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National Storytelling Network Moves To Town, Adds Characters To Kansas City's Scene

There’s a storytelling renaissance going on, and Kansas City’s about to be at the heart of it.

To understand what's happening, the first thing you need to know is this: There is such a thing as an official storyteller. We’re not talking about your average barstool raconteur. We’re talking about people who hone a craft. Who practice an art. Who carefully structure their yarns with slow reveals and escalating tension, all in an effort to convey deep meaning. For many of these people, it's a career.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah. I made my living as a storyteller until just recently," says Yvonne Healy, chair of the board of the National Storytelling Network.

"There are plenty of people who make their living as a storyteller," Healy says. "It’s not easy but any living as an artist is not easy."

Joyce Slater is one of Kansas City's professional storytellers.

Healy told stories at schools, libraries, church events, keynotes at conferences, workshops. Storytelling’s an important tool for improving literacy. And it’s hot with businesses. Healy has a storytelling friend who’s an engineer, and he teaches safety courses on nuclear submarines.

"He calls his workshop 'engineering disasters' and tells a story about how, when you're under the water, you want to remember how Lefty got his name: by using his left hand to turn (the wrong) knob, which blew."

Healy’s organization, the National Storytelling Network, is moving its headquarters from Jonesborough, Tenn., to Kansas City. The National Storytelling Network has a small staff, so it’s not necessarily bringing a lot of jobs to Kansas City. But it's set to host a national conference estimated to draw 500 storytellers to town for three days of shows, workshops and slams later this summer.

And the fact that the group is coming here is another sign that Kansas City’s cultural clout is rising nationally.

"Kansas City has such a vibrant arts scene and it's full of a lot of people figuring out different ways to do things, and that’s the kind of innovation that we felt we wanted to move into," Healy says.

That’s saying a lot, because the two other towns Kansas City was competing with for the headquarters were Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The Woodneath Press, also known as the Espresso Book Machine, prints, binds, and trims a paperback book in minutes.

One thing that made Kansas City attractive to Healy’s group is the Story Center at the Mid-Continent Public Library’s Woodneath branch, near Liberty. Librarians there have been focusing their efforts on all sorts of storytelling programs. The Woodneath Press is a cool machine that lets people print out their own books. The library’s been positioning itself to be a national resource for the art of the story.

"When we talk about storytelling, we’re not just talking about writing a book," says Diana Reiter, Mid-Continent's development director. "We're also talking about oral storytelling, we’re talking about digital storytelling."

Open for less than two years, the Woodneath branch is a state-of-the-art library. But it’s attached to the old Woodneath house, a two-story brick farm home built in the 1850s. It’s empty now, with chipped paint and peeling wallpaper. But in a couple of years, Reiter says, people who want to work all night on a book during National Novel Writing month might be able to hang out around the fireplace. The offices for the National Storytelling Network will be upstairs.

"We'll have a room where we design an oral storytelling recording booth. People can actually digitally record their story or family history, whatever they’d like to record, and then we archive them."

To test demand for all of this storytelling business, they partnered with the Writer’s Place in Midtown to put on a memoir writing workshop. They had room for around 30 people, but 50 showed up – from as far away as Springfield, Columbia and Lawrence.

"What that told us was demand was there for this kind of thing," Reiter says, "particularly after we started getting into it and had more programs. Same result: people traveling from longer distances than we expected, and always at capacity for the programs."

Kansas City’s storytellers are getting serious. The National Storytelling Network plants its flag in the city’s cultural landscape this weekend.

You think you know how to tell a story? Go test yourself. They'll have workshops and a slam where anyone with a five-minute story can get sign up and let the audience decide.

The HeART of the Story, March 6-7 at the Woodneath Story Center, 8900 NE Flintlock Rd., Kansas City, Mo., 64157, 816-883-4900

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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