Diane Ferlatte, USA — African-American Storyteller

Diane Ferlatte was a featured performer at Glistening Waters Festival, New Zealand, Oct 1998. Her stories were lively, enchanting and captivating. Interview taped in NZ by Helen McKay, published in Dec’98-Jan’99 Telling Tales.

Helen: How did you become a storyteller?

Diane: That’s a story! I’ve always loved hearing stories. My siblings and I grew up hearing stories, singing songs, listening to and learning music, as well as dancing. We went to church regularly, hearing the church stories and singing in choirs; there was always the spiritual side of things. I didn’t know back then how important stories were. They were just a part of my life.

How I really became involved in storytelling was when I adopted my two children. The first child – a girl, six weeks old, was very quiet; she slept at night and life was comparatively easy. But things changed when I got my son, who was three and a half years old and a TV brain. He came from a foster home where there were other children in care. Their foster mother put them in front of the television set all day. That was quite different for me because my daughter was used to listening to bedtime stories and being read to. He could not listen.

Once I knew I was into a TV brain, I just changed the way I was reading and began reading the story like I was telling it. That’s the tradition I grew up with. I became the characters; I used lots of pauses and my voice, sound effects – whatever I could do to get him to listen. He started sitting and listening; it was like loud TV! I began doing it more and he stopped more and listened. I mainly did this in my bedroom, at home with my children. We went to the library every week getting more stories to read – telling some – reading some and telling some more.

Then one day I did some storytelling outside of my home, for the church Christmas service which was for all the kids that were coming from shelters. Someone heard me and asked if I would come to their school.

I said, “I’m just telling for the church. I don’t really do schools.”

She replied, “We’d love to have you come – we’d even pay you!”

Astonished, I said, “Where’s your school?”

So I went to her school and somebody else from another school heard me; gradually others heard me and it just snowballed. The more I did it, the more they liked it. The more I did it, the more I liked it too. It was wonderful to see the kids’ reactions and hear the comments from the adults, about the tradition I grew up with that’s been forgotten and devalued. Now people are paying people to tell those stories! It seemed incredible to me.

I talked about this with my family – my mother and father were incredulous. “They pay you to do this?”

So that’s basically how I got started – just trying to help my children, using something – a tradition which was there before books and TV. – an oral tradition but a good tradition. It’s a very powerful tradition; the more I am doing it, the more I am finding out the power of stories; how it binds people together and builds bridges of understanding and acceptance between people, countries and families.

Helen: Do you believe that storytelling could be used to contribute towards world peace?

Diane: Yes. I believe if we started talking to each other, it could help. Just talking to each other brings about understanding. If we don’t know one another and we are very ignorant about each other’s culture, we will do things that are disrespectful, to harm or anger them. The more you know them, the better you understand others. Storytelling can help do this.

Helen: Did you do any formal learning of storytelling? Or did you just build on your experience?

Diane: No, I just built on experience, learning as I went along. I think `hands-on’ is the best way to learn anything. Do it and you learn it. You learn from your successes and also from your mistakes – they are an important part of learning.

Helen: I noticed at the concert last night your connection with the audience was absolutely dynamic. It was obvious you were thoroughly enjoying yourself.

Diane: Thank you. I don’t see storytelling as a `performance’ but more as a shared experience. You’re talking to people as I’m talking to you now. You gave me responses – you’re nodding, saying, “Yes, Ah-ha, I see.” That, to me, is a connection. A conversation is a connection. Storytelling has to have some kind of response from the audience – something has to connect. Good storytellers observe the responses from their audience; responses tell the teller whether their storytelling is effective.

Helen: So, what would you say to beginner storytellers who are just starting out?

Diane: Find a story to tell and start telling. You can get all the notes you want, you can go to all the workshops you want, but, if you don’t do it and let the story come out of your mouth, it’ll never happen. Storytelling is an oral tradition; it’s not a written tradition.

Helen: You must really know the story well; it must be something you own, in a way.

Diane: You must know and learn what you are going to tell. It may be kinda rough in the beginning. I tell stories that I’ve never told before in front of an audience – first time. That’s pretty daring, but, as you know the story, it’s OK. You may not shape it as you wish – could be a little rough – but the next time you tell it you begin to shape it as you tell it. And you shape it to your audience too; the story changes, depending on who’s in the audience and what responses they give. If they really laugh at one point, I know I’ll keep that.

Helen: So your audience determines the style of your storytelling?

Diane: Yes it’s told differently each time, according to who’s listening.

Helen: Do you ever find an audience where you’re not successful? What type would they be?

Diane: Oh yes, all the time. Mainly European audiences. Different cultures respond differently. It’s hard to judge that and you say to yourself, “What’s wrong with these people?” You have to work much harder to please them. Everybody sees things their own way and you have to accept that – you can’t force them to do it your way.

With one group where I was telling, there was no obvious response, so I asked if there were any questions. One lady stood up – a very stern, conservatively dressed, proper lady, speaking in extremely formal, correct English.

She said, “When we heard we were going to have a storyteller, we didn’t want to come. We had no idea of what storytelling was, or what you were going to talk about. But, I know I speak for all the ladies here…’ Then her face changed, and she said, “We’re glad you came our way, because you made us feel.” That is the key! You make your audience feel anything – that’s storytelling. And this woman who stood up was from a Senior Citizens home in New Zealand!

Helen: In a coaching book, written by Doug Lippman, he suggests that stories should be given to the audiences as a gift. You were doing that last night. It was very obvious.

Diane: Yes, and the magic was there; and it worked. I try to share a little bit of myself and the folk enjoy those stories. I seldom get the chance to tell ghost stories; especially to adults. I really enjoy telling them; it’s a form of play.

Helen: Well the audience thoroughly enjoyed them. Thank you Diane, hopefully we’ll see you in Sydney, Australia some day soon.

Helen: Thank-you, Diane Ferlatte.