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  • Loren Niemi

My Institutional Memory


The Solstice is upon us. The long cold night gives way to the still cold but sunny day. For myself, a time of ending a longstanding relationship. To that ending this will be an accounting of my institutional memory of the National Storytelling Network’s development and culture with a couple asides about the Northlands storytelling Network which has a roughly parallel history. It may be a bit of a slough as there are many years to cover but I, dear reader, will try to be brief.


As this is dependent on memory and some nearly illegible notes, I will also credit Pat Coffie’s comprehensive Northlands Storytelling Network timeline for helping fill in some gaps.


As with any good story, I must begin at the beginning. Not that of the storytelling revival of the ‘70’s that came hard on the heels of the ’60 folk revival which Joseph Sobol chronicled in his The Storytellers’ Journey but rather my own journey in which those two organizations have played significant roles.


1978

· I declare myself as a Storyteller. As I’ve told the story, I was sitting in the bar of the Edgewater hotel in Madison Wisconsin on a break between workshop sessions of the conference I was at, when Joy Martin, who I knew from the arts scene in Minneapolis, leaned across the table and asked, “What the Hell do you actually do?” Not thinking, I told the truth, “I am a storyteller. I work with individuals and organizations to find their stories, craft them to do what they need to do, then tell them effectively to the people who have the money or the power to help or hinder.”


Once I said it, I realized that it was, in fact, true. The essential work of the community building I was doing was a kind of storytelling. Having named it, I began to consider what the depth and breadth of that word (that world) might entail.

1979

· I left the employ of the City of Minneapolis in the spring of ’79 and began a course of self-study of the traditional material – folk and fairy tales with detours into Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, and Idries Shah’s Sufi tales. At the end of the summer, I attended Robert Bela Wilhelm’s Mythos conference at the College of St Catherine where Diane Wolkstein, Joan Bodger, Ken Feit, Rueven Gold and Gioia Timpanelli offered stories and workshops. I had spent time with both Ken and Rueven while I was a Christian Brother, and realized that they had already modelled an approach to storytelling and performance that I recognized.


What was unexpected was meeting Michael Cotter, a third-generation farmer from Austin Minnesota, who was a natural storyteller. I heard him tell the story of coming to his epiphany in Gioia’s workshop many times with his marveling that it happened and how pleased he was to share the story on stage. For my part, as I was leaving that same workshop, she asked me if I was Catholic or had been. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, “Then you’ll understand, that it would be a sin for you not to tell.” It felt like recognition and permission, and hearing it, I’ve never looked back.

1980

· The last weekend in April I attended the Northlands Storytelling Festival, Second Annual Gathering. Mineral Point, WI. Here were my ilk – Mark Wagler, Larry Johnson, Elaine Wynne, Susan Gilchrist, August Rubrecht, Jim May, etc. The mix of performances and workshops, even to the telling of “adult” stories in a local bar on Saturday night became the pattern of all (except the the years of exile in Green Castle) Northlands gatherings.


· A byproduct of Mineral Point was an invitation from Ken Feit to spend some time with him at his Wilfred Lorian University residency. Joined by my friend, Gregory, we went to Ontario towing his portable inflatable planetarium behind the VW bus. I was not the only one invited nor the only one who came. It was two weeks of storytellers, jugglers, musicians, clowns teaching each other in the morning, assisting Ken teach his classes in the evening and then dancing at the closest “disco”. It was also where and when I met storyteller, fiddler, performance artist, Hollis Payer and the always gracious Dan Yashinski.

· Mike Cotter, Carol McCormick, Maren HJinderlie, and I drove to Tennessee for what would be my first National Storytelling Festival. I had already met Elizabeth Ellis and Gail Ross, who served as my guide to the weekend. In those days it was mostly traditional tellers: Ray Hicks, whose accent was so thick I felt like I needed a translator, Jackie Torrence, Ron Evans, Doc McConnel, and Gamble Rogers who was on the festival stage during the day and then doing a club gig in Johnson City at night.


· Soon after I became a member of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS). Easy to say, but it marks the start of 43 years of ever-increasing involvement with the organizational machinery of the storytelling world.

