Ann Arbor Storytellers Tell Tall Tales and True Stories

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This entry is part [part not set] of 21 in the series Ann Arbor Family Newsletter

Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild (AASG) is currently striving for an in-person comeback from the pandemic, but has entertained children and adults alike since the 1990s. 

AASG, also referred to as “the Guild,” puts on many events throughout the year to keep its oral tradition alive. Storytellers also called “tellers,” attest to bringing joy and positive emotions to audiences via their performances, sometimes sharing personal memories.

Coming up soon for AASG is a “StoryFest” on October 8 and a children’s concert on Sunday, October 9.

Some members choose to focus on fiction, some non-fiction. Some focus on children’s stories, some more on adult audiences—but all are entertaining and seasoned tellers with a wide variety of backgrounds.

Retired Teacher: Kathleen Wright

Kathleen Wright is a retired teacher and has lived in Ann Arbor for over 40 years, initially coming to the city as a University of Michigan student.

Wright shared a story of her involvement in starting up the Guild. 

“I was one of the original AASG members when it began around 1998, ” Wright recalled. “…I was teaching preschool and going to library story times and, of course, telling my own stories to my group of kids. The AADL librarians knew this and told me about some tellers that wanted to form a group. There had been a group years before, which Judy (Schmidt) was part of, but the Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild started anew.”

Wright’s activity with AASG includes storytelling for the annual guild StoryFest family storytelling concerts, teaching workshops focused on telling for kids, and being one of the tellers on the Guild’s first storytelling CD. I have also told stories for elementary schools, bookstores, and the Jackson Storytelling Festival.” 

Wright just retired from the Ann Arbor Public Schools in June and hopes to have more time to be involved now in the AASG monthly meetings. She also links the occupation of teaching to storytelling.

“I became a storyteller because I am a teacher first, and as many teachers of young children find, storytelling skills help draw kids in,” Wright said. “I taught preschool, kindergarten, and young fives, so I had lots of practice with a captive audience. So many learning opportunities come about through storytelling.”

Because she lives in Ann Arbor and is involved in another local part-time job with children, she hopes to keep telling stories with them as well.

Now I am a family child care provider and do before and after school care for students at Bach school, a half block from my home,” she detailed. “You can bet my little group of kids and I will be telling lots of stories this year. My family is also Irish, and I can say with no hint of bias that the Irish are some of the best storytellers in the world….I happen to know quite a bit about those fairy doors downtown and all around Ann Arbor, as well. It is our family project—my husband is Jonathan Wright, of fairy door fame. I especially enjoy telling stories of the fae and fairy tales of all sorts.” 

Current Special Education Teacher: Patti Smith 

Patti Smith is a special education teacher and has lived in Ann Arbor since 2001. A friend got her involved in AASG.

“I heard of the group from my former coworker, Darryl Mickens,” Smith said. “We both taught together in South West Detroit, and he told me about his storytelling group. It took me some years before I finally got up the nerve to go. I think I started going in 2012 or 2013. I love being in the Guild as there is so much to do. You can do everything from being a teller at the Ark showcase to telling at a meeting.”

While COVID prevented Smith from being active for a while, she is planning to be more active again now that things are opening up. Smith’s background and experience made her a natural storyteller.

“I’ve been a public speaker my entire adult life–from being a legal aid lawyer to being a teacher to being a storyteller,” Smith said. “I’m never not nervous before a performance because I want to do my absolute best. I love seeing new storytellers get up for the first time and get that ‘performance glow.’”

While some AASG members specialize more in children’s storytelling, Smith focuses more on the adult side.

“My ‘showcase’ story is called ‘What’s In the Envelope’ and is about finishing law school, taking the Bar Exam, and getting the results in that big green and white envelope,” Smith described. “My stories are all personal narratives, and most are R-rated except for the ‘Envelope’ one and one called ‘The Plant People’ about a misunderstanding I had as a kid.”

