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How To Collect Your Community's Story

Jules Corriere is a playwright and theater director. She has written over 40 plays, one of which was performed at the Kennedy Center in D.C.


A Hands-On Guide From The Experts

For Twenty Years, the Commuity Performance team of Dr. Richard Owen Geer and Jules Corriere have been invited into communities across the country to gather stories and turn them into, among other things, first-rate theatrical productions. Drawn from the best practices over twenty years, this page contains information on successful story gathering techniques, event ideas, and supplemental material such as examples of story gathering interview questions. It is to be used as a blueprint, since every community and every situation is different. And while each community is unique, one element remains the same: Successful Story Gathering Depends Upon Reverent Listening.

engaging in community stories

engaging in community stories

The Mechanics of Story Gathering

The mechanics of gathering good stories are the same for story circles as well as one-on-one interviews.

Make the best effort to interview representatives from as many groups as possible from your community. No matter how large or how small a percentage any group may be in your community, it is essential that they are interviewed and represented in the play. If this does not happen, especially for the very first project, then it will ensure a struggle for the life of that project to include this group. It is difficult to go into unknown areas, but it is the most important thing you must do in order to create a project that is about the COMMUNITY. Remember the people who are outside of your usual circle. Who are these people? Is it another religious group? Ethnic Group? Socio-Economic group? Differently abled group? They are all part of the community, and they all need to be included in the story gathering. Find these people, and set up interviews.

It is important to have some knowledge of the person or group you are interviewing. For groups, did they attend the same school? Did they grow up during a certain point in history-- the war years, the Depression years, the Segregation years, the protest years? From this knowledge, you should have a couple of questions lined up to ask the group in the beginning. Be careful not to arrive with too many questions. Story gathering is often best done with asking only one or two questions. "Tell me about life growing up in the depression"; "What was a high point in your life?"; "What was the most difficult thing you faced when you were in the war?"; "Tell me about segregation."; "What is it like living in a world where English is your second language?". A very good question to ask of any person or group is, "Tell me about the hardest thing you've had to face."

After assembling a few primer questions, make sure you will have enough story waivers for the group or person you will interview. These waivers are simple documents that give you or your project the right to use the stories that are gathered. Each story teller should sign this waiver prior to the interview. Also, collect all contact information. These people will be the first to buy tickets to the play you are writing about them, or to purchase the book of stories they will appear in. (Not to mention their families)

Check the batteries in the recording device and always bring extra batteries. If setting up a video camera, do this prior to the arrival of the interview subjects. Cameras often cause shyness. If the camera is there when everyone arrives, it is more a part of the setting.

When interviewing story circles, allow the stories to awaken other memories in the group, but be aware of moments when storytelling may convert to conversation. If this happens, gently remind them that we need to catch one story at a time, so the transcribers can keep track of who is talking.

When interviewing individuals, also be aware of slipping into conversation with them. Remember it is their story you are gathering. Even if you have had a similar experience, let them speak exclusively of their own, first. If, after they are finished, you feel compelled to share a story with them, you may do so. This turns the interview into a story-exchange. These are often very rich with stories.



Most Importantly, Bring Reverence

The Key To Gathering Strong, Deep Stories

REVERENT LISTENING is the key to gathering strong, deep stories. When one feels heard, even witnessed, at least two things happen. First, you will have gathered a moving story. Secondly, you will have given your story teller the gift of being heard, which can be a life-changing experience. Imagine the War Veteran telling a story that has never been heard. Imagine hearing the life story of an older person, and you are perhaps the last person to listen to that life story. What did she need to say before she left this world? Why was it important to her? How is it important to her community? This does happen. This will happen. Gathering stories is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Reverent listening is listening without judgement. It is sitting with someone and allowing their story to inhabit your time and your mind. Sometimes, it takes patience, because the deepest stories come from a place that is hard to break loose from. Learn to sit in silence. If you allow that uncomfortable silence to happen, and give over the normal time of silence that polite company is used to, and allow "story time" to happen, then more often than not, you will hear a profound story with great depth. Allowing that silence is difficult at first. We are not used to silence when we sit with others. Tears may also happen. Allow for those as well. Try not to feel nervous in these moments. Be sympathetic, but continue to allow the story to flow, along with the tears. Don't feel compelled to change the subject if tears come. Instead, sit in the moment, and allow the tears, and then, the story to come. It is in these moments that great stories are told, and relationships are forged.

