The work of the master American writer, humorist and lecturer Mark Twain has inspired some of the most effective tales in Steve Otto’s repertoire of hundreds of stories.
Like Twain, Otto sees nothing ordinary in any person, and believes everyone has a story to tell.
At a John Knox Village program recently, Otto, 81, leaned back in his chair with one long leg propped on the other knee. He wore blue jeans and a red golf shirt embroidered with “Stories by Steve.” White hair peeked out above his ears from under a blue baseball cap. But his outfit, his white brows and his features were not the crowd’s focus as his stories built.
He chose two stories: one about a married couple’s adventure at a county fair; the other about two best friends who destroy their friendship and then rebuild it.
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“I want to completely disappear from you,” Otto said later. “I want people to see the characters in their minds.”
He belongs to the River and Prairie Storytelling Guild, which has approximately 50 members in the Kansas City area. He coordinates a branch that meets monthly at John Knox Village as well as several times a month at other area locations.
One of his current goals is to prompt John Knox residents to consider the value of their own stories and share them with their children and grandchildren. He offers handouts with questions that might help them formulate their own experiences for more informal storytelling.
“The best stories are those that happened to each of us,” he says.
And anyone who cares to can share them can follow three simple rules: 1. Choose a “hook” sentence that grabs the audience. 2. Don’t fret about memorizing the main content. Extemporaneous is better. 3. Stop!
He grins and introduces his wife, Virginia, who is often present to ensure he follows rule number three, he says. The Ottos moved from Gladstone, their home of 42 years, to John Knox Village a little more than a year ago.
Denise Hill of Lee’s Summit, who attended one of Otto’s programs at John Knox Village, looks at storytelling from several angles. As a minister earlier in her career, she included first-person narratives of Bible characters to connect with worshipers through her sermons.
“I think there’s an energy that happens between storytellers and people listening,” she said. “It’s the energy that creates the focus for the story.”
Now, as a chaplain with St. Luke’s Health System, she values the power of storytelling for patients as well as the chaplains she is training. It’s beneficial for chaplains-to-be to know their own stories, she said. “So that’s another area of this that really excites me.
Patients in crisis will often say “I’ve never told anyone this before,” right before sharing an important story, she said.
“I think those are sacred stories. Most of them are trying to find meaning about what’s happening to them.”
People often don’t think their personal stories are worth much, Otto said, at which point he notes how much he regrets not asking his own mother more questions.
He knows she had tales to tell. “You wish that you had asked,” he said. “There are stories of your life that you’ve never heard.”
He tells anyone who protests that they couldn’t learn to tell stories that he was the shyest kid in school right up until the day as a 10th-grader he was encouraged onto a stage by his English and drama teacher.
“I went out on stage the very first time, and I hit my line, and people laughed,” he said. “Luckily, it was a comedy.”
That experience pointed him toward a speech and dramatics degree from the University of Missouri in Columbia and on to work at television stations. He later worked in claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance, ran Missouri’s Medicaid program for several years, then worked at the federal level of Medicaid for 23 years. He jumped at the chance to retire early in 1996.
He decided he could make a living doing what he loved, so he became a full-time, professional, traveling storyteller and coach, presenting hundreds of programs a year for preschoolers, middle-schoolers, teachers, librarians and corporate trainees around the country.
Eventually the travel wore on him, so he’s cut back to 25 or 30 programs a year now. He still relishes the challenges.
Kids can be resistant, even daring you to get their attention, he said, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes before a young audience of several hundred leans forward, entranced.
“That is undeniably the best feeling in the world when you know you’ve got those middle-schoolers in the palm of your hand,” Otto said. “Those kids will sit still for two hours.”
With youth, he acknowledges the fierce competition with technology.
“But if you can get them to put down their devices, they will sit and listen to your stories as if you are the most wonderful person in the world.”
And whether they do or don’t pay attention, the effort is still valuable, he said. “That’s when you make your own truth as you’re telling it.”
Linda Barta, of Lone Jack , places high value on conveying other people’s stories. She attends the John Knox River and Prairie Storytelling Guild meetings to improve her effectiveness in relating a horrifying incident in the life of a Civil War era family to audiences at the annual “Walk With Civil War Spirits” held near Halloween at the Lone Jack Civil War Battlefield Museum and Soldiers Cemetery.
She portrays Nancy Cave, a local woman in the Civil War era whose family was packing to leave home in compliance with General Order No. 11, an 1863 forced evacuation by the Union Army of rural areas in four western Missouri counties. Cave saw her husband, her brothers, a nephew, cousins and a neighbor murdered by Union soldiers from Kansas.
One technique of Otto’s she began to practice was identifying a hook for an opening, in this case an appropriate prop: a quilt she fingers carefully as she asks listeners to imagine the heartbreaking scene of the family having no choice but to bury their loved ones hastily in their homemade quilts.
“Last year when my story was done, there were several women wiping tears from their eyes,” Barta said. “The impact of that story got through.”