers?
1 – Join VASA – your fellow members are caring, compassionate and competent. They are a resource in so many ways.
2 – Find a local Guild and if one doesn’t exist near you, reach out to me and I will help you find storytellers you can work with you to improve your skills.
3 – Listen to people. Listen to storytellers. Listen to how they tell their stories. Pay attention to what keeps your attention.
4 – Pick a story that matters to you and tell it to someone today. You may be horrible the first time you tell it, but if the story matters to you you’ll work on it and when you tell it tomorrow to someone else, you’ll tell it better. Repeat this process until you think you’re telling it well. Then find an open mic and tell it to people you don’t know. Take what you learn from that experience and when you tell it the next day, you’ll tell it better still. Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly at the beginning.
5 – Rinse and Repeat
Gayle Turner is a founder of StorytellersChannel.com and producer of the Hearts Afire Storytelling Festival. A proud member of the National Storytelling Network he serves as a Lead Tent Host at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. In addition to serving on VASA’s Board of Directors, he serves as a Co-Challenge Leader on the Board of Destination Imagination for Central Virginia.
Gayle is a guest lecturer on creativity, marketing and leadership at Longwood University, and Virginia Commonwealth University Business Schools, as well as, for RVA Works’ Entrepreneur Institute and Enterprise Virginia.
Gayle is a longtime member of the Church of the Holy Comforter (Episcopal), an advisor to the Arts and Spirituality Center at Emmanuel Church at Brookhill (Episcopal) and served this last summer at Shrine Mont at Mount Jackson, VA as Director of the Music and Drama Camp for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.