August 12, 2005: Headlines: Storytelling: RPCV Caren S. Neile aims to take storytelling to the streets

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RPCV Caren S. Neile aims to take storytelling to the streets

RPCV Caren S. Neile aims to take storytelling to the streets

Neile specifically wants to engage people who might not think they have anything to say. She's convinced that everyone's got a story to tell -- after a little on-the-spot coaching if they want it.

RPCV Caren S. Neile aims to take storytelling to the streets

Telling tales out of school

FAU professor aims to teach the public art of storytelling.

By Jennifer Peltz
Staff Writer
Posted August 12 2005

BOCA RATON · It's not a stretch to say that Caren S. Neile has a doctorate in telling stories. She teaches the subject at Florida Atlantic University, co-founded the first academic journal on storytelling and established campus and community storytelling groups.

Starting this fall, she aims to take storytelling to the streets -- or, at least, to cafés, clubs, libraries, senior centers, anywhere she's likely to find people who wouldn't seek an audience on their own.

Neile hasn't nailed down details yet. But her plan takes a page from the democratic creativity of a poetry slam, a sort of open-mike poetry competition judged from the audience. The concept has been adapted to storytelling in various places, perhaps most prominently by The Moth: Urban Storytelling, a New York collective whose biweekly story slams draw an average of 175 people, according to the group.

But Neile specifically wants to engage people who might not think they have anything to say. She's convinced that everyone's got a story to tell -- after a little on-the-spot coaching if they want it.

"This will give people who are not heard in a community a chance to be heard," says Neile, of Boca Raton, who runs the FAU-based South Florida Storytelling Project. "Everybody has this ability ... [and] when you can stand up in public and tell your story, there's nothing like it."

Storytelling is, of course, an ancient form of entertainment, as well as a way of passing on history, traditions and ethical lessons. Now, it's broadly defined as relating narratives from memory in a manner that aims for intimacy and improvisation. Storytellers generally don't memorize their tales word for word, and they address audiences directly, rather than creating a separate world onstage.

Some use costumes and take on characters, while others perform as themselves. Their subjects are equally diverse -- they might draw on legends or literature, historic figures' lives or their own. The oral art faced competition from the printing press, let alone cable TV.

But since the 1970s, it also has enjoyed something of a renaissance in venues, ranging from campuses to corporate boardrooms.

"So many times, people say, `Oh, storytellers -- that's just for kids.' Not true. Not at all," says Delray Beach storyteller Sally Leyenberger, founder of Pretend Party Productions.

Some businesses hire professional storytellers to help market products, with the idea that customers will literally buy the story. Schools bring in the performers to boost language skills, spark imagination and foster multicultural understanding, according to the National Storytelling Network, a group of 2,500 performers and organizations.

Trial lawyers have asked storytellers for help presenting their cases. Some medical schools have started teaching students to look for the story in medical history, in hopes of helping them better interpret and explain what patients tell them. And at least 80 colleges and universities around the country offer classes in storytelling, according to a list maintained by University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Eric Miller.

"Storytellers have worked so hard over the years to make it a viable art," said Rishi Richardson of the network.

The network recently recognized Neile for her "tremendous, unshakable faith in the power of storytelling to do good work in the world."

That story begins with FAU's unusual doctorate in comparative studies, better known as its public intellectuals program. Neile was one of the first students in the program, which blends various academic fields to explore major societal questions.

To Neile -- a former Peace Corps volunteer and journalist with theater experience and a master's degree in creative writing -- that meant looking for ways to use creative expression to spur social change.

"I decided, as an artist, the best way that I could involve the community in social action ... was through storytelling," she says.

She said she hopes the upcoming storytelling slams will do just that.

After all, she reasons, "if you can tell your story on a stage, then you will be better equipped to tell your story at a city council meeting."

For more information on the South Florida Storytelling Project and its plans for storytelling slams, see or call 561-297-0042 or e-mail Caren Neile at

Jennifer Peltz can be reached at or 561-243-6636.

When this story was posted in August 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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