SARATOGA SPRINGS – Sharing stories is a big part of the human experience. From our parents reading bedtime stories to us as children, to the movies, books and television shows we become immersed in as adults, stories are our main form of entertainment. They connect us to our past, to each other, and give us a better understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
Local storyteller Margaret French knows how powerful a story can be. French teaches storytelling workshops, produces and performs at storytelling open mics, and shares her passion and talent for the art of telling stories wherever she goes. On Wednesday, March 9 at 7 p.m. French will be at Caffé Lena as the featured storyteller for a storytelling open mic. Whether you attend the open mic to tell your own story (all are welcome to sign up and participate) or just to kick back and be entertained by French and other tellers, it is surefire to be a unique and captivating night.
Margaret French began telling stories when she moved to Saratoga Springs with her husband in early 2000’s. After attending a beginner’s storytelling workshop at the library, she became hooked.
“I’d always told stories. My younger sister and I shared a bedroom and a bed when we were young, and at night I’d make up stories for her,” explained French. “Later, I made up stories for my kids, their cousins, and their friends, and now, I make up stories for my grandkids.”
Before retiring, French taught college English, and worked at Union College in Schenectady for 15 years. She reflects on how her favorite part was being the director of the writing center.
“I think you tell stories when you’re teaching. You explain concepts by telling stories that illustrate them. So storytelling was always on my radar,” said French.
French also enjoys writing, teaching writing workshops as well as ones on storytelling. She notes however, that there is a big difference between sharing a story on paper and sharing it verbally in person.
“The audience has only one chance to get it. So in some ways, you simplify, and I think language changes. I think my language is less literary when I’m telling a story. It’s more conversational,” said French. “But the best part about storytelling is the audience. You have the audience interacting with you as you tell the story and that is huge and very thrilling. Audiences deepen and enrich the story so much.”
French loves hearing feedback from her audiences, and people will come to her after a storytelling event, explaining that they can identify or relate to her story, often sharing their own experiences with her as well.
“That’s the magic of it, because my stories elicit their stories,” French said.
Most of the stories French tells are personal stories from her life experiences with friends and family. She likes to be funny, using humor often and to lighten difficult stories. French also shared what storytelling means to her on a personal level.
“It’s not self-confession and it’s not therapy for me,” noted French. “It’s about something that interests me or touches me or that I think is funny or important. I can trust that people in the audience will react to it in a similar way because of our common humanity. You end up expressing your own values and point of view, even if you really don’t set out to do it in any conscious way. Based on the stories people tell you, you know the person that they are.”
When she is not telling personal stories, French likes fairytales and historical myths, but explains that they have to be truly unique for her to share them. When French goes to Wesley’s memory care ward and tells stories to those suffering from dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, she prefers to stick with stories that are completely made-up.
“I don’t tell them my personal stories usually because they think, ‘Why is this woman telling me this?’ I think it’s confusing, it’s hard. But if I say, ‘Once upon a time…’ they know right away what is coming,” French said with a smile.
When it comes to giving advice to those who may be interested in storytelling, French urges them to go to workshops and storytelling open mics, even if they don’t tell right away. She also recommends joining a storytelling group, such as the Story Circle of the Capital District, where French is a member. But she also points out that sometimes, you just have to jump in and do it, even if you feel like you might not be ready yet.
“I was a very shy kid, so I’m sort of surprised that I like to be on stage in front of an audience, but I do,” French said. “It’s okay to stand up and tell a story and have it not be perfect.”
Currently, French performs at senior centers, libraries, Proctors, Glen Sanders Mansion, at more locations across upstate New York. She produces 10 storytelling open mics each year, alternating each month between hosting them at Caffé Lena and Woodlawn Commons.
When asked if she feels she is keeping the art of storytelling alive, French responded, “We’re surrounded by stories. In a way, storytelling can’t die because we’re hardwired for stories. They connect us. They help tell us who people are, who we are.”
For the open mic event at Caffé Lena on Wednesday, March 9, those interested in telling stories can sign up at 6:45 p.m., with stories beginning at 7 p.m. After several people tell stories, French, as the featured teller, will share stories for 30 minutes, followed by intermission and more open mic tellers. Admission is $5 and refreshments are $1.
For more information about Margaret French and upcoming storytelling events, visit her website at margaretfrench.com.