The Gift of Advice – interview with Leanne Johnson (13 April 2007)

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Introduction

After one of my stories was published, Leanne wrote to me. I then hopped over to her site and I was impressed with her career as a storyteller and I requested an interview. She agreed and so, without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you Leanne Johnson …


Aneeta: Leanne, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Leanne: Oh, thank you for inviting me, Aneeta!  I’ve been enjoying your newsletter, and am delighted to give something back.

Aneeta: Let’s start with some information about you – where you grew up, what you do for a living and your life in general.

Leanne: Well, I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago.  I recently spent three years living and traveling aboard a boat – but that’s another story.  I’m now back on land in Northern Illinois, where I earn my living as a full-time Professional Storyteller.  As I tell my audiences, “I tell stories for a living.  Is that cool, or what?”

Aneeta: How did you get into storytelling?

Leanne:  It has been a long, unexpected journey.  I graduated from college in 1982 with a degree in Music and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in life.  I worked for a mortgage company, a medical school, a hospital –hated them all.  In 1988, I accepted a job in the Children’s Department of a Public Library. I LOVED it, especially planning and performing the weekly Story Time programs.  One of the parents invited me to come tell stories at her child’s birthday party.  It was a disaster!  Too many wild children, too much sugar, and too little adult supervision.  Afterwards, I actively sought out workshops and master classes with other Storytellers. It has been my good fortune to study with some of the best artists in the world.

Meanwhile, I earned a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Services, was promoted to Assistant Director and kept performing in my free time.  Although I did little marketing, my Storytelling kept growing through referrals.  Eventually something had to give.  I loved working in Libraries, but while my job was financially satisfying, it had become gradually more routine, more technical, and more rigid.  It no longer provided me with the sense of achievement that I received from Storytelling.

About three years ago my husband agreed that it was time to make the leap to Professional Storytelling as a full-time occupation.  (I think he was just tired of listening to me complain about my job.)  I haven’t looked back since.  Just last week I was notified that I have been accepted into the Illinois Arts Council ArtsTour Roster. This will open up more doors in my Storytelling career, plus provide not-for-profit clients with a source of grant funding for my performances.

Aneeta: I understand you run many different programmes. Can you please explain these different programmes?

Leanne: Certainly!  Right now I have about 30 different shows.  Many of them are for general audience venues, such as Libraries, Museums, Parks, and so on, where the ages can range from babies to grandparents.  Those stories are primarily folktales with lots of audience participation worked into them.  The younger the audience, the more we move!

School audiences generally request programs that support the curriculum.  For example, next week I will be presenting an assembly program about the American Civil War to middle-grade students.  That same afternoon I’ll be performing a reading incentive program for younger students. Folktales, historical retellings, original tales, songs, participation – these programs run the gamut to keep the students focused and fascinated.

Some shows are for small, limited audiences.  I do a lot of work with senior women’s group.  They enjoy stories of strong women, or history, or just something to make them laugh.  Church groups ask for stories of Faith and Christian witness.  I do my best to match the program to the group.  And I always come prepared with more material than I need, just in case.

Aneeta: And, I see from your website, http://www.storytelling.org/Leanne/, that you also have themes you follow. How do you pick these themes?

Leanne: Actually, I rarely get to pick a theme for myself anymore!  One of the themes that I have developed because of my own personal interest is “Celtic Heart.”  I am of Irish descent, and find myself drawn to the stories of that heritage.  I have four versions of this particular show.  Plus, I have a small Celtic harp, bodhran, tin whistle, and several other instruments that I incorporate into my programs.

Still, most of my theme shows are created to meet a demand.  To facilitate this, I keep a sharp eye out for educational trends and cultivate a close relationship with my local schools.  I maintain my membership in my state Library association to keep in touch with upcoming events.  Whenever I find a topic that could develop into an interesting program, I start a file.

Aneeta: You also run workshops, I understand. Please describe s typical scene in one of your workshops.