If your interview subject tells one story, in depth, and has answered only one question, then your interview has been a success. Don't worry about making sure all of the questions you came prepared with are answered. What is most important is making sure that the interview subject has told the story he or she needed to tell.

around the table

around the table

How To Hold Story Circles

Story circles are a very effective way to begin a story gathering effort. Invite a group of 8-12 people to share their stories together. Often times, the best groups contain people from similar backgrounds, such as: people in their 80's; African Americans; long time residents; Latinos, members from a specific neighborhood; European Americans; veterans. Members from similar groups have some shared memories of a time, place, or event. Folks in their 80's may recall the great depression. African Americans may recall their time in a segregated world. Latinos may speak of language barriers. Veterans may relate stories of their experiences among a group of people who will understand them. They will encourage each other with their shared memories, and other stories will be drawn up.

Story circles give a broad stroke look at a community, and paints a picture of a time and place. Most often, these are short stories, many related to each other thematically by virtue of the fact that all of these people have some kind of shared experience. Sometimes, deep stories will come from these story circles. It is important for these stories to be heard. If it appears that one of your storytellers in the story circle is a gifted story teller, it may be wise to wrap up the story they are telling in the circle, and then ask them if they would be willing to sit down for a one-on-one interview. This will solve two problems- the first, is that you want to be sure that each member in the circle has an opportunity to speak and be heard. Secondly, by following up with a one-on-one interview, you may get some very deep, powerful stories when you are able to take the time to gather those stories, without worrying about other participants needing to speak.

A story circle takes approximately 90 minutes to 2 hours. Do your best to both remain intimately involved in reverent listening, and also be aware of the time, making sure that each of the participants has an opportunity to share. If one of the participants isn't sharing much, try asking them a question. In a story circle, try to honor each of the participants by giving them an opportunity to speak and be heard.

one-on-one interview

one-on-one interview

How To Hold One-On-One Interviews

One-on-one interviews are an effective way to get the deep stories and themes that will be explored in your production, book, or other medium you will use to tell these stories. It is important to interview individuals from many different areas of your community. They should feel comfortable in their setting. The interview can be done at their residence, or in another neutral location. The location is very important. For instance, it may not be very productive to interview someone in a place they feel uncomfortable- such as interviewing an elderly person with movement issues in the upstairs of a building, or interviewing an African American in a building that once was segregated. Be aware of who you are interviewing, and be sensitive to what their needs may be.

Know your subject. Why are you interviewing this person? What is this person known for in your community? What is the significance of this person's story? Did you hear this person in a story circle and then schedule this interview? What kind of stories do you think this person has? This will guide you in your interview. If you know that your subject led a Civil Rights March or led a Woman's Movement, and the subject continues to tell surface stories or is not going in that direction, guide them there with questions like, "Tell me about your involvement with the Women's Movement." As they enter into that story, and you want them to go further, ask them to tell you the hardest thing they had to face. What are some consequences? Knowing something about your subject will help ensure that you get the "Big" story.

At the end of the interview, ask your subject if there is anything else they would like to share that they have not yet shared. Be prepared to have this lead to another story. When the story is finished, remember to THANK your subject for the gift of story.

celery soup team

celery soup team

Successful Ways To Begin Your Storygathering Efforts

You've Got the Tools, How About Some Finesse?

As you or your story gathering team encounters individuals in the community and story exchange occurs, eyes and hearts are opened as personal memories and stories spill forth. Strangers become friends. Creating an event to celebrate this sharing makes it special for all involved, as well as providing an important opportunity for inviting the press and involving them in your project.

Rather than inviting people to a sterile setting with a tape recorder and waivers, put your storytellers at ease. Make them feel important by creating an event around their sharing. And make your event unique to your community. Events can be simple or elaborate, depending upon your budget. Whether it is lemonade and chocolate chip cookies or tea and tarts, sharing food and drink tends to put people at ease. When they are comfortable, the stories come more easily.

animate your community

animate your community

Examples of Other Community's Kick-Offs

I've Worked With All of These Communities As They Begin

Sanford, Florida. The Creative Sanford team organized a series of story gathering sessions. They called these sessions a "Tea and Tell". Tea was served, hot and cold, as well as an assortment of sweets and cookies. The events were held in neighborhood locations with significance to the storytellers. Several groups of African Americans were invited to the Tea and Tell held at the old historically black school. Many of the story tellers attended that school, and simply being in the space allowed for stories of school life as well as the days of segregation to emerge.