1981

· This is the year that confirmed my storyteller “bona fides” when I become the Humanities Scholar in Residence for the Arrowhead Region - living in Duluth, spending a week at a time in small town churches, bars, cafes, and libraries telling stories, collecting oral histories, documenting and commenting on the changing culture of northern Minnesota. If I began with traditional stories, I ended with personal stories that reflected the experience.


· In the middle of that residency, I attended The Gathering at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, MN. A coming together of radical theater companies (A Traveling Jewish. The Talking Band, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread & Puppet, At the Foot of the Mountain) and artists including Meridel LeSuer, Carol Bly and Sharon Grady, who I would tour with for the next two years. It also marked the death of Ken Feit, who died on the way there, and the beginning of my association with Sandy Spieler and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre.

1983

· The following year Northlands adopted new Articles of Incorporation and By-laws created mainly by my attorney friend, Michael Skindrud and myself to have it become a functional non-profit.


· But my great adventure was being Ringmaster and tour Manager for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre’s Circle of Water Circus. The history of the Mississippi River from the Ice Age to the present moment presented as a one-ring circus, traveling for six months from the headwaters to New Orleans. Oh, the stories presented themselves at every turn and in a Walmart parking lot in Natchez, MS the beginnings of Bad Jazz w/ Kevin Kling, Michael Sommers and myself was manifest.

1987

· NAPPS 1st National Congress St. Louis, MO marked a shift in the membership of NAPPS from being purely “support for the National Storytelling Festival” to looking at the larger frame of a national community with festivals and guilds popping up like mushrooms after a rain. I delivered one of the keynote addresses surveying the state of the art and the diversity of approaches which were many and growing.

1988

· Jimmy Neil Smith from NAPPS attended the Northlands Conference in Elkader, IA, and is “shocked” (I haven’t ever seen this kind of storytelling…”) by my telling an early version of “Moby Dick Tonight!” Maybe it was the cigar or the inflatable dinosaur standing in for the whale. From the stage I could see his head shaking (in disbelief or wonder). On the other hand, Nancy Donoval, was sitting in the balcony thinking she had no interest in storytelling until she saw that story straddling the line between performance art and episodic narrative, and recognized a kinship.

1989

· The National Storytelling Journal becomes Storytelling Magazine. I had a few articles in the Journal but over the life of the Magazine I wrote articles, columns and guest edited issues on “emerging storytellers” and “mentors”.

1990

· Northlands co-sponsored with NAPPS the 4th National Congress in St. Paul, MN. In the concert I performed “Polaroid Variations” using randomly presented images to tell an improvised story which was projected on a screen. It was fun but perhaps a little too “I’m playing with the form” as I looked at the folks in the audience shaking their heads in disbelief or wonder.

1992

· Three things happened which touched upon my diverse interest in storytelling. First, I began producing Two Chairs Telling in January at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. The significance was that unlike festival performance, I simply put two storytellers on stage and let them have at it – talking, asking each other questions, telling stories in response, going outside their usual repertoire to get at roots and branches of the craft - for 90 minutes.


· Second, I began teaching Storytelling in the Communications program at Metro State University, St. Paul, MN. Later, when Nancy Donoval moved to Minneapolis and began co-teaching with me, the Storytelling classes would get transferred to the Theater program.


· That same year, I began making monthly storytelling appearances at Balls Cabaret, at midnight on Saturdays at the Southern Theater. For many years I walked on stage and asked the audience what they wanted – “something current or a ghost story?”- and then drew a story from my repertoire or improvised one on the spot. Month after month I honed my stories and watched young artists like magician/comedian, David Hughes, or Mike Early develop their chops. I did my last Balls appearance in 2020, just before the pandemic.

1994

· The membership of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS) continued to grow as did the National Storytelling Festival audiences. With that growth came complications. There is a name change as NAPPS becomes National Storytelling Association (NSA). It was about this time or soon after there was a call for financial support for a storytelling library and after many contributions, it did not reside in Jonesborough but was given to the Library of Congress. I personally thought that was an appropriate location for the National Festival archives but like many members I felt that we had been the victim of a contribution “bait and switch”.

