Storytelling is a powerful connector. It connects people, ideas and cultures and can link the past and present. The West Virginia Storytelling Guild helps connect the Mountain State to this important tradition.
“Stories remind us of our shared humanity,” said Susanna Holstein, an original and current board member of the West Virginia Storytellers Guild. “It’s a bonding experience. When I tell stories, strangers start sharing and talk to me like they know me. And that’s because they do.”
Holstein said different stories are appealing for different reasons, and part of the art of storytelling is finding what the audience is looking for. She said the guild, with about 50 to 60 members statewide, is a good way to bounce ideas off of others and develop stories in a way that captivates audiences.
“Some stories are funny, and everyone likes to laugh,” she said. “Ghost stories are haunting and eerie and make you wonder. Folk tales talk about overcoming adversity. Everyone can relate to loneliness and feeling like the outsider, and most people understand that love conquers all.”
A founding member of the guild, Karen Varaunch, said practicing and refining storytelling techniques is another important function of the guild.
“You have to invest yourself into a story,” she said. “You work a lot on honing it. It becomes a part of you in a way. But I could sit in a room for three years practicing violin, and I’d be a musician. If I sit in a room talking to myself, I’m not a storyteller, because I didn’t have an audience. Storytelling is an experience that transcends reading or watching a film.”
A performer with an acting background, Varaunch said the audience is key. But she has had unexpected consequences of the power of her stories. During her portrayal of losing a husband to coal mining, a woman left the room crying because she’d recently lost her father in the mines and was touched by the message. Ten years later, the woman approached Varaunch to tell her she loved the piece.
“The thing about a live performance is that you never know,” Varaunch said. “You can lose them in a second, or they can come in not expecting to like it and they do. It can all change, and I’ve had it all happen. If I can have people listening silently and intently, I love it.”
The guild usually has about 5 to 6 performances per year, including a tent at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston and appearances at the state book festival. They also have an annual gathering for members, which includes workshops and a storytelling concert showcasing various techniques and styles.
“Since the first person drew a picture on a wall, we’ve been telling stories,” Varaunch said. “A modern storyteller is anyone who uses any technique they have. Steven Spielberg is a storyteller.”
And it’s not just for kids, she stressed. Stories are used to pass on culture and communicate emotions.
“It’s important to keep in touch with where we came from and who we are,” Holstein said. “We may be different and come from different social backgrounds,” but stories remind us of our common ground.
The West Virginia Storytelling Guild website includes bios of the members, detailing their storytelling styles and specialties. Anyone wanting to join the WV Storytellers Guild should e-mail Varaunch. The annual dues are $15.
What’s your favorite personal story to tell? And when you tell it, what do you do to draw in your audience?