Inaugural storytelling conference kicks off with ‘Story Under the Stars’

Through the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Savannah community has held tightly together. 

On Sunday, April 24, through a collaboration with Hospice Savannah, The Institute for Story, and a special grant from the Savannah Philharmonic, “Story Under the Stars” will offer a chance to come together to heal and connect through personal stories.

“Story Under the Stars” kicks off the Storytelling Conference and hopes to utilize the healing power of story.

Jamey Espina, Vice President of Development and Community Service, Hospice Savannah, said the entire concept for the Institute for Story evolved from Hospice Savannah. 

“We used to have story keeping program going back to the 90s where Dottie Kluttz, one of their hospice nurses realized every patient had a desire to tell their story. So, she went to the CEO and said, ‘I no longer want to be a nurse. I want to record people’s life stories.’ And that’s what we’ve done ever since.”

“Over the years, we’ve recorded thousands and thousands of stories. It’s like when someone dies, their library of books is being burned down, as well. Now, we can record those stories to have forever.”

Espina said the real evolution came when Dr. Bertice Berry joined the board of Hospice Savannah and we started to talk about now, more than ever, we need story. 

“We need story to heal. We need story to connect. We need story to re-humanize humanity... and so we discussed the concept of a conference and bringing folks from all over the country to learn how to tell story and to learn to heal and to connect to the power of story.”

The kickoff event was always intended for the community, though. Espina said, “What we recognize is that no communities have really started dealing with the last two years of this pandemic. As I said, we believe story was the way to deal with this, so we created the Story Under the Stars event. It will be in Forsyth Park with folks in the community who applied and auditioned with their stories. We ended up with five adults and two Savannah school children who are going to tell their COVID stories of hope and survival.”

As if that weren’t powerful enough, Espina explained another level of the event. “We took their stories and submitted them to a composer who then wrote a score based on these stories. The partnership is with the Savannah Philharmonic helped pull everyone’s story together.”  

Espina said Mayor Van Johnson will begin the evening’s program with his own story, followed by the orchestra playing between each person’s story.

“It’s going to be a beautiful kind of mini-picnic-in-the-park type atmosphere where it’s about our community healing. And, now we will have a recorded soundtrack of our COVID experience in Savannah. We want to be a model for the country that-at some point-you have to start healing and talking and moving forward,” he stressed. “We’re super thankful for our sponsor which was the Savannah Orchestral Fund for making this happen. They’re helping us prove that story is the closest point between two people.”

click to enlarge Photo: The Savannah Philharmonic performs at a previous year’s Picnic In the Park. - PHOTO COURTESY OF INSTITUTE FOR STORY SAVANNAH
Photo courtesy of Institute for Story Savannah
Photo: The Savannah Philharmonic performs at a previous year’s Picnic In the Park.

About 80 guests are expected for the Storytelling Conference. Upon arrival in Savannah, Espina said they’ll be given a trolley tour of the city and then dropped off for the festivities of the Story Under the Stars celebration.

“It’s a great way to start the conference to say, ‘hey, we’re practicing what we preach, and here’s an example of how you can use story in your community.’” Espina said.

“We’re hoping the whole conference will be a great experience for people to learn how to use the science of story.”  

Espina explained something fascinating. “We know scientifically when someone tells a story and tells it well—which is the key—that their listener’s body produces oxytocin and cortisol and all the good vibes within. That oxytocin is the chemical that binds us together—it’s in breast milk. We talk about our experiences because all of it is great storytelling. This is who we are and this is how we survive.”

“We fear that even though we are all wired and embedded to tell story—our species has survived this long because we’ve told stories—we’re losing it a little bit because of technology,” Espina said. 

“You have a couple of generations of folks who don’t even walk to talk to you on the phone. They only want to text you. Most people have been trained just to find headlines that already support their views and not read past the headlines. When you do that, you’re losing story. You’re just losing it. So, that’s why we feel strongly about these events. We hope this will be an annual program promoting these ideas and helping to change the world.”

As far as the negative effect of fake news and things on the Internet, how can that be overcome? Espina said you still have to tell your story in an honest way.

“When we are sincere, honest, and vulnerable, that is when we tell a good story,” he suggested. “When we use words to manipulate…well, there’s a thing called the drama triangle and the number one tool in the drama triangle is guilt. If you’re using guilt as part of your story, you’re not telling a story well, you’re trying to manipulate. Sometimes, we’re manipulating because we have fears and insecurities about ourselves that we see projected in others or sometimes we’re just tuned in to our own disconnection and fear which comes out as anger. Words last a lifetime and are hurtful. A true story comes from a place of love and honesty and vulnerability and that’s what we’re teaching people.”

“As much as something can be used for good, it can be used for bad, as well. We’ve seen that. Part of the conference teaches people how to tell a good story from a structure perspective in that a good story takes something from the past, brings it into the future, and leaves us with a hopeful ending. The point of good story is to really listen to the story. The listener can tell when things are making sense and when things are right,” Espina said.

“As humans, we have vulnerability and humility, so when we react physically and chemically to something, it’s because something touches a trigger. That tells us something might not necessarily be honest or honorable or sincere,” he said.

Continuing, he explained, “Part of the conference is teaching people how to listen to stories and how to understand their own physiological chemical reactions to stories and question it. If a story brings up a certain emotion to you is that about the person telling the story, is it about the story, or is it about you? Is it something that is reinforcing or bringing up something in your past or your history?  If so, you will want to explore.”

“There’s a trend right now of people talking about self-care. If you ask the average person what self-care is, they will tell you they get their nails done or massaged regularly. No, that’s not self-care; that’s grooming. We want to teach that self-care is knowing yourself. The best storyteller knows why they’re telling the story. They know who they are and they know what’s important to them.”

Espina’s presentation is called “They don’t love what you do, they love why you do it.”

Espina shared that through his experience working in hospice and fundraising, in particular, he has been successful not only because he can provide therapy as a leader, but people (especially donors) can tell when you care and when you love what you do. They’re not going to give a big donation to someone who is not sincere or is not in it for the right reasons, particularly if they don’t feel their reason their money is going to be used correctly.”

With this opening event, followed by the conference, Espina hopes they can all help refocus the narrative. “The last two years have been about grief and loss for our community. Whether it’s been through death or change or to a different lifestyle, everyone’s reality has now been changed. We need to recognize we lived through this collectively, so collectively we need to heal. And we do that by telling stories.”

“We want people to come to Forsyth Park. This time of year, it’s going to be a beautiful day... come to the park, bring a blanket, bring a picnic basket, and hear your fellow citizens tell their stories of survival and success as the Savannah Philharmonic plays the soundtrack of COVID experience. Let’s start the healing process.”

For more information on the events of the Storytelling Conference, visit instituteforstory.com

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