Steve Otto – Bringing Storytelling to New Communities.

Steve is one of those storytellers who has been around the block. Mastering his skill in storytelling over many years of dedicated work and effort as a storyteller. I found this interview about Steve’s work to bring Storytelling to new communities to be truly inspirational stuff. Storytelling can be for everyone.

Eric Wolf

Steve Otto talks about hhow you can have a low cost storytelling festival in your area.
Interview #020 Steve Otto, one of the founders of the Chicken Festival.
Logo for art of storytelling
for $2.23
Bringing Storytelling to New Communities.

Steve Otto has a degree in Speech and Dramatics, from the University of Missouri, with a specialty of Television Production. You have to realize that I got my degree when TV was in it’s infancy, and all production was done live (No video tape) and everything was done in Black and White. I worked at KOMU-TV Channel 8, in Columbia, Missouri, WPTA-TV, Channel 21, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and KETC-TV, Channel 9, in St. Louis, Missouri. I started out as a cameraman, and worked into production as a producer-director. I loved television and really enjoyed the opportunity offered to a right brain person to see images and create pictures before the camera collected them. KETC-TV was the local PBS station and things went well until they lost some contracts to produce proragams for PBS and the station “went to Black” (off the air) for the summer, and they handed each producer a check for one week salary and said “We’ll see you in the fall . . .” I began to think someone was trying to tell me something . . .

I went to work with Blue Shield, to set up a new public relations department for the organization. About 4 months into my training period, they told me that the board of directors had decided they really didn’t need a public relations department, but I could continue in the claims operations if I wanted. Having become accustomed to eating, I said yes . . . I worked for Blue Shield for eight years and worked up to Claims Manager of the operation.

In 1968, the Medicaid Program became operational in the State of Missouri and they needed someone with claims experience to run their program. I took over a brand new program and was able to make it one of the most efficient , cost effective claims operations in the country. We could process over a million claims a month with a turn around time that averaged 4 days, at an administrative cost of about 3 percent.

After 5 years with the State, I received a call from the Federal Government, (who has over site over all the medicaid programs) to come to work for them in Kansas City. I spent the next 23 years as a senior level federal employee with Health and Human Services. I loved the early years of the program because I really felt that I was doing things to really help people . . . Very rapidly, however, the program became a money pit for the providers instead of a program to help people get the necessary medical care that they need.

While working with the “Feds” I started back to Theatre, doing over 30 roles in community theatre as actor and director. I had a blast . . . I was finally doing something that was really creative . . . Advances in my job duties, however put me on the road more and more and I was unable to do theatre because I couldn’t do all the six weeks of rehearsal.

My first grade teacher wife, Virginia, came home one day with a brochure from Universtity of Missouri, Kansas City . . . I said “Storytelling for teachers”! She said she was going to take the class and thought I should take it with her. . . I reminded her that I WAS AN ACTOR!
I didn’t do things like go to a library and READ to children . . . She quickly convinced me that I should take the session and I did.

The first session opened like many other seminars with welcomes etc. And then they introduced the first speaker, they call her the “Feature”, and a short, rather heavy set black woman walked out on stage . . . I could not believe what I was seeing . . . I had paid for THIS? And then she opened her mouth, and began to tell a story . . . Her eyes reached out to every person in the auditorium, her hands beckoned us all into the story and her voice had my completely mesmerized. I looked more carefully at my program and there was her name . . . It was a lady from the Carolina’s named Jackie Torrance! I honestly could not believe what I was seeing! My theatre background said you NEVER react to your audience! The fourth wall prohibits you from looking right at your audience! . . . And yet there she was with the audience completely under her control and bringing every member of the audience into “Her Place . . .”

I thought “This is what I want to do . . .” and I began to take every storytelling class I could. I read books for content and beginning, storyline, ending instead of just enjoying them . . . And I began to tell stories . . .

