For some of us our experience as storytellers began and ended the day we attempted to explain to a teacher how “a squirrel ate my homework!” For others storytelling only takes place at the bedside of a child while they struggle to stay awake for a few minutes more. But for Princeton resident Kathryn Weidener storytelling is not simply something she loves to do; thanks to her talent, perseverance, and a bit of luck she has made it her profession.
As president of the New Jersey Storytellers Network, she and a cohort of tale-telling colleagues from the tri-state area are busy preparing for their signature annual event: the New Jersey Storytelling Festival at Howell Living History Farm on Saturday, Sept. 14. Not that Weidener’s storytelling talent was passed on to her from her parents. “Not really, no,” she says. “My older brother always claimed I was born talking. He had a stutter, and it was a family legend that my brother trained me to speak in his place.”
She does allow that her parents were both avid readers. “My dad loved poetry,” she says. “He would recite poetry at the grocery store if he was bored. And at the very end of his life, the only thing he responded to was poetry.”
Looking back, Weidener observes that she has encountered a few speedbumps on the road leading to her taking the storytelling stage at Howell Farm. “I’ve always been telling stories,” she says. A speech and communications major at Allegheny College, she used storytelling in speech therapy. While working for the Girl Scouts she became the go-to person for emceeing events and mesmerized young Scouts by spinning yarns around the campfire.
All very satisfying personally, but, alas, she encountered her first speedbump. “The arts doesn’t pay much, nor does social work,” Weidener notes. Fortunately she had experience in accounting, and found a spot in accounts payable at a small company, eventually leading to the establishment of an accounting practice of her own.
There was also the small matter of starting a family, and as fate would have it, the birth of her second son put her squarely back on the storytelling track. “My first son was in kindergarten when I brought my second son to his school,” she says, “because big brother wanted little brother as his show-and-tell.” After Weidener was done presenting little brother to the class, big brother’s kindergarten teacher bet her a lunch that she could make a living as a storyteller.
“A month later I had to take her out to lunch,” she continues, “because I had established that I could do participatory storytelling with preschoolers. As my kids got older I advanced to after-school programs, libraries, and camps over the next 10 years.”
She also found a niche for her storytelling talent at her church, developing and presenting mini-sermons for the children in her congregation. “I’d take the theme from the bible verse of the service and put it into a participatory mini-sermon for the kids. A lot of adults preferred that, too! I’d get them up during the service, make animal noises, very participatory. A lot of churches started doing that in the ‘80s, and I worked with a number of youth ministries.”
As Weidener’s experience and reputation grew, she was invited to apply her storytelling talent at other venues. “Someone asked me to tell a story at a senior citizen club after church,” she explains, “and one of my friends’ mothers said ‘You could make this into a business doing senior groups.’ I practiced with a seniors’ group in Branchburg few times, developed some themes, and wound up telling stories at assisted living facilities and senior centers for about 15 years.”
Weidener takes care to emphasize that, as with her mini-sermons for children, her approach to telling stories to seniors was participatory and connected her audience with the story. “I’d start with a basic theme, be it herbs and spices, Chinese New Year, love, spring flowers, patriotism,” she says, “then blend in a little bit of poetry to try to engage the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed doing that.”
Then Weidener encountered more of the speed bumps alluded to at the beginning of this tale, big ones. She spent years serving as a caregiver for a family member. Other emotionally trying events and the inevitable issues that followed consumed both her and her husband (Peter Szego, an architect); for a time storytelling simply had to take a back seat.
Eventually Weidener connected with the New Jersey Storytelling Network. Begun in 2002 and structured as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, its official stated purpose is “to encourage and promote storytelling in New Jersey and elsewhere.” The organization and its dues-paying members ($25 annually) strive to preserve the storytelling tradition, educate others about the art of storytelling, and make the services of individual storytellers and storytelling events accessible to the general public.
In addition to information about the organization and upcoming events, the network’s website includes a directory of New Jersey member/storytellers searchable by name or county. Listings contain a photo, biography, and news of upcoming events. The NJ Storytelling Festival at Howell Living History Farm is one of two major events the organization holds annually. This is the third year that the festival will be held at Howell Farm.
“I’ve become very involved in planning this festival,” Weidener says. “I love planning this festival. I love this festival!” Featured events this year include a workshop open to the public that explores storytelling techniques and strategies, a Story Slam themed “HOG WILD!” that invites contestants chosen at random to recount a personal tale in five minutes or less, and the popular “Lightning Round” featuring storytellers performing non-stop throughout the farm all afternoon.
Weidener stresses that because Howell Farm is a family-friendly venue, parents may rest assured that all the stories performed at the event will be G-rated. “Some of the stories will be funny, some poignant,” she says. “All emotions come out in these stories, whether it’s in the slam section or on one of the four stages in the afternoon at four different locations at the farm.”
How does a storyteller manage to keep a story fresh after dozens or perhaps hundreds of tellings? “A story stays fresh because every audience is new,” Weidener explains. “You want to make the story fresh for each audience, and there is something innate in every accomplished storyteller, entertainer, or public speaker that motivates them to do that each and every time.”
What’s the hardest thing about telling a story to an audience? “The hardest thing is that it’s harder to gauge an audience these days, because audiences are less engaging,” she observes. “One of the things that is really difficult is when storytellers are asked to do children’s parties or events where other activities are going on at the same time. It’s harder to keep people tuned in to the story. That’s when I discovered the importance of participation, because if you’re engaging more than one sense it’s easier to keep people involved.”
Weidener notes that the digital age has taken a toll on traditional storytelling as well. “When people are screen-engaged it’s harder to get them to look up and be attentive. I hear this in theaters where people are always saying ‘turn off that screen’ because even If you think you’re being quiet everybody sees that little glow. You can’t go to McCarter without someone’s phone going off. They ask us to turn our phones off, we all know we shouldn’t do it, but everybody thinks that life can’t go on without them being connected to their phone.
“I understand that competition from media and other entertainment outlets compete for people’s time and attention, but I believe that storytelling engages us more intellectually, creatively, and collectively,” she continues. “Part of the joy of storytelling is that it’s not simply holding a book and reading it; storytelling is oral recitation and engagement with a community of listeners.”
2019 New Jersey Storytelling Festival, Howell Living History Farm, 70 Woodens Lane, Lambertville. Saturday, September 14, noon to 5 p.m. Free.