1995

· After the National Storytelling Association established the first awards: Lifetime Achievement, Circle of Excellence, Regional Service, and Regional Leadership, I found myself on a committee with Elizabeth Ellis and Gay Ducey, making lists of who had passed and should be remembered by those first Lifetime and Circle of Excellence awards.


· That same year, I performed in my first (MN) Fringe Festival. Here was a form that was ideally suited to my interests in telling long-form and/or “riskier” stories than were being told at storytelling festivals. I seemed to me that by then personal stories, largely humorous, told by Southern male tellers had taken hold of Festival stages, and it might be argued, is still the case today. Fringe Festival audiences on the other hand were open to a wider variety of performances and not necessarily needing happy endings.


Over the years, I performed with a variety of wonderful partners, most notably Megan Wells (2003) doing a deconstructed and gender fluid “Beauty/Beast” and Howard Lieberman (since 2009) with ”55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation” and our most recent offering, “How Do You read Me?” which takes on racial, gender and class bias. I have also done solo shows including an expanded version of “Moby Dick Tonight!”, the “audience chose your adventure” “Fata Morgana” and the autobiographical, “Bad Brother”.

1996

· The theme for the Northlands conference in Elkader, IA was “Stories—Sparks from the Fire” went full Martin Luther, posting the “Four Demands for the Future:” on the Opera House Door, saying Northlands could never grow if it stayed in Elkader. The question then as it is now for so many storytelling organizations, is who do you serve? An aging generation, who know each other well and are satisfied with more of the same or younger storytellers or would be storytellers looking for access and opportunity? To their credit, Northlands decided to move.

1997

· I was at the “member’s revolt” as I’ve heard it called, at the National Storytelling conference in Indianapolis, IN. An emotional membership meeting which essentially argued two views – first, that Jimmy Neil Smith’s construction of the International Storytelling Center would cement Jonesborough as the storytelling capital of America. The second, that it was too much, that the membership deserved services and recognition beyond a small-town Tennessee. Folks were threatening to leave the Board, to leave the organization, and as I said when it was my turn at the microphone, “the membership should be more than a cash cow for the economic development of Jonesborough.”

1998

· At Northlands second year in Dubuque, IA, I hosted the first of seven years of “Cocktails for the Wicked”. One of the unique features of that event, was that I took a Polaroid of every one who came through the door and eventually posted them in an album where the gathering of the late-night community was documented.


· This was the year of the “divorce” or as Ed Stivender put it, “Daddy takes the house and Mom gets the kids.” The National Storytelling Association divides into the International Storytelling Center and National Storytelling Membership Association (NSMA). Steve Kardaleff, then Executive Director of the membership organization negotiated mutual ownership of the National Storytelling Festival and “alimony” of 18% of the gross on behalf of “mom”. The agreement specified a minimum of $160,000 to the membership organization as payment for letting ISC have exclusive control of the National Festival programming. The future looked bright for both organizations.


· On a personal level, this year marked another shift in my storytelling focus as I was the recipient of a Bush Leadership Fellowship focusing on “Storytelling as a Community Development Tool” and relocated to Chicago, IL to do my research while working with David Hunt as a consultant and trainer. It was a return to my community organizing roots but now the usefulness of story in business and organizations was front and center.

· I competed at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX with Diego Vazquez, Boa Phi, and Patrick McKinnon as Minnesota’s first National Slam team. Most of my slam poems were stories or parts of stories retrofitted into a three-minute lyrical frame.

1999

· I was elected to National Storytelling Membership Association’s Board of Directors. I was told that Jimmy Neil said, “the fox is in the henhouse.”

2000

· The National Storytelling Membership Association (NSMA) becomes National Storytelling Network.

2001

· I was elected Board Chair. With Nancy Kavanaugh as the Executive Director, I had as good a partner as I could wish for to move NSN forward as a member responsive national organization. With Doug Lipman, Jo Radner, Doc Moore on the Board it sometimes felt like a step forward and another back though the Special Interest Groups (SIGs) were formed.


· This was the year that “Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories:” which I co-wrote with Elizabeth Ellis was published. It was then, and remains to my mind, a fundamental text on the necessity and value of stories that are hard to hear and harder to speak truthfully and artfully.