Leanne: “Work” is the optimal word!  My workshops are very hands-on, very active learning experiences.  And I always provide chocolate (smile).  One of my most popular workshops, “Story Play,” places participants into small groups that improvise a story.  At times, the room is sheer chaos!  I strive to create a supportive atmosphere where participants can take chances, experiment, and have fun.  I have seen many of them incorporate the results into their own art.  I love watching people who have taken my “Elegant Emcee” workshop – they look so strong and self-assured on stage, and I am so proud of them.

Aneeta: I understand you have a few published works and a book in progress. Please tell us about these.

Leanne:  I’ve published articles about different aspects of crafting stories in several Storytelling journals, and a few for the boating journals.  (Remember the three-year boat trip I mentioned?)  One of my Storytelling articles, “Getting It On Tape,” has been posted at both the National (http://www.storynet.org) and Northlands (http://www.northlands.net) websites.

For story writing, my picture book manuscript is currently making the rounds of publishers.  It is the first in a series of stories about our boating adventures from our little dog’s point of view.  We traveled 12,000 miles, through 18 states and two Canadian provinces, so each story takes place at a different site.

My other story writing project is an adult memoir of our trip, based on the email journal I wrote while traveling.  I wrote to keep in touch with my parents, but by the time we stopped traveling, it was being sent to several hundred people.  It was amazing hearing from them along the way, “You don’t know me but I’m a friend of a friend of so-and-so and they’ve been forwarding your journal…”  In the memoir I incorporate many of the stories, songs and poetry from my show “Tales from the Dock Side.”

Aneeta: What do people say about your work?

Leanne: I just received an evaluation with a wonderful quote, “Leanne is warm, witty and wise.”  I love it!  Children tell me they love the funny stories and silly stretches, parents tell me they love the bits of education and character building I slip into the stories, seniors say my stories remind them of their own stories.  Adults regularly tell me they didn’t expect to become so involved in the stories.  I love looking into the faces of my audiences, eyes shining, mouths slightly open, all caught up in the magic of Storytelling.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters for storytellers. What advice would you have for them?

Leanne:  A wise woman once told me, “Advice is a gift, which we may use, or not.”  So, for what it’s worth, here is some advice.  Use what works for you:

1.  Seek out other Storytellers.  Listen to their stories.  Ask yourself, what do you like about their work?  What speaks to you?  Why?  What is it about the stories that you love?  Read stories.  Read collections of stories.  Seek out variations of stories.  Challenge yourself: How can you tell those stories in your own, unique voice?

2.  Find a guild, or story circle, or some place where you can try out your work in front of a supportive audience.  I’ve been a member of my own guild since 1990. There are regional and national organizations around the world – join them, support them, and let them know how they can support you.  There is also a wonderful free resource, the Storytell Listserv, for everybody who wants to subscribe to an International discussion.  (http://www.twu.edu/cope/slis/storytell.htm).

3.  I am a great advocate of small group coaching.  Every month I meet with three other Storytellers.  We spend an entire day honestly critiquing our work.  We started back in 1995, and it has become an invaluable process.   Sometimes it is painful – when they say, “Leanne, we don’t get it, it’s just not working.” But then four of us work together to polish the weak spots.  We all benefit, and so do our audiences.

4.  Tell, tell, and tell some more.  Above all, explore, experiment, and enjoy the journey.

Aneeta: Leanne, this is all I have to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Leanne:  Well, I would like to clarify exactly what I mean when I talk about Storytelling.  The word itself has come to be used by so many people in so many ways!  I like the definition recently crafted by Northlands.  “Storytelling is the live art of narrative performance, dynamically shaped by audience response.” This is what I do as a Professional Storyteller.  I have gathered some other definitions of Storytelling and listed them at http://www.myspace.com/leannetells.

There are, or course, many artists incorporating story in other formats into their work, and I think that is tremendous.  Story speaks to us all.

Aneeta: Leanne, thank you.

Leanne: Thank you so much, Aneeta.  I wish you all the best with your newsletter and your stories.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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