Smith was also asked about the diversity of the group.

“That’s a good question about the diversity,” Smith stated. “It skews older, white, about balanced male/female…That said, everyone is absolutely welcome. If you’ve never told a story, never been on stage, or if you’ve been doing stand-up your whole life…there is a place for you!”

Diversity traditionally means the promotion and inclusion of people from various ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and other backgrounds.

Tai Chi Instructor/Retired Teacher: Darryle Bruce Mickens

Darryl Bruce Mickens heard about AASG at a storytelling festival at the Ark and joined the Guild in 2002. 

Mickens is a Tai Chi instructor and a retired special education teacher and has taught in Detroit for almost 25 years. 

“I have enjoyed all the opportunities to tell stories,” recalled Mickens, but noted that the pandemic slowed down his participation in the monthly story swap and Guild member meetings.

Mickens stated that some of the members perform individually at schools and other facilities.

 

Darryl Bruce Mickens heard about AASG at a storytelling festival at the Ark and joined the guild in 2002. Photo courtesy of Darryl Bruce Mickens

“I will be performing at the Jackson, Michigan Storyfest in early November,” Mickens notes. “The Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild performs as a group annually in October for a big story fest, and some members participate in the scary story festival in Howell, Michigan.”

 

Mickens stated that the Guild has monthly story swaps for members to try out stories and a small handful of house concerts throughout the year for members. The Guild also collaborates with The Ark’s storytelling festival, which is held every February. Generally, one member of the Guild gets to share the stage with national storytellers.

He also commented on the diversity of the group.

At this point in time, most of the group is over 50 years old,” Mickens described. “We are encouraging younger people to join the Ann Arbor Storytellers’ Guild, and anyone can join the group. Membership is $20 for an individual per year, $30 for a family, and lifetime individual membership available for $300,” he said.

Mickens is also a self-published author. His book is titled: Haiku Rebellion in Utopia. He is also a member of the Huron River Art Collective, where his medium is photography. 

But storytelling is also important to him.

“I enjoy retelling folktales or telling stories I wrote,” he described. “Sometimes I tell stories from my life and family.”

AASG President and Retired Worker: Mike Cox

Mike Cox is the President of AASG, retired from “paid work,” and currently lives in rural Eaton County.

Cox explains that the group’s mission “is to promote, perpetuate, and celebrate the art of storytelling.”

According to Cox, there are currently 44 members of AASG. Schmitt said according to the 2020 handbook, there are 56 members. Some members reportedly became less active during Covid, but many are stating they are in the process of returning. Treasurer Beverly Black reports there are currently 42 members of the Guild. At the time of publication, there were 21 members.

Cox has a unique description of his own storytelling.

“I’m a self-professed history nerd who loves puns and tall tales,” Cox described. “I do first person interpretations of US Senator Zechariah Chandler from Michigan during the Civil War and Sam Hill from Michigan’s copper mining boom.  When I do first-person interpretation, I dress in period clothing and tell stories as that person.  I also serve on the Eaton County Historical Commission.”  

Retired Librarian: Judith Schmidt

 Judith Schmidt is a retired school librarian and has lived in Ann Arbor since 1957.  She is a founding member of the group.

 “I have enjoyed participating, interacting with other members, promoting and publicizing events over the years, bringing storytellers from around the country into the Ann Arbor Public Schools, which I did for many years,” Schmidt described.

Schmidt started storytelling when she was a middle school librarian and discovered that many of the same folktales they liked were also attractive to adults.

 “One of my favorites to tell is a Chinese story collected during the 1930s from Chinese immigrants to California in a WPA project and retold by author Laurence Yep,” Schmidt recalled. WPA stands for Works Progress Administration, a federal agency created in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Judith Schmidt is a retired school librarian and has lived in Ann Arbor since 1957. She is a founding member of the group. Photo courtesy of Judith Schmidt

 After she retired, she started storytelling in elementary schools and learned a whole new repertoire. She stated that she found the books of Margaret Read MacDonald immensely helpful in telling stories to children.

