In the mid 90s Cindy-Lee Harper created The Storytelling Garden, the first agency exclusively for Storytellers. Her mentorship enabled several Victorian tellers to begin telling stories for a living.
How did you get into storytelling?
Down Bridge Rd in Richmond was the first and best Faery shop. My response upon seeing it? “Look, look! A Faery Shop! Let’s go in!”
The upshot of spotting a faery shop in the mid 90s was learning that they held storytelling sessions for adults. I was utterly entranced and dragged a tolerant group of friends along to an evening of wine and words.
Afterwards my friends insisted that I could do that. What? Tell stories for a living? You can’t earn a living from telling stories, I scoffed. The thought stayed.
I became driven by the desire to meet other storytellers, hear stories and tell one. Typical me, I had to have a story prepared before I even went to my first Storytelling Guild cafe. I was so nervous. I listened enthralled and trembling told my first tale, The Standing Stones. It went well and I was hooked.
Several months into this journey I took the plunge to tell stories for money! My first gig was at a child care centreI was so nervous, I was too sick to eat breakfast.
When did you start the agency?
I was married at the time and was able to work part time and start my storytelling business. I did the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme and understood enough about marketing to successfully promote myself. I sent out fliers and began cold calling in my local area, gradually spreading out. It was hard selling myself with each call and eventually used some of my part time wages to pay a friend to make the calls.
The work began rolling in. Each program was meticulously prepared and planned with an existing knowledge of early childhood education. I was aware of how preschools planned their programs. When I branched out into Primary schools, I researched the curriculum needs and what I had to offer that met those needs and tailored my offerings accordingly.
You contributed to the work that storytellers are still doing and developing in the Early Childhood sector. Would you talk a bit about that?
I developed my style based in my own performance experiences, training as an English, Speech and Drama teacher and work with young people. I had not had much to do with young children when I started but I understood teaching. I understood expectations of teaching, about learning outcomes and quickly ascertained the learning framework the teachers had to meet.
I created programs on themes that I knew preschools covered, spoke to why storytelling would be of benefit and did my best to tick as many boxes for time poor teachers as possible. The idea was to become the incursion of choice for each preschool I went to.
Soon I had more gigs than I could provide a service for. After agonising, I opened the Garden gate to other storytellers, who also had an interest in early years storytelling, and invited them to join us at the Garden.
The Storytelling Garden website still exists and many of the same features are still on the site. Go to www.storygarden.com.au to check it out.
There were eventually ten incredibly different and talented Storytellers in the Garden. We needed a united front as an agency, so everyone developed programs they were comfortable with. This did not stop tellers developing their own interests and client bases.
Most Garden clients booked back through the Garden because of the level of professionalism. We made sure they booked back by calling them all at the beginning of each school year so they had their choice of dates.
Would you talk a bit more about how you encouraged Storytellers to develop?
Having the Garden tellers gathered in one place was always delightful for me. I really enjoyed listening and watching the enthusiasm and development of ideas. I actually called them Story Gatherings.
We had some inservice training, by sharing amongst ourselves and having each teller share their speciality. Discussing practical storytelling tips for working in early childhood was very important. I have a love of puppets and they work extremely well with the 0-8 age group. As the children got older, I used fewer props and with older teens and adults, none at all.
I liked to use Auslan (Australian Sign Language) key word signing as actions for little ones. This works well for all age groups, would get the occasional child with a disability excited (and feel very included), enable children without verbals to participate and give children a secret language. We had a few incursions ourselves with Mother Goose, Baby Sign and Aboriginal storytelling.
Garden tellers branched out into string stories, drawn stories, picture stories, puppets, treasure boxes, boxes within boxes, baskets, anything and everything went.
I also used a lot of songs, rhymes and poetry. They are all small stories. I used them to break up the stories, get children moving and joining in. There was always a child who participated silently. They would be entranced and be doing tiny tiny actions. They were participating in their own minds. I feel that it is very important to allow children to receive the story however they do and not expect particular reactions.
I feel that the most important thing I shared was that children were welcome to receive the storytelling however they did, they were welcome to the story and they were well come. I understood that the small interruptions (of, “We’ve got bunk beds” or “My daddy has a penis”, which always got an “Excellent” from me) were the children’s way of giving back to you. They just wanted to share as you were sharing with them.
I enjoyed that period of my life enormously.
Cindy-Lee’s website HERE
(pics: Cindy-Lee's treasure chest of stories is legendary. If Australian Storytellers ever create a museum of story props, the treasure chest deserves pride of place!)