Tell Me a Story
The Storytellers of Las Cruces have been spinning yarns for 85 years

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The Lively Arts

Tell Me a Story

The Storytellers of Las Cruces have been spinning yarns for 85 years, making the group the community's oldest continuously active nonprofit. But that's only part of the story.

by Karen Ray



Want to hear a good story? Throughout history, storytellers have been valued members of society, passing on creation stories, cautionary tales and life lessons as well as entertaining with stories of love, terror and humor. Travelers would often circulate stories of far-off people and places. According to the website Storytellingday.net, "The oldest surviving tale… is the epic, 'Gilgamesh,' relating to the deeds of a famous Sumerian king. The earliest known record of the origin of storytelling can be found in Egypt, when the sons of Cheops entertained their father with stories."

Pat Gill, president of the Las Cruces Storytellers League since 1971.
(Photo by Jean Gilbert)

In Las Cruces, the origins of formal storytelling are a bit more recent. But still, Storytellers of Las Cruces was started by Jennie Curry (1892-1992) in 1927 — making it the community's oldest continuously active nonprofit group. An annual Jennie Curry Storyfest is held here every February. This year, in honor of the New Mexico State Centennial, a proclamation signed by Mayor Ken Miyagishima was presented at city hall to members of the Curry family and the Storytellers of Las Cruces. The proclamation honored the founding of the Storytellers group and her fostering of "an appreciation for our cultural heritage." This summer, Las Cruces hosted the 2012 National Storytellers League Convention, with a theme of "The Great Southwest."

Next month, Las Cruces storytellers will join other storytellers around the world in the 16th annual "Tellabration," just before Thanksgiving. The international storytelling festival was conceived by the National Storytelling Network (NSN), based in Tennessee.

The conference in July was sponsored by another, complementary group, the National Storytellers League (NSL), which boasts 400 members. About 30 storytellers from seven different states attended. The NSL, whose motto is "Service Through Storytelling," aims to bring both traditional and original stories to people of all ages.

The league began in 1903 through the efforts of Dr. Richard Wyche of Tennessee. It is the oldest national storytelling organization, according to president Carol Satz, who says, "Story is at the heart of the whole human experience."

Gwendolyn Jones, founder of the Garden State Storytellers League in New Jersey, agrees: "Technology is great, but there is nothing quite like the eternal triangle of storyteller, story and listener." That being said, one of the league's goals is to make the art of storytelling relevant to a technologically savvy younger generation.

Members of story leagues here and across the country tell stories at a variety of places, including schools, museums, bookstores, churches and civic groups. The NSL's aim, says Satz, is "to spread all that is good in literature and life through storytelling."

The oral tradition of storytelling can take many different forms, from folk and classical literature to personal storytelling. An unabashed goal of the storytellers is to keep the art of storytelling alive. Many believe storytelling should be considered a fine art, noting that there have been major storytelling performances at the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center. Since 1983 the NSL has been actively petitioning the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to issue a stamp honoring the art of storytelling.

The NSL has two special projects to help spread the word (literally). One is a partnership with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation's national "Adopt a Whisker Campaign." According to the NSL website, "Local story leagues will feature 'telling' of the children's picture book Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers, by Karen Winnick. This is the true story of 11-year-old Grace Bedell and her letter requesting presidential candidate Lincoln to grow whiskers." He did, then later stopped by to personally thank her. The league emphasizes that this shows the power of a child to change the face of a nation.

The other project involves junior storytelling. Satz is passionate about educating children about the power of stories. She taught reading and English for 40 years and both encouraged and facilitated her students' involvement in telling stories in their community.

The link between individual story leagues nationwide is the quarterly Story Art magazine, which contains district and league news and articles as well as stories and poems submi

tted by storytellers across the country. The magazine also sponsors an annual short story contest, open to non-members and students. In a recent editorial, Satz wrote, "We continue to extend our hands of friendship through the stories we tell each other and to the members of our communities." She added that the "NSL storytelling organization has stood the test of time for 109 years because of the dedication… and friendships… of the members."


Pat Gill, president of the Las Cruces Storytellers League since 1971, is a widely recognized catalyst in keeping the local group active. She became involved in 1960 when she was first invited to a storytellers group. She says the three principles of good storytelling are "like the story you're telling, be prepared and animated, and have a good time."

Another key to successful storytelling is repetition, often used in children's stories. This is especially important in cumulative tales in which a character develops over time. This storytelling technique has been around since Adam learned to tie his shoes. For example, in Homer's Iliad, composed as an oral epic, predictable repetition such as "he fell thunderously and his armor clattered upon him" helped to provide structure to the tale and involve the audience. Many people, decades after their student years, still recall this line with humor.

Gill says, "I like stories where the people have a problem to solve and get it done by various ways. I like the ingenuity that people have." She points out that a lot of stories around the world are told with gestures and repeating refrains.

Asked what she enjoys most about storytelling, she replies, "Meeting marvelous people and telling stories to children! I enjoy knowing the story and sharing it with other people.




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