Murrysville woman shares her many tales as a professional storyteller

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 10:36 p.m.

Standing in the library of David Leech Elementary School in Leechburg, Joanna Demarest surveyed her audience.

Children ranging from sixth-graders to their toddler siblings sat cross-legged or bounced on their knees on the floor.

“This is a rowdy crowd. We are going to be very interactive,” Demarest said.

A professional storyteller for six years, Demarest specializes in American, historical, traditional and Southern tales, along with her own Ladybug Stories, which she devised to entertain her daughter.

Demarest, 56, of Murrysville performs at schools,community libraries and national conferences.

She uses her talents each summer at Depreciation Lands Museum, a living history site in Bethel Park, as a costumed interpreter, depicting characters from different wars.

A member of the National Storytelling Network, Demarest produces the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival and is on the board of StorySwap, the Pittsburgh Storytelling Guild.

Before the written word, travelers, minstrels and bards used word of mouth to relay history, traditions and morals, she notes on her website.

“There are storytellers everywhere. It's a big industry in southwestern Pennsylvania. We are continuing that oral tradition of passing on stories from person to person. It's how we still retain our history. It's how we educate our children,” Demarest said.

“We don't memorize, other than the ‘bones' of a story, the basic plot. Then we paint the landscaping of the story. We are watching to see when the audience laughs or cries. We take them with us, and every single time, that story is just a little bit different,” she said.

For her performance during the Armstrong County school's observation of “Read Across America,” she told the tale of the “Snow Queen With a Cold, Cold Heart” by Naomi Baltuck.

The children listened intently and enthusiastically followed Demarest's cues to shiver, cough and slap their thighs to mimic a horse's gallop.

Her second selection was the Brothers Grimm's “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

As 12 little girls danced and one boy giggled beneath his “invisibility cape,” Demarest told the tale of a king who could not determine how his daughters “danced their shoes to pieces.”

A skirted table and lamp lent an aura of a bedtime story to the room. Her props included glittery silver, gold and “diamond” twigs that the prince collected while sussing out where the princesses danced each night.

School librarian Nicole Bauer deemed Demarest's performance “very organized and professional.”

“The best part was that she was interactive with the students,” Bauer said.

Demarest has a degree in international marketing, communications and public relations.

Her daughter Rebecca, 27, of Boston is a recently published author, and son Alex, 22, is a college student in New York.

“When my daughter was young, we had read every book in her room and had borrowed all of the books that we could from the library. One night she said, ‘Mommy, just tell me a story,' ” Demarest said.

So Demarest created four ladybugs who went on all sorts of adventures.

As a volunteer, she visited her children's schools, camps and libraries, creating stories on the spot. As her interest in storytelling grew, she held workshops with children, who then wrote their own stories.

Demarest considers Judy Seeley, founder of StoryWorks, a Murrysville guild, a mentor.

Seeley, who lives in South Carolina, said professional storytellers must do the work of finding, researching and building a repertoire of tales to tell.

Demarest “was obviously talented. She already had a lot of the stage presence. She was willing to listen to suggestions and observe and learn from others,” Seeley said.

“I could see her absorbing the techniques. She would come prepared with a story to tell. The clincher for me, in trying to mentor and encourage her, was that she had the organization and business skills to promote and make things happen for herself. She would be one of the first to respond to opportunities to perform. It's been a delight for me to see Joanna take off,” Seeley said.

After relocating numerous times because of her husband, Jonathan's, work as a health care executive, Demarest intends for the two to pack up their RV and reverse roles when he retires.

“He's going to be my roadie, and we will travel from (storytelling) gig to gig,” she said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or

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