· It was also the year I returned to the Twin Cities to create the Public Policy Project and began a decade of working extensively with BIPOC, immigrant, and low-wealth communities to turn their stories into policy and policy into… as Paul Wellstone would say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

2004

· I served up the last “Cocktails for the Wicked” at the Northland’s “A Recipe for Success” conference at the Edgewater Hotel, Madison, WI.

· The National Storytelling Network established two member-oriented programs that year: the Brimstone Grant for Applied Storytelling and the J. J. Reneaux Emerging Artist Grant. Both were designed to support innovative storytellers and projects. While that was positive, there were signs of trouble as NSN and ISC had to go to mediation over the Krispie Kreme Doughnut’s Festival sponsorship, when one of the owners of the National Festival brought on a sponsor without asking or even telling the other.


· I ended six years of the NSN Board and four as Board Chair and after a few months pause, begin 16 years of participation with various committees.

2005

· At the National Conference, Oklahoma City, OK I proposed adding a Fringe “model” to the programming using a lottery, a 60-minute performance frame and as few restrictions as possible on form and content.

2006

· Organized by a volunteer Committee spearheaded by Barb Shutzgruber. Mary Hamilton and myself, the first NSN conference Fringe takes place. Step right up, there’s some storytelling here!!

2007

· At the National Storytelling Conference, St. Louis, MO, I received the Oracle National Leadership and Service award.


· With another impending financial crisis looming, the Board of Directors asked Ron Turner, Joseph Sobol, Dorothy Cleveland, and who else? Maybe Steve Kardaleff - to offer a solution. We offered the “Hearthstone plan” to reorganize NSN as an operating foundation. The Board rejected the plan as “too radical” and curtailed staff and services instead.

2008

· At the PRO-SIG retreat, Indianapolis, IN, I succeed Ellen Munds as Chair of the Producers & Organizers Special Interest Group (PRO-SIG for short)


· This was also the year of "Tickled Pink” - the last “Bad Jazz” performance. While we talk periodically about more stories, music and bad tap dancing, the fact was and is, that after 25 years of making carefully structured performances look like random acts of absurdity, it is too hard to make our schedules harmonize.

2011

· Northlands reorganizes, reducing size of board and revising bylaws. What remains is an annual conference and a member grants program.


· With approximately $2 million in loans due for the construction of the building the International Storytelling Center declares bankruptcy. It results in the court approving ISC’s severing of NSN’s ownership and receipt of proceeds of the National Storytelling Festival. The National Storytelling Network has to decide what it means to be a membership organization with not much more than a Conference and a magazine after the loss of $160,000 of annual income.


· Having argued that NSN needs to leave Jonesborough, I become the Co-Chair with Yvonne Healey of a search committee to find a new home for NSN. We looked at 20 possibilities and decided on Kansas City when the Mid-Continent Library System offered NSN office space, utilities, phone, and internet at no cost in exchange for helping with programming.

2012

· Ted Parkhurst (Parkhurst Brothers Publishing) saw the value of “The New Book of Plots” and thanks for that.

2014

· National Storytelling Network moved its headquarters to Kansas City, MO. There was a search for a new Executive Director and I was one of the two finalists. I did not get the job.

2016

· After 24 years and 192 performances, Two Chairs Telling ends except as one-off specials for Sharing the Fire and the Tejas Storytelling Festival.


· I received the NSN Oracle Lifetime Achievement award.

2017

· Recognizing a national trend and having participated in them since 2002, I brought “Story Slams” to the National conference. The idea was to create a regional network of slams that would feed into a true national grand slam at the conference and while there was support for the conference slam, there was no staff or volunteer capacity to organize a cohesive regional slam program.

2018

· I “retired” from teaching Storytelling at Metro State University.

2019

· Northlands holds the last in-person Confabulation at the Pyle Center, in Madison, WI


· The last in-person National Storytelling conference is in Fremont CA.


· My collection of “ghost stories” and speculative fiction “What Haunts Us” was published. In 2020 it will win the Midwest Book Award for “Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Horror / paranormal” fiction.