I told for three years totally enjoying the opportunity to learn everything I could about the Art. Then one day a lady called from a local Town Festival asking me if I could tell stories at their festival. I checked my calendar and told her I could. We got all the details down and just before she hung up she asked “Oh by the way, how much do you charge?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing . . Charge? for doing something fun like telling stories? I quickly realized that she must be mistaken and I said “Well my USUAL fee is twenty five dollars” I waited for the rejection when she said “Oh, that is FINE!” I should have asked for fifty . . .That was the start of my professional career. I got to the place when I had more jobs than time, I would just raise may rates. I has worked well.

In 1994, there were budget crises in the Federal Bureaucracies.
I went to a senior staff meeting and we were told that we had to cut staff and did anyone want to take an “Early Out” or early retirement. At that time I was responsible for Nine Billion dollars a year in federal dollars, which Lent itself to “Just a bit of Stress . . .” I had been doing planning for retirement for some time and I began to figure that if I could do about $400 a month in storytelling, I could make up the difference in what I would get from the Feds for staying another 5 years till I could formally retire . . . And the next thing I knew, my had was in the air and I was saying “Take Me!” I have been telling stories full time since that time and have loved the opportunities it has given me to interact with others from Nursery School to Nursing Homes, and SHARE not TELL stories to wonderful people. I have averaged around 250 shows a year all over the country, and yes, I have been able to make over $400 a month to supplement my early retirement.

The Big thing I have gotten more that any monetary benefit, (although I must admit that it nice) is the true JOY of being with my audience.
This is where the “Giving Back” and community involvement comes in. I have personally known the feeling of having someone come up to me and say “I way there in your story, I wish I could tell my stories . . .” I have been there when I have taught teacher how to use storytelling in their classrooms and seen the “Light Bulbs” go off when they think “that is exactly how Billy learns”. That is more powerful than any check can ever be.

About 15 years ago, River and Prairie Storyweavers (RAPS), the Kansas City area Storytelling Guild, decided
we would have a winter retreat. We decided that we would go out of town for the retreat since everyone would stay and be with each other for an entire weekend. We went to Topeka, KS, about 60 miles from KC, stayed in a hotel, ate together, told stories together and brought everyone to a closeness that only storytellers can achieve. We went back the next year and when telling stories on Saturday afternoon, one teller said “I’ve got to tell this CHICKEN STORY.” When he was through, almost everyone came up with a CHICKEN STORY! In the wrap up of the weekend, we began to realize that the “RAPS Retreat” didn’t have the most “PZAZZ” and marketing capability . . . So we decided to make the annual January event the “CHICKEN FESTIVAL” We decided that this would be a festival with NO featured tellers, and everyone who attended would be the FEATURE! We also decide to make this an event which would travel to areas which had NO storytelling presence. We would invite the community to participate and listen to stories and even tell if they so pleased. So far we have started four new storytelling groups in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. We give new group the opportunity to become a sub group of RAPS and make use of our 501(C)(3) Non profit status, until they can become independent on their own. About eight years ago we added music to the program and we now have tow or three session of time where anyone can bring their musical instruments and “Jam” for the group. We have had as many as twenty people up playing together who have never played together before. We have also had locals from the community enter into this activity.

For more information on Steve Otto goto: http://www.i-tell.net/

3 Comments

  • By Linda Fang, August 27, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

    I listened in on the interviews with Ellen Munds and Steve Otto. They were fabulous! I learned so much about starting a storytelling festival. Thank you Eric for getting all those wonderful people to share their experiences. I hope more people will listen in to your show. You are an extraordinary interviewer!

  • By Harvey Heilbrun, January 29, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    I listened to your podcast. It was great. What was the name of the book of quick tales that was mentioned in it. I can’t remember and would like to seek it out. Another book of similar focus that I just took out from our library compiled by Margaret Read MacDonald is called, Three-minute tales : stories from around the world to tell or read when time is short.

  • By Denis Gessing, November 6, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    Eric. Just a note to say thanks for turning me onto Steve Otto, via my ipod collection. Can you tell me the link to get his free handout? Would appreciate it.
    Thanks, Denis

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