Storytelling: Community through… Competition?

by Katie Knutson

Chances are that your path to storytelling and mine are quite different. Maybe you were a part of the storytelling revival of the 1970’s; maybe you discovered storytelling within another career path; or, maybe you started as a story listener. I am guessing that few of you had your first introduction to storytelling via competitions.

High school Forensics (or Speech) was for people like me – those who were interested in the performing arts and had a fiercely competitive nature. The Storytelling category meant I would have to learn not one, but five different pieces, each fitting a different theme, and be prepared to share any one of them at the judge’s discretion.

At my first meet, I sat in the room silently, rehearsing my stories in my head and ignoring the other participants. Then someone said, “Hi! What’s your name? Where are you from?” The energy in the room shifted as we all introduced ourselves. Suddenly, I did not have to be afraid; we were all in this together.

The sense of community that we developed persisted in the storytelling category. In other categories, participants sat silently, and would even try to distract their competitors. However, the storytellers talked, complimented each other on stories, shared ideas, laughed, and celebrated the successes of our competitors. After all, the better our competition was, the better we had to be.

Was there something special about storytelling that created community among competitors? Was it the act of sharing stories or the people who created the sense of belonging?

I found the same warm, welcoming storytelling community in NSN, Northlands, and Northstar Storytelling League (our organization in Minnesota). At my first national and regional conferences, experienced storytellers like Kevin Cordi, Mike Mann, and Michael D. McCarty helped me get started with free advice on everything from marketing and working with schools to finding other resources and connecting with local storytellers. Seven years later, I could easily add dozens more names to the list of generous storytellers who have offered their support, encouragement, and guidance along the way.

Professional storytellers compete through auditions, workshop proposals, and grant applications. We vie for the same teaching and performing slots at schools, libraries, festivals, and conferences. Despite this competition, the community persists. We come together to share our stories, best practices, and skills. We welcome newcomers and encourage others to join us – not because there is so much work that we cannot do it all, but because we have a passion. We get to use our gifts to make a difference, and have a wonderful time doing it.

Why do you think storytelling creates community among competitors? Is it the acts of sharing and refining stories or studying our craft? Is it a rejection of scarcity of work and a commitment to abundance for all? Do storytellers spend so much time working alone that we long for a community? Or, are out-going, generous, and social people naturally drawn to storytelling? What do you think? My goal is not to answer these questions, but inspire conversation.

This is the kind of thing you can expect each issue. This column will consist of questions, stories, interviews, opinion pieces, question/answer sections, or whatever else I feel like writing. The same piece will be posted on the NSN blog, and you will be encouraged to respond. The focus of this section will be on ‘New Voices’ – the 18-35-year-old age bracket. Most younger storytellers want to know the same things you do – how to navigate copyright issues, publish their work, expand their skills, apply their craft to other professions, market themselves effectively, get paid a reasonable wage, and much more. For the most part, I will not be addressing those things – that is what conferences, workshops, guilds, and this magazine do quite effectively.

My goal is to give a voice to the next generation of tellers, create an intergenerational dialogue, pose questions, and challenge beliefs and assumptions. I want to get you thinking, to get you talking, to get you involved in your storytelling community. Along the way, I may provoke you. Who knows, I may even offend you. I hope to be so lucky.

About Katie

Katie Knutson has spent more of her life as a storyteller than not. She holds a degree in Theatre and spends her days working in schools using theater and storytelling to teach literacy, playwriting, acting, improvisation, and teamwork. She leads a variety of workshops for adults, including voice and movement, and has served extended terms on the boards of Northstar Storytelling League and Northlands Storytelling Network.

Contact Katie




3 thoughts on “Storytelling: Community through… Competition?”

  1. I compliment Katie for beginning a conversation about a topic that some try to avoid or worse yet, ignore, competition. We need to acknowledge that it is present in what we do and youth respond to it. However, the community that Katie speaks of happens when we realize that the competition is a small part of who we are as a collective group of storytellers. Sometimes we try out for the same gig but more often than not, if we raise a collective consciousness about the art of storytelling, more and more people will respond to this and from this more and more room will be set for storytellers to be engaged in the work. In regards to youth, they need an incentive to know about an unknown practice or art, but once they are here, they realize it is much more. Instead of looking at the awards or prizes that are handed out to finalists, we should look at what is really going on: kids are being heard and appreciated by adults. They are more than a headline in the news. They have real voices and sometimes, along with the adults, they compete to be heard. However, if we listen to all the tellers, we can make room for everyone who has something to say.

  2. Congratulations, Katie, on being brave enough to bring up the competitive side of storytelling. This is not a bad thing; it’s what happens when folks vie for the same jobs. I think it also challenges each of us to bring our A-game to any and every performance, a good thing for our listeners, and for our art. As for the new venues and “new voices” in our field, we should appreciate them, and acknowledge the need for keeping traditions alive and thriving, and respecting change and growth in any art form. Respect, and growth–if there isn’t a place for every voice right now, we should be communicating about how to create those places, both within our storytelling community, and throughout the world of potential story-sharing audiences. Katie, you’ve given us food for thought, and the foundation for some great conversations!

  3. Pingback: Storytelling: Community through . . . Competition? by Katie Knutson « gracewolbrink

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