2020

· I was appointed to NSN Board and elected Chair. Lisa Overholser became the PRO-SIG Chair. The ongoing crisis of finances, which began with ISC’s bankruptcy in 2011 was acute. There were some on and off the Board that thought I would figure out a way to “save” NSN and others that I had the will to bring us to “death with dignity”. I did not promise either but was willing to consider both.


What was clear to me was that the Board and the membership were deeply conflicted. Some portion of this was generational. The core of the volunteers are long time members, many going back as far or further than my own tenure. Many lean heavily towards traditional tales and are put off by the current style of personal story, characterized by The Moth. They loved the magazine and the in-person conference. Younger members did not always feel welcomed and chaffed at the lack of opportunities to make a place for themselves. Whether this gap could be bridged was unclear.


The fact was that since the “divorce” there has been a steady erosion of members and financial reserves. What was also clear to me was that for NSN to be financially sustainable, we would need to have a revenue source that was not membership dues, conference fees or donations. What that program or service was, was not determined and frankly, still is not known, tested, or in place.


The last issue of Storytelling magazine was published amid financial constraints. Those younger folks, being digital natives, did not care if there was a print magazine.


· Then came the pandemic and the major source of NSN’s revenue vanished. With a massive effort by Katy Knutson, Erin O’Brien, and Danni Altman-Newell, the National Storytelling conference moved on-line (Zoom) and international. Between the cost savings of not paying a hotel and the blessedly large participation of members and others in the digital format, we managed to make enough money to stave off closing the door.


We were not the only ones struck and seeking to figure out how to move forward, The Northlands conference was cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic. So too, the National Storytelling Festival. Everyone was scrambling to build a digital presence and income stream.


· The bright spot for me was Parkhurst Brothers publication of “Point of View & the Emotional Arc of Stories” co-written with Nancy Donoval. It is the companion to “The New Book of Plots” and if thought of as a set, the two are a summation of what Nancy and I taught in our Metro State Storytelling classes.

2021

· In the second year of the pandemic, I founded the American School of Storytelling with my partner, The Christine, to provide both on-line and in-person performances, classes and workshops. I joke that it is a legacy project but the fact is I want to teach, perform, and produce other storytellers’ performances for as long as I am able.

2022

· In October I attended my thirty-fifth National Storytelling Festival, Jonesborough, TN. It felt good to be back in the tents listening to Elizabeth Ellis, Noa Baum, Kevin Kling, and so many storytellers that I have known and told with over the years. It was good to see Nancy Kavanaugh, Flora and Henry Joy and other old friends. I wish ISC many more successful years for the National Storytelling Festival is a tradition and economic benefit for the oldest town in Tennessee.


· This year has not been great as far as National Storytelling Network was concerned. The conference was reduced to Annual Meeting, Oracle Awards, and Story Slam as a result of NSN’s ongoing financial constraints. I charged the NSN Program Committee with the task of finding that elusive new program content and they created the digital “Story Beast” and took it independent of NSN. I wish them luck but it personally felt like a slap in the face of the organization that brought them together and for which they claimed a willingness to help.


In response to the animosity surrounding a member proposal to reorganize NSN that would replace staff with volunteers and to my view, would not produce significant stabilization income, I resigned as Chair. Too many people saw me as the stumbling block to their taking over the organization and rather than get in a pissing contest on the deck of the Titanic, I’ll let others with less baggage take the wheel. Yes, I know that is somewhat of a mixed metaphor but I’m tired and if you’re still reading this, you might be as well.


My three-year term ends December 31, 2022 and I will not serve another. I’m done.


· Northlands Storytelling Network is also calling it “done” after 43 years of serving the storytelling community of Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota with a final event 12/29/22. I will be telling a story there as my parting toast to an organization that has been a source of joy and camaraderie for me for many years. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes,”


When I look at this history I wonder, perhaps as you do, why I spent so much time and energy on these institutions. The truth is that on the whole it seemed part and parcel of making the art. Being a storyteller I have appreciated the vast and interwoven community that I have helped create and foster with that institutional participation. The recognition that there is a value in building community, locally, regionally, nationally and that although we are solitary, we are not necessarily alone.


Through it all, I was and am a storyteller.


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