REGION — Once upon a time in faraway lands and across the world, children of all ages eagerly waited to hear their favorite stories: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and let’s not forget about “The Three Little Pigs.”
For years and years these stories were told to wide-eyed youngsters, but times have changed and so have stories; in fact, stories aren’t just for the wee ones anymore. And perhaps they never were.
This is according to one of San Diego County’s leading storytellers, Marilyn McPhie, who has made a full-time career as a storyteller since 1985, which evolved while she was raising her family.
“When people think of storytelling they think of a little old lady in a rocking chair reading to little kids at the library seated in a circle with a book,” said the 70-year-old Penasquitos resident. “While I can fit that stereotype, storytelling is a lot more than that and the perception is changing.”
For example, she tells stories to doctors, lawyers and at large corporations but not using books or a script. Additionally, she has told stories for assemblies, classes and festivals, has lectured for several colleges and universities. She has also performed for schools, libraries, museums, civic and church groups, as well as private gatherings. She has directed a troupe of student storytellers and has written reviews for national storytelling and parenting publications.
“There’s more to storytelling than a person telling a story that they haven’t memorized, but one that they know and have prepared,” McPhie said. “A large portion of my storytelling has shifted to adult groups; some of it is because there is less work in schools for outside performers, and I also think the modern storytelling movement has changed in the last 10 years.”
Storytelling: a real ‘thing’
McPhie said that storytelling has become a real “thing” and is extremely popular among all people.
“This is not to say that it is less important, or useful and interesting for kids, but rather it’s just expanding to people of all ages who can benefit from storytelling.”
Of course, when she tells people what she does for a living, they are shocked, she said.
“When I tell people that I am a storyteller, they often say something like, ‘Oh, how cute! You read books to small children.’ I must explain that, although I do that, my storytelling consists of stories told orally rather than read and that I tell stories to all ages and in many different situations.
“More and more, as people become familiar with programs like MOTH (a series of live storytelling events; some of the stories are aired on their radio shows and podcasts), ‘This American Life’ or TEDtalks, or storytelling in other areas of their experience, these people recognize that it’s more than they first assumed,” she said.
But don’t get confused, her own storytelling is not a traditional 40-hour-a week job.
“However, I do consider storytelling my full-time profession,” she said. “In addition to the actual performing, there is research, rehearsal, preparing proposals, writing grants, keeping records, etc.”
Storytelling in North County
McPhie tells stories all around San Diego and beyond. Last month, for example, she did a solo show at the International School of Storytelling in England and North County is a popular place for her services.
“North County, and Encinitas, has become a focal point for storytelling in San Diego,” she said. “The Storytellers of San Diego and the Encinitas Library have presented an all-day free storytelling festival for the past eight years. It involves more than two dozen storytellers, including professionals, community members, school children and more.”
If you’re interested, next year, the festival will be on Saturday, March 16.
“In addition, we are collaborating with the library on a Storytelling Institute, with a series of classes available to anyone who would like instruction in the art of storytelling,” McPhie said. “We plan to start the institute this fall. Also, at the Encinitas Library, we are preparing to launch a storytelling collection of books.”
Stay tuned for more information on that.
Additionally, North County businesses, government, civic organizations, and individuals have been important donors and supporters of storytelling, she said. The Storytellers of San Diego has regular programs in many areas of the county, too.
“We currently have a monthly storytelling show in South Park, at Eclipse Chocolate Bar and Bistro, and have recently begun talking with a venue in Oceanside for something similar,” she said. “I tell stories every year at the San Diego Highland Games in Vista and the Sam Hinton Folk Festival in Poway. I tell stories to preschoolers every week at my library in Penasquitos.”
Storytelling apparently has come of age and then some.
Who is Marilyn McPhie?
Born in Boston, her family moved to California when she was a toddler. McPhie grew up in Pasadena and has lived in San Diego since 1978. She has degrees in English and French literature and is the president of the Storytellers of San Diego, and the Pacific region director for the National Storytelling Network.
She said she’s always worked various careers and at various places, but the storytelling has been one of her most favorites. McPhie said she became an adult storyteller because it’s satisfying work.
“Storytelling can truly change the world, one person or one group at a time,” she said. “How? That is complicated and different for every teller. Sometimes, a more traditional occupation leads to storytelling. Sometimes, an unexpected opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, a teller is recognized for that ability and responds to more and more requests for storytelling. Sometimes, a teller in a more traditional job retires or leaves that job and decides to become a full-time storyteller because it would be interesting and fun. The path is different for each storyteller.”
As someone who tells stories to a wide variety of people, she said never tires from spreading the word.
“Applications for storytelling are seen in business, speaking, healing, community building, entrepreneurship, teaching and more,” McPhie said. “Corporations hire storytellers for training and team-building. Hospitals and other health-related fields hire storytellers in healing and wellness situations. And then, of course, there’s the pure entertainment of good storytelling.”
Using the oldies but goodies
When asked what her own favorite stories to tell are, she is quick to reply the genre is one she has been telling for years.
“Many of my favorite stories are folktales,” she said. “The stories are old, but their truths are timeless. I tell stories from all over the world, but I am particularly drawn to stories from the countries of my ancestors — England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, and though I have no ancestral link, Russia.
“I like stories with strong female characters, and I favor tales with an interesting plot and clever twists,” she continued. “All that said, one of my favorite and most requested stories is ‘Rindercella,’ a short Spoonerism word-play take on ‘Cinderella,’” she said.
Many of today’s storytellers, including McPhie, do use ancient myths and legends, and the oldies but goodies as a basis for their tales when performing.
“Whether the storyteller recognizes these patterns and deliberately shapes a story around them or instinctively and unintentionally uses a time-honored form, traditional patterns and expectations often provide a basis for a successful story,” she said. “Some things just resonate in satisfying ways.”
In her spare time, this storyteller is a busy lady. She is married and has five adult children and 22 grandchildren. She enjoys museums, books, theater, photography, travel and genealogy.
Teaching others the art of storytelling
McPhie also teaches a growing number of people to become storytellers.
“My most recent storytelling/teaching opportunities have been with personal coaching,” she said. “In the past, I have taught classes for UCSD Extension, and have lectured at USD, SDSU, Palomar College, Miramar, Southwestern, Grossmont and other colleges and universities.”
She is working with the branch manager at the Encinitas Library to establish a storytelling institute there, too.
“I teach classes and tell stories for OASIS (for senior adults) and Arts for Learning (for children and families),” she said.
And, of course, there have been some unusual places she has told her stories over the years, perhaps the most unique was not one she expected.
“It was asked to tell stories to some kids and when I got to the location it was in an inflatable igloo of all places,” she laughed. “I never know where I’ll land, but it’s all fun, I love what I do.”