Telling stories has been a part of human communities since time immemorial. Today, intentional groups are forming to preserve and enhance the art in St. Louis.
Campfire and Gateway Storytellers, featured on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, are two such groups working to help people tell their personal narratives, but they are not alone in this endeavor. Second Tuesdays, Riverwinds Storytellers, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival and myriad other smaller groups meet frequently to trade tales. Podcasts like The Moth and Mortified also signal the reemergence of this trend.
“Our brain is kind of hardwired for storytelling,” said Michael Bennet, the vice president of Gateway Storytellers. “That was the way information was passed down from older generations to younger generations. Whether it was a story about a hunt or a story about a girl someone once found, sitting there around the campfire when the winter was cold and food was scarce, there wasn’t much else to do but pass stories down.”
That image of storytelling around a campfire is actually what inspired the name of Steven Harowitz’s organization, Campfire STL.
Both Campfire and Gateway Storytellers use different approaches to help people take the idea of a personal story and hone it into something they feel comfortable telling a group of people, be it large or small.
“The general public is going toward stories in 140 characters, but there is a smaller group of people interested in developing something over 10 or 20 minutes,” said Bennet.
While public speaking trainings and forums, like Toastmasters, have been around for many years, storytelling groups take the approach of honing personal narratives rather than institutional stories.
"The stories we have inside us call to us and beg to be told," Bennet said.
Both Harowitz and Bennet said that the number of people interested in such circles is increasing.
Founded in 1980, Gateway Storytellers meets every two months and groups of 60-70 people show up each time to share tales. There’s also a smaller outgrowth of this group, called Story Swap, which takes place the second Monday of every month at the St. Charles Country Library and groups of five to six people workshop their personal stories to perform them in front of a larger group.
In the past, the group has included a childhood Holocaust survivor and people who lived through the Soviet retreat through Eastern Europe during World War II. But Bennet says any kind of story is welcome, but the group tries to stick with 10-20 minute stories.
All that’s needed?
“A desire to touch other people, I believe,” Bennet said. “Sometimes it is not so much the storyteller, but the story. You can have terrible public speakers, but they can struggle to get their story out and it touches the heart. We can work on techniques and principles, but I think anyone can and should tell a story who wants to.”
Campfire uses a different approach: immersive storytelling, which blends coaching, facilitation and a live event.
“We find people who are in the middle third: not afraid of public speaking, but also not hungry for the spotlight,” Harowitz said.
People nominate storytellers (no self-nominations) and the Campfire team interviews them and then coaches speakers to help tell their life stories, using whatever themes and narrative approaches they would like. After working on the story, Campfire then hosts a live event of about 100-120 people at KDHX where the storyteller shares his or her story and the audience has a chance to discuss and chime in with their reactions.
“Storytellers come from all different places and areas,” Harowitz said. “That’s the glory of storytelling: if you prep folks the right way and give them the right space, how open and honest and willing to listen they are is infinitely bigger than just the noise you might hear in a day.”
Want to get involved?
Anyone can join Gateway Storytellers and share a story. The group meets in the Delcrest Retirement Home’s community room at 8350 Delcrest, St Louis, MO, 63124. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, January 24.
While you must be nominated to tell a Campfire story, Harowitz said that the best way to get involved is to attend an event, volunteer and eventually become a host. You can sign up for the group’s newsletter to stay update on when the next Campfire event will be. More information here.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.