StorySwap members meet to, well, swap their stories in McCandless
The art of storytelling is as old as the languages of mankind, but even today, people take pleasure in settling into a tale well told.
That's what StorySwap, which meets at the Northland Public Library in McCandless, is all about. The first Monday of most months, members of the Pittsburgh storytelling guild exchange stories. While the tales can be fact, fiction or folklore, the tellers hope their words will be entertaining.
StorySwap was founded in 1989, said Mary Morgan Smith, the library's children's/young adult services manager, who invited the group to meet at Northland.
“The library has been known locally as a center for storytelling almost from its inception as a library in 1968,” she said. “And from 2001 to 2012, we presented the nationally respected Three Rivers Storytelling Festival.”
Morgan Smith, 62, of Kennedy Township, can count 35 years as a storyteller, but she still enjoys attending StorySwap meetings. While she prefers storytelling in front of large audiences, the StorySwap group offers a more intimate setting for beginners to test their skills and learn from more-experienced tellers who attend.
Joan Schenker of McCandless is one of the storytelling veterans. She visits the group as often as her work schedule permits. Having seen the power stories have to bring people together, she has been a storyteller for more than 25 years. When she taught at The American School in Egypt, her classes were like the United Nations, she said, with consulate and embassy children of many nationalities — and only one American.
To connect this seemingly disparate group, she asked the students to tell stories from their countries.
“They bonded and understood each other through the telling of folktales,” Schenker, 60, said.
Later, while reading to her two young children, she discovered she had a knack for storytelling.
“I've gone through hundreds of picture books,” she said, “and hundreds of collections of stories” to find the right story to tell.
Her search ends, she said, “when I find a story I truly love and connect with, one that touches my heart. Then, it's an absolute joy to tell it.”
But finding a story is just the first step. The next is to tighten the tale to hold the audience's attention. Then, it's time to practice at venues for storytellers.
“Critique is wonderful,” she said, “but we encourage each other. You feel safe and give it a try.”
Storytelling isn't something you learn from reading a book, she cautioned.
“You jump into the water and start to swim.”
Today, she directs her own company, Savvy Cinderellas, a group that teaches self-esteem and confidence to teenage girls through storytelling.
Stas' Ziolkowski of Murrysville has been a storyteller for more than 20 years. He remembers making up his first story sometime during his 40 years of teaching.
“My first original story was about a dragon who has a pretty bad voice but who loves to sing,” he said. “It was written so I could explain the concept of heat conduction to young students.”
After he saw professional storyteller Jon Spelman on television, Ziolkowski, 71, was hooked on the craft.
“I enjoy entertaining people of all ages,” he said. “As I am telling a story, the looks I see on the faces and the sounds I hear from the audience, laughter or groans or whatever, let me know they are being entertained or taught.”
He draws on experience, classic literature, other storytellers and his imagination for his tales. For him, the most important skill of a good storyteller is to believe the story.
“Believe what you are saying as if you are describing events that are taking place right before your eyes,” he said.
While being a member of StoryWorks, the Murrysville guild, and the National Storytelling Network, Ziolkowski makes the long drive to McCandless each month.
“It's a safe environment and an honest one,” he said, “safe because we are all in the same boat and honest because we genuinely want to help each other to be the best we can be at our craft.”
Dave Brauer of Pine Township is a storyteller at heart.
“I've always told stories,” he said. “I showed people how to talk about insurance by taking it out of context. You give them a story to remember.”
The 62-year-old has been attending the StorySwap meetings for the last five months.
“My ideas just appear, usually based on some inspiration. They just arrive unexpected,” he said.
His first stories, a blend of fact and fiction, were about his childhood. At March's StorySwap meeting, his tale about the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was partially factual. He learned about the site on a trip to India, but his sad tale of Elizabeth Darling and her jealous husband was pure fiction.
“I would like to expand my storytelling to a more professional level,” Brauer said. “I would most likely remain with the same type of stories, but I have learned that I have little control of where my imagination takes me.”
Joanna Demarest of Murrysville discovered professional storytelling through Margaret Read MacDonald, but it wasn't until her 4-year-old daughter wanted a story that was new that Demarest launched into her own story about four ladybugs.
“Since then, those ladybugs have gone on hundreds of adventures,” she said.
Demarest's adventures in storytelling also have continued to grow. Today, she presents workshops on the topic and programs in schools and libraries.
She finds her stories by reviewing traditional tales from cultures around the world. Even with a busy schedule, she makes time for StorySwap.
“A guild like StorySwap gives us a chance to have other tellers hear our work and give a constructive critique,” Demarest said. “It gives us a chance to network and support each other.”
Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.