ONCE UPON A TIME…
Meet two women who are in one of the world’s oldest professions – storytelling.
By Marie Bartlett
It’s a summer night in Philadelphia, and some 20,000 people are seated on quilts or blankets before a large outdoor stage on which two women are standing. A hush falls over the crowd as one of the women steps up to a microphone and, in a low, melodic voice, says, “I’d like to tell you a story . . . ”
For the next 15 minutes the audience is mesmerized as the woman vividly recounts a tale about a mother – who, thought to be dead and buried, comes home from the grave. When she knocks on the door, her shocked husband and children refuse to let her in until they hear the family’s two white horses neighing a welcome after recognizing her.
“Two White Horses” is just one of about 100 stories that “The Folktellers” – Connie Regan-Blake, 39, and her partner and cousin, Barbara Freeman, 42 – have been telling audiences around the world for more than ten years. The pair is part of a revival of one of the world’s oldest professions: storytelling. Today there are more than 400 professional storytellers in the United States.
Twelve years ago, when both women were librarians in Chattanooga, Tennessee, they started telling stories to children’s groups. They were such a hit at local libraries, schools, and benefits that in 1975 the women decided to take their act on the road (they were both single at the time).
With only $2,000 and a pickup camper between them, they traveled from town to town, telling their stories at community festivals, state fairs, and other functions.
Getting established wasn’t easy. During their first year of performing they earned just $400. To make matters worse, someone broke into their camper and stole most of the possessions they had with them. That was the only time the two broke down and cried.
Despite the setbacks, Connie and Barbara were determined to continue. “We knew that in storytelling we had stumbled onto something really special,” Connie explained.
After a while the duo began accepting invitations to appear at major folk festivals and concerts. Other offers followed, and by 1978 they were performing regularly – about 150 times a year. Since then they’ve given shows in more than 40 states and 12 countries, produced three storytelling albums – two of which won awards from the American Library Association – and have remained active in the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, which they helped found.
“We didn’t know if we could make a living telling stories, but we knew we wanted to live as storytellers.”
Their latest venture is Mountain Sweet Talk, a play they’ve co-written and produced, which celebrates life in the Appalachian Mountains and includes many of their stories. Both Connie, who recently married, and Barbara now live in North Carolina, and working on the play lessens their time on the road and lets them stay home more.
But their performing career is far from over. “Stories are too powerful to die,” Connie says. “They’ve always been with us, and while we may have turned toward other forms of entertainment, the stories are still there. So we’re not really changing, we’re just coming home.”