Stanford Storytelling Project plans for a new audio journal

Dec. 4, 2012, 7:02 a.m.

When Jonah Willihnganz, Braden Lecturer in Narrative Art, conceived the idea of the Stanford Storytelling Project in 2007, he didn’t predict that within five years the project would expand to involve hundreds of students or be ready to launch an audio journal — the first of its kind.

The project, which started out as a class taught by Willihnganz, now produces a radio show called “State of the Human” that airs on KZSU, sponsors courses focused on the art of storytelling, hosts events that bring professional storytellers to Stanford and provides grants for undergraduate students to create oral storytelling projects.

The project’s newest initiative is Epiphony, an audio journal that will release its first issue in fall 2013. Willihnganz proposed the idea for Epiphony last year after noticing the lack of publications providing tips and guides on oral storytelling.

“There were no books, magazines or journals featuring tips on craft,” he said. “The motivation was to create a forum for exploring the craft of oral storytelling.”

Willihnganz sees the journal as a way to share storytelling tips and advice with a national and even global audience. The audio journal and an accompanying transcript will be posted on the Stanford Storytelling Project website and made available on iTunes. The project may also publish a print version of the journal that would include a CD or links to audio files.

Along with interviews with professional storytellers and reflections on the craft of storytelling, the journal will include examples of exemplary stories from storytellers inside and outside of the Stanford community. The journal is accepting submissions for the first issue until May.

According to Dana Kletter, the project’s fiction editor and one of the editors of Epiphony, the journal is one of several ways that the Stanford Storytelling Project is promoting exploration of the craft of storytelling.

“The craft of storytelling is a bit of a lost art,” Kletter said. “The human voice is like an instrument, and that is how we are thinking about oral storytelling.”

Though the journal will initially be released biannually, Kletter said the eventual goal is to produce four issues per year.

Natacha Ruck M.A. ’13, a senior producer and project administrator, said that interest in reviving oral storytelling has been growing nationwide as well as at Stanford.

Ruck estimated that the Stanford Storytelling Project has doubled in size every six months and referenced several Storytelling Project events that drew hundreds of people, including a lecture and reading by Ira Glass on Nov. 4.

“Modern oral storytelling has been having a rebirth, and there are so many things that are cropping up,” Ruck said. “We kind of want to be the voice that sets the reflection on this movement, kind of like a school of thought or a school of storytelling.”

Willihnganz noticed this revival of interest in storytelling in 2007, when he first decided to teach a class about creating radio stories. While developing his class, he approached the Stanford Institute of Creativity and the Arts (SiCa) for a grant to launch a radio show that aired the pieces that his students created. SiCa agreed to provide the grant, and the Stanford Storytelling Project was born.

For several years, Willihnganz worked with a small group of students in his class. After receiving an endowment from a donor to expand the program, the Storytelling Project began offering more events, including last year’s Big Shorts program, a series of 10 live storytelling events at the Coffee House (CoHo).

The project is also sponsoring several new courses, which Willihnganz said help fill a gap in Stanford’s curriculum.

Though Stanford offers creative writing courses teaching students how to tell textual stories, Willihnganz said that before the Storytelling Project launched their courses, there had been no courses easily accessible to undergraduate students focused on telling stories using other media.

“Telling a story using the voice is very different from telling a story in text,” he said. “It feels like you should know how to tell a story, that it is a natural thing you should know how to do, but it isn’t. It requires a lot of thought and craft.”

The Storytelling Project further engages with students through its grant program, which began in fall 2011. The project offers grants of up to $3,000 each to about 15 undergraduate students each year. The grant is provided to allow students “to study in oral tradition or to record an oral narrative,” according to Ruck.

Last year, one grant recipient visited Italy to examine the plight of immigrants stuck in receiving centers, and another studied gang violence in Chicago.

The program reaches a wider variety of Stanford community members through its weekly StoryLab, where students, faculty and staff participate in a lesson on craft and receive help from Storytelling Project staff on projects ranging from radio stories to creative writing assignments. The StoryLab attracts between 10 and 20 students each week, according to Ruck.

Xandra Clark ’12 M.A. ’13, a senior producer and events director for the Storytelling Project, attends the StoryLab almost every week. Clark said that many of the attendees are undergraduates, with a core group of students who come frequently and several new participants each week.

Clark believes that the Storytelling Project will continue to expand.

“Over the years, the project has been growing significantly. People are more interested in hearing stories and telling stories,” she said. “The more that we can make a presence for storytelling on campus, the better.”

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