Back in 2013, I offered my first-ever sale on storytelling coaching. I wanted to help a greater variety of storytellers to create and make real their own particular storytelling visions.
Her Hands In Her Listeners' Mouths
One of those who accepted this offer was Karen O’Donnell, a dentist from Homewood, Illinois (a town about 30 miles south of Chicago).
In her first coaching call, Karen described where she was in her development as a storyteller. Having studied with people like Tony Robbins, she was comfortable in front of a group.
She had also practiced many stories by telling to people who couldn’t reply or interrupt her: her dental patients whose mouths were filled with Karen’s hands and dental tools.
Karen hoped that storytelling could be a supplemental income to her dental practice, which physically strained her body when she tried to do it more than 3 days a week. She told me, too, that she didn’t want payment to be the reason for her offering stories; rather, it should be the result of it.
Two Important Kinds of Listeners
I told Karen how storytellers need at least two kinds of listeners in order to develop their stories. The first kind are happy just to listen uncritically, often just to help the teller. Karen’s dental patients, then, sounded like an example of a group of delighted listeners. Her stories were certainly more pleasant to listen to than the scraping of her dental picks or the whirring of her drill.
In addition, we need regular chances to tell some of those stories (that we have developed with our “always delighted” first listeners) to more demanding audiences. Performances, of course, typically demand our very best work.
But how do we grow the “seedling” stories we try out on compliant listeners into the strong, mature stories we offer to highly demanding audiences?
A Home-Base Audience For Karen?
Most of us successful storytellers have, somewhere along the line, found a regular audience who expects us to perform for them but also knows us well enough that they are delighted with almost anything we tell them. These are the listeners we need during critical, middle stages of the story-growing process.
I call this a “home base” audience. For me, my first home-base audience consisted of the students in the preschools where I taught for five years.
I asked Karen, “Where could you find some 'home base' listeners for yourself?"
In response, she told me first about performing in other storytelling events in the Chicago area, where she definitely had to be at her best. Then she said,
Those events are all an hour north of Homewood. Most people here don’t want to travel that far. But recently, someone said to me, ‘When are you going to start something like that in Homewood? The pizza places here are dead on Monday and Tuesday nights. You could get a crowd here!’
Karen realized that a local storytelling series might become a “home base” audience for her - as well as a chance to offer the delights of storytelling to her community.
Clean, Connected, and Delightful
In the course of our coaching, Karen's concept for a “Homewood Stories” performance series soon took shape.
From the beginning, she knew this had to be something that her elderly parents could come to, that would fit the nature of the city of Homewood, IL. Her series, therefore, wouldn’t feature profanity or explicit sexual description that was not essential to the point of the story.
She knew, too, that she didn’t want it to be a contest or a "story slam.” Instead, she wanted the focus to be on receiving the gifts of the stories. And she wanted to choose tellers who would connect with her audience.
As Karen grew closer to beginning her series, she had no plan for how this would bring her money or fame. She just felt a desire to give this gift to her community. To make sure that people came, she didn’t demand an admission fee, but put a hat near the door as people left, for any voluntary donations to defray the cost of printing fliers, etc.
Karen found a local restaurant that bought into her vision of "a monthly gift to the community" and agreed to suspend table service during the performance. The restaurant offered a room that could hold 60 people. Karen didn’t have money to pay the storytellers (although the restaurant chipped in free flatbreads for the tellers). She certainly wouldn't get paid herself, except for offering occasional workshops for aspiring storytellers.
The First Show
Karen had no idea whether anyone would come to this new kind of event for them. But she scheduled her first show for the third Tuesday of January, 2014 and spread the word with personal invitations.
That Tuesday night, during the kind of “polar vortex” that only hardy Chicagoans take in stride and with hip-high snow on the ground, 45 hardy souls showed up - only five of whom had ever before attended a storytelling performance.
Better still, after the show the audience demanded to know when the next show would be. Karen hadn’t planned a second program, but she announced the date and got busy the next day lining up more storytellers.
By her third show, all but three seats were full. After that, the room was full every month. In her second year, she began taking reservations and maintaining a waiting list.
Three Years Later
Suddenly, it seemed, three years had passed. Karen planned a special “third anniversary show,” but the restaurant was closed for renovations that month. Besides, Karen figured that she needed a venue that would hold more than the 60 people she could fit into the restaurant.
So Karen arranged with a Homewood country club (once private, but newly opened to the public) to house her celebration show - in a room that held 95 people. Sure enough, she had to turn people away again.
As always, Karen was covering the show expenses from her own pocket, such as the fee she paid to a musician who played while the audience was gathering and eating. She felt terrible that she couldn’t pay the storytellers, but the series was already costing as much as she could afford to give, especially considering the time and effort it took from her “day job” as a solo dentist.
Dare She Charge Money?
By chance, I had planned a trip to the Chicago area the month after her third anniversary show, so I reached out to Karen and others asking if I could perform a half-hour story I was preparing to tell back in Boston, “My Mother and the Menorah.”
Karen responded with delight. She agreed to let my story become the second half of her next show, and used the opportunity to make two big decisions about Homewood Stories: first, she would move the series permanently to the country club; second, she would charge $15 per ticket.
Before deciding on a fee, she called up a number of regular attendees and asked what they thought about paying for admission. Several said, “Yes, I would love to pay to support this wonderful series!”
And when Karen asked those regulars whether they thought the fee should be $5, $10 or $15, they responded: “It’s definitely worth $15 - if not more!”
Along the way, Karen had created a community of helpers who moved chairs, checked reservations, and helped however they could. Some of those helpers even refused to accept their free tickets, saying, “We want to support this show in every possible way!"
In the end, there were no empty seats in this first admission-fee-required show. So I had the privilege, not only of performing my “Menorah” story for one of the most appreciative audiences ever - and not only of hearing Karen and two others tell true, personal stories from their hearts - but also of speaking to a sold-out house.
Suddenly, Karen was in a position to pay a modest fee to the tellers as well as to the musician, and to keep some money for her effort and time.
There is much more to say about how Karen primed and grew her audience into one of the most appreciative I have ever performed for.
Let’s end, though, by noticing that Karen created a series that fulfilled her original goals - and went beyond them to create events that were perceived as gifts by the organizers, the staff of the venues, the tellers, and, always, the listeners from her community.