Priscilla Howe–Storyteller

Since 1988, storyteller Priscilla Howe has entertained audiences of all ages with (almost) true stories, world folktales and stories from books, most served with a generous dollop of humor.

Young children meet her mouthy handpuppet Trixie, while Priscilla offers sophisticated stories for older audiences. A former children’s librarian, Priscilla has a gift for sizing up crowds and delivering a whopping good time.

Priscilla grew up in New England and has lived in Vermont, Belgium, Kansas, Bulgaria, New York and Connecticut in her adult life. She now lives in Lawrence, KS with her cat, Joe Fish. She travels around the US and to Europe regularly. She performs mostly in English, and is fluent in French and Bulgarian. So are her puppets.

Priscilla is also on a quest for the best restaurant pie on earth.

What made you want to become a storyteller?
The first time I told a story at a school as a children’s librarian, I had a fantastic time. I told a story I made up when I was a teenage babysitter, as well as a story by Philippa Pearce. The kids listened attentively and they clapped at the end. I was hooked!

Was the journey difficult?
Like most journeys, it has had its potholes. I was fortunate to tell stories within my job for five years before I decided to take the leap into full-time storytelling. I worked at the craft with the help of my colleagues, friends and other storytellers in the area. In 1993, I left my job to be a full-time storyteller. It was especially difficult because I moved to a different state at the same time. Being a full-time storyteller also means owning a business, which can be a real challenge. One of the hardest parts of being a full-time storyteller is marketing my work.

What were some of your favorite stories growing up? What made those stories so special?
Growing up, I loved the animal stories by Thornton Burgess, as well as contemporary books like “Harriet the Spy” and “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.” I felt quite comfortable with the characters in books–as I read, I entered the world of the book completely. I grew up in a family of readers and to this day, when there are several of us together, we’re content to sit and read quietly together.

Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story?
There’s a big difference between writing and telling a story. The written story somehow has to include all the shades of meaning that come out in the storyteller’s face, body and voice. I can say the same sentence in fifty different ways, but it looks the same written down. Try that: take a sentence like “We’re having chicken for dinner tonight” and say it in an angry voice, a disgusted voice, a happy voice, the voice of a toddler. Also, when I tell a story, it may come out of my mouth differently every time. It’s not memorized, but I tell you the story of the movie in my head.

What is the difference between a fable, a parable, and a fairy tale?
Fables and parables have specific lessons to teach, and they sometimes have a moral tacked on at the end. Fables often use animals as the characters to show human characteristics. Fairy tales have a magical aspect, in which humans are helped or hindered by fantastic creatures.

If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why?
If I could be anybody in a story, I’d choose the Wise Old Woman, or maybe the Renegade Princess. Both are independent thinkers, willing to take chances.

If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?
I’d like to have coffee with Willy Claflin. He’s one of the funniest storytellers I’ve ever heard. I know him slightly and every time we’ve talked, we’ve had a wide-ranging (and hysterical) conversation. We use puppets in a similar way, sort of goofy and serious at the same time.  I’d love to have coffee with Anna Deveare Smith, even though she’s not strictly a storyteller in the sense that I am. She wrote an inspiring book called “Letters to a young artist”, advice to a young person embarking on a life in the arts.

What inspires you as a storyteller?
I’m inspired by other storytellers, especially those doing interesting projects. I’m also inspired by art and music and good books.

What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?
Not every storyteller is a writer, but I find writing to be a useful tool in my workbox. When I have writer’s block, I might pull out my copy of “Wild Mind” by Natalie Goldberg for a little help. Or I take myself downtown to a coffee shop and write in my journal. Or I just declare that I’m having a day off and I don’t write at all. If that goes on too long, eventually I get bored and go back to work.

What stories are you working on presently?
Right now I’m thinking about an English folktale called “The small-tooth dog”. It’s a version of “Beauty and the Beast” that I like quite a bit. I’m also thinking about the Medieval romance “Aucassin and Nicolette”, which I’ve told a half-dozen times. I’ve been having a problem with the main character seeming too whiny. My audiences didn’t like that, so I’m working on finding a way to soften his tone. I’m also considering doing an evening of stories of the Turkish trickster Nasruddin Hodja. I always have several projects going at once, just as I’m always reading several books at once.

Advice?
Here’s the biggest rule in storytelling: only tell stories you love. If you don’t love them, your audience will know this and they won’t love the stories either.Storytelling is wonderful, but it’s not an easy career to have. I think it was storyteller Elizabeth Ellis who said, “If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it.” That means that if you’re completely full of passion for telling stories, you’d better do it. If it’s just an interest, do it as a hobby, do it as part of another job like teaching or being a librarian. There’s great value in that. No matter what, have fun!

Where can we find out more about your work?
You can learn more about me and my work at http://priscillahowe.com/ There are even some stories to listen to on the website. I also have three CDs and a DVD, available from http://storyteller.net/

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About Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

Jolene Owen is an interactive journalist working in the transmedia sector. View all posts by Jolene Owen (Editor-at-large)

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