In a world dominated by fast-paced meetings and gatherings, Speak Story Series is a welcomed opportunity to sit back, slow down and take in the all-but-lost art form of oral storytelling.
The monthly series, now in its ninth year, is based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and has not only become a small mecca within the storytelling world, but by bringing in tellers from around the country — and, more recently, the world — it’s become a catalyst for connecting people to one another cross-culturally. The stories told during these gatherings cross economic, ethnic, racial and geographical lines. And any barriers tend to dissolve when people connect deeply with a story, enabling audiences to connect with the things that make us human.
“Something we say a lot in the storytelling community is it’s hard to hate someone once you’ve heard their story,” Speak Story Series creator Adam Booth said.
Nearly every teller had been domestic to the U.S. in past years, but going virtual during the pandemic allowed Booth to host tellers from other parts of the world. This season includes tellers from as far as Wales, Egypt, Vancouver Island and Colombia.
“I think now, more than ever, we need to hone and develop our ability to listen, and storytelling — especially storytelling from people across a large swath of humanity — teaches us how to listen,” Booth said. “It teaches us how to listen to people who aren’t us. And there’s a lot of education and value in that.”
Booth grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, and moved to Shepherdstown for college, where a course in Appalachian culture opened his eyes to the cultural treasures within the region.
“I was fascinated by everything I was learning,” he said. “I fell in love with the region. It wasn’t like I was particularly un-prideful about West Virginia. I’ve always loved West Virginia. But taking that class, I realized there are so many cultural treasures from this region that I didn’t see in pop culture. I didn’t see it in movies and media.”
Coming from a family of storytellers, Booth immediately resonated with the Appalachian tradition of storytelling when studying it in class.
“When I was a kid, many of the older people told stories to us regularly. I found that it really is one of those cultural treasures. Many weekends, my dad would say, ‘Alright, we’re gonna go out and see Mamaw’ — my great-grandmother — and we would visit her and her sister and spend the afternoon just listening to them tell stories.”
While still in college, Booth competed in the West Virginia Liars Contest and got third place. “I thought, how cool would it be to say that you’re the state’s best liar? So I kept competing [he’s since won — four times], and along the way, I had some folks watching me who became mentors. … I went to the National Storytelling Festival, and my mind was opened to all these different types of tellers and storytelling styles. That was really a gateway moment for me.”
“These folks are traveling gypsies, hired to tell their stories,” said Dan Thomas, a Speak Story Series regular. “Some personal, folk tales, fairy tales, scary tales — you name it.”
Guest tellers in the series represent myriad cultures, voices, accents, dialects — sometimes even different languages, “just so we can hear what people believe and what people’s traditions and cultures are,” Booth said.
They tell regional and cultural stories without censorship of language or content, i.e., they are artists permitted to deliver their art without having to make it fit a particular venue.
Booth, for example, specializes in telling traditional and contemporary Appalachian stories, but he also weaves stories about his Jewish culture. He has traveled across the country sharing his tales, and he typically is the featured storyteller at Speak once a year.
When he launched the series, he thought it would be a one-time thing. He contacted storytellers in the area for a round of events, and hosted them in Shepherdstown. But when it ended, the town wanted more, he said. Over the years, the series has grown a following, and in 2020, Speak Storytelling Inc., the umbrella organization for the series, officially became a nonprofit.
“We’ve found that not everybody likes every show — which is fine, because not everybody’s gonna like every person they meet,” Booth said. “And that’s really what this is: meeting someone through their stories.”
Carolyn Rodis, a founding donor and the board secretary of the nonprofit, said she was immediately hooked after attending her first Speak event.
“I just think storytelling is magical. It transports me somewhere else,” Rodis said. “What I love so much about the Speak series is the diversity of the tellers. Some are funny, some are dramatic, some tell about historical events, some of them sing, they’re from all over, and they’re all ages.”
This season, one of the featured tellers was Sky Byrd, a 10-year-old who has held the title of Kentucky Youth Storytelling Torchbearer, awarded from The Kentucky Storytelling Association to storytellers ages 7 to 17.
“Adam really brings us these incredible storytellers.”
A COMMUNITY ART FORMRegular attendees of the series say storytelling as an art form is something people don’t really fully understand until they experience it.
At a typical event, a guest teller is in front of an audience and tells a few stories over the course of about an hour, and then Booth facilitates a Q&A session afterward.
Events occur on the second Tuesday of each month.
In-person event tickets were $12, which Booth felt made the series accessible. Because of fees, online event tickets are $15.
Guest tellers often also get into the community to host additional events while in town. For instance, one teller worked a local event with Job Corps to illustrate how storytelling can help during job interviews.
Prior to the pandemic, the series was held at the War Memorial Building and later Shepherd University’s Reynolds Hall. After using an online format for the past year, the series will use a hybrid model when it returns to in-person events, allowing those who can’t attend to stream the shows from anywhere.
The Aug. 10 event, featuring Diane Macklin, will be online only.
“It’s a community-based art form, and you don’t get the same experience online that you get in person,” Booth said. “But ultimately, we want to reach people through storytelling, even if that’s at home with a computer.”
Booth also stressed that storytelling is nothing like reading the written word.
“When someone is telling a story to a group of people, they’re forming a community. It’s not something that happens alone,” he said. “The story itself comes alive as you’re telling it to someone. You’re not using the same words every time. And you get the feel for the group of people. It’s different every time. Sometimes you come in to a group of people, and there’s been a tragedy in their town, and they need different stories right then, or they need to hear the stories with different words. Or I might find myself telling a story to a group of kindergartners, and they need to hear it very differently than a group in a retirement community. It’s such a collaborative art form. It’s nourishing. I love that experience.”