What do you do for a living?
I’m a professional storyteller.
How would you describe what you do?
I get paid to embarrass my family on stage. (Just kidding) I produce and perform personal stories on stage, on television, and write books. People say that I’m a white Bill Cosby.
What does your work entail?
20% producing and performing my own storytelling shows.
20% writing new material and rehearsing.
20% marketing, promotion, networking and business activities.
20% speaking and keynotes.
10% performing on stage on the National Storytelling Festival Circuit.
5% teaching and residency work in schools.
5% freaking out and wondering what I’m doing with my life while simultaneously getting a vision for my next big project.
What’s a typical work week like?
The only consistent thing in my schedule is a lot of inconsistency.
Each morning I spend 2-4 hours completing social media business tasks that include promotion and connecting with fans on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, sending and answering emails and blogging.
Monday: Writing at a cafe, business meetings in the afternoon.
Tuesday: Writing at a cafe, rehearsal, business phone calls.
Wednesday: Writing at a cafe, attending other performances.
Thursday: Travel to storytelling festival.
Friday: Writing during the day, performing at night.
Saturday: Writing during the day, performing at night.
Sunday: Travel Back home
How did you get started?
I began as a musician (a pianist and keyboardist) in middle school. First in rock bands, then in alternative bands and finally in jazz bands. In all the bands, I was always the one nominated to introduce the songs. What started with introductions that included unusual facts turned into long fictitious stories and me wearing costumes. Finally, in college my bandmates were like “You need to get your own show dude.”
What do you like about what you do?
I’m an extroverted introvert on the Myers Briggs Personality test and so my job is perfectly suited for me. Some days I’m performing in front of 3,000 people and other days I’m alone all day writing new material.
What do you dislike?
Since my art form utilizes personal stories it can sometimes be confusing – there isn’t always a clear separation between my private life and my public life – the lines of when I need to be Slash the artist and Slash the regular guy tend to blur. As a result, finding downtime can be a challenge. Venue owners, clients and those whom I collaborate with often become my friends. For instance, going to see other performances is fun, but I’m usually doing it for research.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Storytelling festivals generally pay me after I complete my work and with self produced shows I get paid right away. I usually get 1-2 grants each year from the National Endowment of the Arts which comes in one lump sum. Contracts for my television shows and books deals work in a similar way.
How much money do Storytellers make?
Performance storytelling is still considered a folk art and doesn’t have an industry to support it. The National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t even recognize the ancient art as a legitimate career choice. The majority of storytellers are either connected to guilds and libraries or connected to open mics and story slams – both of these groups typically perform for free. With that being said, the average yearly income range for performance storytellers can be anywhere from a $25 gift card to Applebees to $50,000 with an elite group (those who sell merchandise, books, and television content) in a higher $100,000/year bracket.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
You know that saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow?” Well, in 2001, I would go into high school English classes and give 45 minute talks about my work and perform excerpts from my material. For two years, I did it for free. Three years later, I was getting $240 an hour to do the same thing.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Many of the best storytellers have a background in a field that involves public speaking. These include: ministers, radio hosts, performing artists, etc. A background in a field that involves public speaking definitely helps and though a formal education isn’t necessary, as with anything, experience is the best education. Many of the best modern storytellers have an ability to create a sense of intimacy on the stage between their listeners and themselves, something that can only be learned through experience.
What is most challenging about what you do?
It takes some time to shape a story into it’s final form, to a point where it’s performance ready. Some stories take months and others take years. At some point it’s always time to create new work, to stare at a bank page and that can be really intimidating.
What is most rewarding?
Typically, when I step off stage audience members will come up to me and tell me their own stories. This is the type of connection I crave because I tend to spend so much time creating these stories in isolation. The connection with the audience is the payoff.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
There is a cultural trend right now to embrace personal stories – which is great. To me, it shows a significant change in our cultural make-up, mainly that we are examining a long-forbidden territory within ourselves – the secret place where personal narrative leads us to self-growth and self-discovery. Also, don’t let those who tell personal stories fool you. Storytelling is an art form and those who make it look easy on stage have come to that place through experience. It’s more that standing in front of a microphone and having a therapy session on stage.
How much time off do you get/take?
When people ask my sisters what I do, they often tell them I’m unemployed because I don’t have a 9-5 work week – my work looks like how most of the world plays. To my sisters it seems like I’m always traveling somewhere or hanging out in a cafe writing – doing what I want to do. And to a certain extent it’s true. I’m one of those rare people who gets paid to do what I love. Sometimes, walking onto the stage and telling a story about my obsession with Evel Knievel or my crush on my third grade teacher feels like work, but other times it’s like the best vacation in the world. And so, I get to take off as much time as I need and as little time as I want.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Storytelling comes with a huge stigma. People think you’re either a be-spectacled librarian in an over-sized sweater reading to a bunch of kids under a librarian ceiling covered with asbestos-tiles or a large African man dressed in a brightly colored robe beating on a drum and telling a story about a conch shell. I have to break that stigma every time I walk onto the stage and sometimes it makes me feel like I’m on a treadmill.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I have 2 main goals. First, I just got approval for my next PBS Special which is about the re-birth of storytelling in the United States. We’re currently seeking funding for the the Special and plan to see the project completed next spring. Second, I’ve always maintained a vision that storytelling can work just as effectively in large venues (like rock stadiums) as it can on a hay bale. My dream is to see my own storytelling work as an HBO Special and then in a large stadium opening up for someone like Kenny Chesney.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Traditional storytellers create work by using methods rooted in the oral tradition, this is what makes it different from stand-up comedy, improv, actors who memorize scripts, and singer/songwriters who tell stories between songs. This means the stories are not written. Creating stories using this ancient methodology is what often creates that magical connection between the teller and the listener.
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