You can get paid to tell stories, it’s true. A lot of people may call themselves storytellers these days, but I’m talking about old-school oral storytelling. In front of a microphone. With people watching or listening.
For a select few, it’s a career. These spoken-word storytellers make a living by performing, writing, consulting, and podcasting. They teach others how to do it and release CDs and books.
The Freelancer spoke to three of these storytellers about how they launched their careers and how they decide which stories are actually the ones worth telling.
After MTV’s The State went off the air, Kevin Allison starved for the next 12 years. He was doing whatever he could to pull a decent income, but nothing steady developed. Then, after a one-man-show performance, Michael Ian Black approached Allison and told him that instead of acting, he should be himself on stage—even if it was risky.
From there, Allison decided to tell a story, live, about trying to prostitute himself. “There was something so much more compelling between myself and the audience because they knew the truth was being told,” he said.
After his first foray into nonfiction storytelling, Allison started a podcast called “Risk!” It premiered in 2009, and features people telling personal stories, such as Giulia Rozzi talking about how a wonderful coming-of-age love affair with a beanbag chair impacted her adolescence. Today, the podcast receives 600,000 downloads per month, has been written about in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and sells out live shows around the world.
Five years in, Allison makes money off this well-oiled oral-storytelling machine by selling episodes and merchandise and charging for live shows. He created Story Studio, a series of in-person and online classes and one-on-one workshops for aspiring storytellers.
Allison admitted he doesn’t have a head for business, however, and credited his producer, JC, for brainstorming moneymaking plans. There may not be a lot of money in storytelling itself, but there are many other opportunities available for the people who excel at it. They can advise on scripts, write articles, or serve as consultants for communication skills.
When Allison isn’t producing “Risk!” or listening to other people’s stories, he performs in New York City at shows like “Andy Christie’s The Liar Show” and “Ask Me Stories.” He said his goal as a storyteller is “to be more authentically revealing of myself in a way that helps other people feel like it’s ok for them to also be more authentically revealing of themselves.”
Ophira Eisenberg considers herself a comedian, writer, and storyteller. She’s can’t pinpoint when she started telling stories because she’s been doing it all her life. “Even before ‘storytelling’ was a genre of performance I was telling stories on stage through the format of stand-up or a solo show,” she said.
Eisenberg has appeared on “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” and hosts “Ask Me Another,” a weekly game show on WNYC and NPR.
Though she isn’t exclusively a storyteller, it has helped with other aspects of her career. “Performing stories from my life on stage definitely helped with developing my memoir Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy,” she said. “It’s also helped me take my stand-up to a different level.”
Eisenberg decides which stories are worth telling and gives them a clear beginning, middle and end. She said the key to a good story comes from figuring out what happened to you in the story that made it different from any other day and changed you.
For those who are interested in working as storytellers, Eisenberg recommended just getting out there in front of audiences and performing. “The Moth Slams are great, and many other storytelling shows offer an open mic-like event that you can sign up for on the night or put your name in the hat,” she said. “That being said, there are a lot of excellent classes taught by many of my friends that you can take get your feet wet.”
Dylan Brody has been a storyteller since 2005, when he sold his first burned CD. “I didn’t really choose it as a profession,” he said. “I found it.”
Over the past nine years, he’s told stories at “Sit ‘N’ Spin” in Hollywood, “Tales by the Sea” in Malibu, and “Tasty Words” in Santa Monica. He’s opened for David Sedaris. He also does stand-up comedy, writes ad copy, ghostwrites prose, and picks up options or renewals for screenplays.
“Like any freelance artistic job, making a living is about cobbling together enough income sources to stay afloat,” he said. “The key, I’m finding, is to have so much out on the marketplace in terms of books, CDs, and tracks running on radio that there is a constant trickle of royalties coming in to give me a bit of an income base.”
Other than working with a manager who helps negotiate contracts, Brody does all bookings and promotion on his own. And he constantly takes notes to formulate ideas for stories. “If I see someone at a bus stop and I can’t shake the image of her umbrella or I overhear an argument at a grocery store and keep reviewing the details, I start to write it. I will almost always find that it is tickling at some memory.”
Brody said he knows he’s had a good night when people come up to him after a show and tell him how they relate to his work. “’I have a story just like that,’ they say. Then they tell me stories that seem to connect in no way at all to what I’ve presented. That means I’ve done it right. It means that I’ve touched on something universal, something recognizable that plucks the strings of resonance in their own psychic histories.”