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How to Start Over as a Storyteller after a Move to a New Area
By Mary Hamilton

Well, I guess I know a little bit about starting over after a move. I began full time storytelling in 1983 when I lived in Michigan. In 1987, I moved back to Kentucky. Now, a year in advance I had thought I had done a good job of planning my move. For several years I had mailed to schools in Kentucky whenever I was going to be there and they had hired me. For that last year in Michigan, I steered Michigan bookings to the times of the year when I knew I could come back and do a Michigan tour.

I also lined up schools in Kentucky through mailings and contacting the Kentucky schools who had hired me in the past. So far, so good, huh? I moved in June 1987. I was even fortunate enough to be a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival in October 1987 (after having been an Exchange Place Teller in 1986, so two appearances in two years - sounds promising doesn't it!?!). However, when it was time to pay rent for January 1988, I had twenty cents.

Yes, you read that right - twenty cents (no debts, but only twenty cents). Now, I had done some work for which I had not yet been paid, and I had a brother who was willing to loan me rent money for January 1988, but twenty cents. I do not have the words to describe how I felt about myself when I was down to twenty cents - failure, idiot, whatever made you think you could earn a living telling stories, what makes you think anyone should pay you to tell stories, how could you have allowed yourself to come down so far, you call this a business, you are neither professional nor a storyteller because a professional would have more than twenty cents and a real storyteller would at least be out telling stories, and other even less uplifting phrases come to mind as I look back on that situation.

I will admit I had also made what in retrospect seems a stupid decision, but seemed reasonable at the time. While in Michigan I sold my car and bought a new one because the car I had driven in Michigan had no air conditioning (not too important in Michigan, but a bit more important in Kentucky) and was showing rust (small amount by Michigan standards, but quite a bit by Kentucky standards). Nevertheless, I still had a few thousand dollars in savings, so I expected to be fine. I wasn't - six months after the move, TWENTY CENTS!

I suppose I should also tell you that checks did begin arriving for work I had done. I repaid my brother, and never needed to borrow rent money again (although to computerize did require a loan a few years later because the extra money simply was not there - a loan I do not regret, and my fully paid for car provided collateral).

I have not told you my story to scare you, but to let you know that starting over after a move really will be starting over. One person in Louisville (where I relocated when I moved) who hired artists at paltry sums to perform throughout the city even told me, "I don't care how experienced you are or what you've done in storytelling. Here nobody knows you, so I'm not going to pay you more than $35 a show." I was indeed starting over. By the way, the program this person controlled also supplied all the public libraries in Louisville (Kentucky's largest city) with FREE performances for summer reading programs through her program as well as all parks, nursing homes, etc. It is really hard to compete with free when no one knows your work. In Michigan, libraries, parks, nursing homes, senior centers, club meetings (Kiwanis, Rotary, Scouts, etc.) and day cares had been paid venues for me. In Louisville, I had to get with her program or forget about it.

What I had done right was to line up some work in Kentucky schools before I arrived. What I had done right was to also line up some work in Michigan before I left so I knew I could count on some hefty income times (ex. March in Michigan was Reading Month and a prime time for storytellers to work back in 1987.) I urge you to look at your current best month in your present location, and book it for a tour before you move so you can look forward to some certain income. So, those two important things I had done correctly.

Here are some of the other things I wish I had done and/or suggest doing:

  1. Contacted the Kentucky Arts Council. I wish I had contacted them, let them know I was moving, described my work and learned what opportunities existed in Kentucky. They could have told me of some of the ways folks who do what I do reach people who might want to hire them. There were Arts in Education showcases here that I knew nothing about until I had been here for over a year, and when I learned about them application deadlines were past so it was Spring 1989 before I could get into them. Learning about such opportunities (even if they may have residency requirements attached as some opportunities do) would have made me aware of programs and deadlines (as well as requirements) in advance. In addition the Kentucky Arts Council could have alerted me to the presence of any local and regional arts councils.
  2. Contact the Chamber of Commerce in the city where you will be going. They should also know about any local or regional arts councils. They, or the Tourism Board, should know of any museums, arts centers, or other venues that hire performing artists where you will be moving.
  3. Find out how people in the school systems near where you will be living find the people they bring into their schools. Some school systems hold their own artist showcases and hire only people they have seen before. In some cities, the Young Audiences program essentially has the market "wrapped up" and if you aren't on their roster, you won't work in area schools much at all. If that is the case where you are headed or in major cities near your future location, you need to know so you can plan accordingly.
  4. If you do lots of work in schools, contact your new state's Department of Education. Find out how you can learn about the curriculum requirements - if any - that are standard throughout the state. This information is often on the web. If you notice connections between your current programs and the state curriculum, this could give you an advantage when persuading schools to take a chance on your work.
  5. Educators sometimes know other educators. I wish I had thought to ask my contacts in Michigan if they had any contacts in Kentucky. That could have given me specific people in schools I could have called to learn: if they hired storytellers or other performers for school programs; how they learned about the people they hired, and who funded their arts programs. Again, you are trying to learn what the channels are so you can position yourself within them. For example, if they hire from a performing arts directory because they are funded for arts programming through grants that pay 1/2 of the fee for anyone in the directory, then you need to learn how to be listed as soon as possible.
  6. Do the same for your other current venues. If you don't want to tell people you are moving, tell your current contacts you'd like to do some work in the state you will be moving to, and you wondered if they just happened to know anyone there in their same or similar position. For example, if you do work for public libraries and are known to the children's services person at your state level, that person may know his or her counterpart in your new location and may be delighted to put in a good word for you. So, network all you can with your current clients to let them help you make a successful start in your new area.
  7. Contact venues in your new state to work there when you go for a visit. However, bear in mind that after your move you will no longer be an expert (someone from far away), or a novelty
    (available for a limited time only), you will be someone who lives there so some of the appeal of hiring you will wear off because that sense of urgency when you are from far away and/or only available for limited engagements will no longer exist.
  8. Estimate what savings cushion you think you'll need, and double it if you possibly can.
  9. To locate tellers from your new area, just go to the online directory at the NSN website: www.storynet.org. Look up tellers in that state and contact folks there. Some of them probably will not tell you anything. Others will have the time, energy, and spirit to be generous and will share all the advice they can come up with for fellow storytellers moving to their state. This will help you develop a bit of a start on developing colleagues. If you are an NSN member, you could try contacting the state liaison to learn if they have any advice for a teller contemplating a move.
  10. You probably already know this, but I think every state has a school directory. Some also have directories of public libraries. Get your hands on this (either in print or online) and randomly make a few calls (with a printed list of questions so you are not calling back with "one more question" if/when a person answers who has time to talk with you) to learn if and how schools and libraries hire tellers.
  11. Probably the most important thread in all of this is asking for help, for recommendations, for contacts, for information.

The good news is, I do know starting over can be done. I suspect it can also be done much more smoothly that I did it, so I hope my thoughts on what I did right and what I failed to do will prove helpful to you.

Brief Bio: Mary Hamilton has earned her living telling stories and pondering how the art of storytelling works since 1983. Learn more about her work at http://www.maryhamilton.info. Contact her at hiddenspring@earthlink.net, or 800-438-4390, or 65 Springhill Road, Frankfort, KY 40601-9211.

 

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