WANGARI GRACE; On the art of storytelling

Career Feature

Who is Wangari The Storyteller?

I am Wangari Grace, popularly known as Wangari The Storyteller. I am a mother, a performance storyteller and a children’s author. A woman who loves bright colours and books.

So how did you get to be the storyteller you are today? What was the motivation?

Truth is, I had no idea there is a profession like storytelling. I started out as an actress. I did travelling theatre for several years. It was as much fun as it was challenging. At that time, I came to realise that one of my stage directors was a storyteller. I would sit in during their rehearsals and watch them do their thing. They seemed to be enjoying themselves extra!

What attracted me to try it out is the fun I would see them having during performance. Also that, as opposed to straight theatre, the storyteller is able to actively engage and interact with his audience on a one on one basis which makes it a very intimate kind of set up.

How did you get to the place where people accepted you and your proffession? Since many consider it passive work.

Ha! For years, my family asked me when I was going to get a ‘real’ job. Even people who I thought were potential clients. A school owner once told me that she cannot pay me to ‘just come and tell stories’ to her pupils but promised to employ me should I go to school and study teaching as she felt ‘I would make a fantastic teacher’.

mwangaza | Mwangaza

One thing is consistency. I have been in the field for about 13 years now. When people realize that you are quite ‘stubborn to pursue this thing that you have chosen’, they get interested to know what it is all about.

Also, I always try to give my best in any performance I do. As such, a good chunk of my work is through referrals – and of course, people find it easier to believe people they have a relationship with. It has been a long journey though, cultivating and nurturing my brand.

What is storytelling? And what makes a good storytelling performance?

For me, storytelling is what makes us human- not animals, not plants. It is a way of communicating that involves words as well as visual and non-verbal ques. Oral or Performance storytelling, which is what I do, involves the use of various dramatic aspects such as dramatization, music, movement etc to achieve a particular goal.

A good storytelling performance must bring both the storyteller and the audience to the same realm, where they can both share the experiences, emotions and outlook of the story and its characters. Having this connection is very important as the two parties feed off each other’s energy. Of course, the mission of the performance, whether to entertain, to teach, to criticise or just give a good time, has to be achieved to consider a performance a success.

Any achievements/milestones you have had so far?

I have always wanted to be on TV so I am glad to have done a number of television shows (including acting in shows like Makutano Junction and Mnazi Lane). I absolutely love to travel and my work allows me to do so.

However, I think some of the greatest moments I have experienced are when I meet someone who has watched me in performance and they tell me that it impacted them in some way. You see, people usually assume that stories are only for kids, and just to entertain. So I am always excited when I hear testimonies of other’s perspectives. Also, I can take my daughter to work with me, and I see how proud she is when she sees me in action.

Now, if someone wants to follow in your footsteps and carve out a career in the industry, what skills does he/she need to have?

Be open minded and willing to learn. That is very important as this line of work is quite wide. They must enjoy interacting with people, and with a keen eye to see and put themselves in the experience of others.

Also, I see nowadays quite a number of tellers around the world choosing to focus on specific genres of storytelling: telling for children, for adults, as part of healing and therapy, telling only personal or true stories etc. Choose what works for you. Personally, I do a combination.

Then, you need to create your own voice, that suits your personality. What works for others may not necessarily work for you.

How do you master the courage to speak before an audience? Even when you feel the audience is not `feeling’ the performance?

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Truth is, this is very noticeable especially in a storytelling performance. For starters, though I have been in the performance space for close to 13 years now, I still get stage fright and get all nervous sometimes. I counter this by telling myself that I know my act well, and that if I enjoy the performance, the audience will enjoy themselves too.

It is crucial to know what kind of audience you will be dealing with. That way, you can prepare pieces that reasonate with them. For example, if you share a tale that discriminates against a particular section of your audience, you are assured it is going to be a flop.

What if the audience jeers you on stage. How do you handle this?

I have never been booed – that would be a terrible experience. However should that ever happen, I would check and see if there is a section of the audience that is still keen on the performance. If yes, I would keep at it.

Also, learn to laugh at yourself. I have had instances, for example, when I ‘shrub’ as I speak. When I laugh it off or engage in a light impromptu banter with the audience, I find that they also take it in stride and we continue. Sometimes, don’t take yourself too seriously.

You are also an author, kindly share more.

Yes! I have two children’s books: The Forever Tree and The Colour Magician. The two are also available in Swahili. I have received quite good feedback from readers, so grab yourself a copy and tell me what you think too!

mwangaza | Mwangaza

Where can the books be found?

Text Book Centres and a good number of other bookshops. If you are in Nairobi, Savanis and Himani Bookshops give a good deal. I can also organize for you to get autographed copies for yourself, or as a gift to a loved one.

What next for you, in the coming years?

More performances. More writing. I definitely want to get into training future storytellers.

What is your parting shot?

If you are in the arts, enjoy what you do, and this will infect your audience. It is the best field to be in, really.

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