Jonesborough, Tennessee. The Jonesborough Yarn Exchange team organized story circles in the Historic Chester Inn parlor. Coffee, tea and soda was served in the old dining room. Cakes and cookies were catered by local restaurants, known for their sweets. Several story circles were held, each concentrating around a specific group of people. Long time residents, new comers, African Americans, Latinos, store owners are a a few of the groups invited to come and share stories in their respecitive groups. In these homogenous groups, each memory spurred another memory in someone else, and a real sharing of stories happened as they reminded each other of special moments. These sessions were audio taped as well as video taped for future use for a documentary or for historical archives. It is important to note that while these story circles began with people from similar backgrounds, the play itself will weave the stories of each group together, representing all of the groups.

Newport News, Virginia. The Yoder Barn group, founded by Mennonites from Newport News, held potluck dinners and story circles. Homemade casseroles and delicious pies were lovingly baked and served at different congregation fellowship halls. Often times, there would be a hymn sing. Story circles were then held and memories shared. As the project grew through the years, these story circles began to take place inside of the Yoder Barn Theater, as more and different members of the community joined the project, to include people from vastly different communities including the Jewish Community, the military community, Catholic Community, Greek Community and more.

Chicago, Illinois. The Scrap Mettle SOUL group in Chicago, with a more limited budget, kicked off events at the local Margate Park gym and community center. This was a neutral location for the incredibly disparate groups found in this community. Kool Aid and cookies and hard candy were served. Residents from around the Uptown neighborhood were invited to come and share their stories of urban life. These members included homeless, formerly homeless, business owners, school children, teachers, housewives. Many points and counterpoints were shared and explored.

Who Will You Gather Stories From

story exchange

story exchange

circle at the Winona MS 4-h barn

circle at the Winona MS 4-h barn

Where Will You Hold Your Story Gathering Session?

Where is a space in your community that will be in accord with your story circle participants? Will you include regional music? What kind of food will you serve? Drinks? Will you cater it, or have volunteers bake for you? Look for ways you can kick-off your story gathering efforts in creative and affordable ways, that will make your story tellers feel important, and will be a big splash in your community.

Some Sample Questions

Here are some questions you might want to use when you go out to gather stories. Remember, don't bring a clipboard full of questions and expect to get an answer to each one. You might miss a good story. If they answer just one of these stories fully, then YOU'VE DONE YOUR JOB!

Do you remember any stories your grandparents told you?

What was the hardest lesson you ever learned.

What was the hardest thing that happened to you when you were a child?

What did you do for fun when you were young?

What's the worst trouble you ever got in?

Who was a big influence on your life and why?

What are some special Christmas memories?

What is your earliest memory?

What was school like when you were young?

What were some local ghost stories from your area?

What is your "mountain top moment"?

NOTE: If you are working in the schools with students, why not have them interview their parents, grandparents, neighbors, or other school staff using these questions.

Need More Help?

The people at Epic International are experts at helping individuals, famillies, communities, churches, schools and organizations uncover the beautiful stories within. If you are finding yourself with more questions, simply click on this link for more information about gathering stories.

  • Epic International
    Epic International is a great organization to seek help about story gathering.

To Aid In Your Story Gathering Pursuits

I'd love to hear from you about your own story gathering efforts.


Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on January 31, 2012:

I found web and libraries as best places for story collecting. Sometimes project starts with real people, some rumors or superstitions, but always evolves on web and in libraries.

Indigo Janson from UK on January 30, 2012:

Our stories are a valuable part of who we are and give us a link to the past even when there is nobody left alive to remember those days. This is valuable work and it must be amazing for some people to finally find themselves being heard.

shauna1934 on September 05, 2011:

This is amazing and such a new concept for me!!! I will be revisiting a few more times to digest all this information! Would be so neat to do something like this!!!

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on September 01, 2011:

This is marvelous work to draw out these stories from people and preserve them. Bravo!

I've been encouraging people to self-publish a book of their family or childhood memories, but many people find that overwhelming.

darciefrench lm on August 21, 2011:

There are so many stories in our community - I'd love to focus on the Native elders and what they have to tell.