Schmidt said she also tells personal stories about her husband, Manfred, who is quite a character and adds more than a bit of drama to her life. Those stories she reserves for primarily adult audiences. She feels that storytelling has also improved her writing.

Retired CFO and Geologist: Steve Daut

Steve Daut is a retired CFO and geologist and has lived in Chelsea since 1986.

“When I attended a Storytelling concert at The Ark nine years ago, a number of my friends said I should try it since I was always telling stories,” Daut revealed. “I have been involved in telling stories ever since.”

Daut stated that he attends monthly meetings when he can and also served as President for a few years. He has attended Storytelling events regularly, online, which was more common during Covid, and in person.

“I have performed on stage for many years in different ways, including magic, sketch comedy, improv, and stand-up comedy,” Daut added. “I have also written and produced plays.”

Daut stated that he tells many kinds of stories, including folk tales, tall tales, scary stories, personal stories, and his adaptations of Mark Twain stories. 

“My favorites tend to be whatever program I am doing at the moment, but I do especially like stories where I can act out characters as part of the story,” he said.

Regarding diversity, Daut stated there is a reverence for diversity in the tales that he shares.

“Anyone is free to join, and we have had people from a number of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “By promoting storytelling in the broader sense, the Guild embraces diversity. Folk tales, in particular, expose the teller and the listener to the wit, wisdom, and belief systems of many different cultures throughout the world.” 

Retired Teaching Consultant and Treasurer: Beverly Black

Beverly Black is retired from The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, where she was a Teaching Consultant.  She lived in Ann Arbor for 44 years and now resides in Milan.

She credits becoming interested in storytelling many years ago from a workshop she took.

“About 23 years ago, I took a storytelling workshop at the Celtic College in Goderich, Ontario,” Black recalled. “I ended up telling a story in front of 200 people who attended the Celtic College Concert on the last day and loved it. When I came back from College, I actively looked for a storytelling group and found the Ann Arbor Storytelling Guild (AASG) and have been active ever since.”

Black also describes the Guild with a particular fondness.

“I love the Guild and the people who are members,” told Black. “I like the way we all work together to help each of us become better storytellers.  We are a community, and it has given me a chance to grow in several different ways.”

Black said she tells stories every chance she gets—at meetings, workshops, concerts, in small groups, and larger groups.

She is also Treasurer of AASG, a member of its Board, and, with Mary Heumann, in charge of the “Monday Lunch Bunch” that meets on the first Monday every month to lunch together and tell stories at Island park or indoors when it gets cold in a place to be determined. She also hopes to get more active again when the Covid threat is less.

“Before Covid, I facilitated many four-session workshops called ‘The Art of Storytelling,’” she revealed. “These workshops were open to the public. However, several members of the Guild participated. Once it is safer to meet in groups, I will probably do more of these workshops.”

Black also hopes for a comeback with more members.

“At the present time, there are 42 members of the Guild,” she reported.  “This has gone down since Covid because, in my view, we have not been able to meet in person. While we have continued to meet on Zoom, the storytelling just isn’t the same as when we do it in person. The audience plays a big part in making a story work. We also haven’t been able to conduct storytelling workshops which promote membership.”

Full Disclosure: Donna Iadipaolo, in addition to being a freelance writer/journalist, is a teacher and is experienced with both in-person and online teaching. While she has taught chiefly math, she has also worked in the performance arena, such as with Forensics and drama students. Iadipaolo earned an Honors Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and three teaching certificates Majoring in math, English, and social science. She formally began teaching in 1993. Additionally, Iadipaolo earned a Master of Science degree in Mathematics Teaching and Learning from Drexel University, a Master of Arts degree from Eastern Michigan University, and an Education Specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of West Florida.

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