From the very beginning, telling stories has been the most cherished form of communication. Through stories we share history and heritage, we let our imaginations soar, and we teach the age-old lessons of life. Fast paces changes in technology in the past century have caused us to forget somewhat the magic of hearing a tale woven aloud. Tale tellers and an ever-more-receptive listening audience, however, are reinvigorating – and reinventing – the oral tradition.
Connie Regan-Blake: How to Tell a Story
By Marla Hardee Milling
Sometimes a story will come up to me, tap me on the shoulder, and ask to be told,” says master storyteller Connie Regan-Blake. “The tapping comes after you’ve been telling stories for some time.”
Regan-Blake sits in the living room of her mountaintop Asheville home, surrounded by five women who desire to learn the tricks of her trade. They all signed up for her intensive two-day storytelling workshop. As she begins, she tells her students that following the breaks during the day she wants them to choose a different chair to sit in. She also encourages them to enter and exit through different doors. She says this exercise will allow them to see things from a new perspective, and ultimately, that will help shape their storytelling skills.
“I’m there to entertain and take the listeners to another place if they want to go,” says Regan-Blake. She compares telling tales to carrying a platter of food around a crowded room. “I’m there to serve but not to insist on what they take. Some people only want dessert [or sweet stories]. I can’t know what’s happening in people’s minds. It’s not my responsibility as a storyteller to fill them up. It’s much more of offering the platter and not trying to impose what their reaction should be.”
While Regan-Blake demonstrates her skills to students and coaches them on techniques, the core of the workshop concentrates on helping them find their own voices. She breaks her group into pairs, with one telling a story while the other listens. A timer rings at the end of each session, and then the listener has the opportunity to give feedback, or what Regan-Blake refers to as “appreciations.” These appreciations help identify what was universal about the story.
Before another set of stories, Regan-Blake leads the group on a guided memory meditation. She invites them to close their eyes and go back to a home that has good memories. As they enter, she gives them several questions to consider: What do you see? What do you hear? Go to a favorite room in the house – what object do you see?
When the students complete this exercise, they open their eyes and begin in turn telling a story to their partner about what they experienced. Some become very emotional as they tell of the once-tucked-away memories that suddenly became so vivid again.
“When you re-experience that memory, even one that is wonderful, you don’t realize how close to the surface your emotions lie,” says Pam Shuford Murray, one of the workshop participants. “One of the most important things I learned from Connie is that as a storyteller, you have to learn to control your emotions. If you don’t, your listeners won’t hear the story; they will react to your emotions.”
Regan-Blake’s personal history began in Mobile, Alabama, where she was born. Her family then moved to Birmingham, Alabama, followed by Jacksonville, Florida. When she entered Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, she would have laughed had anyone predicted she would spend her career as a storyteller. She admits she comes from a family of talkers, but growing up, she was the one doing the listening. And honing that valuable skill, she says, has helped her become a proficient storyteller.
After college, followed by a year and a half touring Europe, she visited her first cousin, Barbara Freeman, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and that’s where she discovered her true calling.
Freeman worked at the library there and had just secured a grant to take the library to disadvantaged kids in day care. “The whole focus of the program was storytelling,” says Regan-Blake. “Barbara said, ‘Connie, I think you could do this.’ I had never been on stage before. 1’d never been in a play before. But I did that job, and I loved it. I knew in some way I’d be telling stories for the rest of my life.” Regan-Blake spent the following three years telling stories to young children. She expanded on that success by speaking to adults as she went out into the community promoting the library program.
Leap of Faith
Regan-Blake and Freeman loved their jobs at the library, but in 1975, they made a full-time leap into storytelling, calling themselves the “Folk Tellers.”
“We had a yellow Datsun pickup truck. We lived and traveled out of that from 1975 to 1978,” says Regan-Blake. She says the truck, which they dubbed “D’Put” served as their “office, prop room, dressing room, dining room, and bedroom.” Their traveling companions included an eclectic assortment of storytelling props – puppets, quilts, and limberjacks.
After their stint on the road, they decided they wanted to put down roots in Asheville, where Regan-Blake met her husband, Phil Blake, in 1981. Regan-Blake and Freeman both decided to spend more time closer to home and began working on a new venture. Together, they wrote, produced, and starred in a two-act play called Mountain Sweet Talk. They performed during the summer and fall at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway from 1986 to 1992, conducting more than 300 performances.
The duo doesn’t often get a chance to perform together anymore, but they are looking forward to a reunion of sorts at the 16th Annual Smoky Mountains Storytelling Festival in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in February.
New Stories to Tell
This year marks a significant milestone for Regan-Blake. In July, the National Storytelling Network presented her with the 2006 Oracle Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Storytelling Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It recognizes her “sustained and exemplary contribution to storytelling in North America.” This is a significant honor in a long list of achievements and accolades, but there’s no time to rest on her laurels.
She just released a new CD called Dive Into Stories: A Telling Performance, and she maintains a hectic schedule performing across the country and internationally, as well as teaching others the art of telling stories. She performs for a large variety of convention groups, educational conferences, schools, and libraries. Her workshops usually fall into two categories: weekend retreats working with small groups and one-hour to full-day workshops for large groups of as many as 100 people.
In summer 2006, she led her first long workshop of eight days in Asheville. The group spent part of the time working on stories, and they took two day trips. Regan-Blake plans to offer another long workshop next summer and there’s more on the horizon – more workshops and definitely more stories to tell.
Marla Hardee Milling is a native of Asheville.
To Learn More
For a schedule of Connie Regan-Blake’s workshops and storytelling events, as well as information about her CDs (including Tales of Appalachia: Stories and Chamber Music performed with the Kandinsky Trio), call StoryWindow Productions at (828) 258-1113, or visit Regan-Blake’s website at www.storywindow.com.