100 Creatives

Phoenix Storyteller Liz Warren: 100 Creatives

Phoenix is brimming with creativity. And every other year, we put the spotlight on 100 of the city's creative forces. Leading up to the release of this year's Best of Phoenix issue, we're profiling 100 more. Welcome to the 2014 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today: 13. Liz Warren.

Liz Warren wrote the book on storytelling.

No, really. The Phoenix-based creative wrote The Oral Tradition Today: An Introduction to the Art of Storytelling, a storytelling textbook that's used in classrooms across the country. She's also the director of the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute, where Warren, 60, teaches courses including Mythology, Creating and Telling Personal Stories, and The Art of Storytelling and Multicultural Folktales.

See also: Phoenix Designer Rebekah Cancino: 100 Creatives

While she admits that much of her days consist of meetings, memos, and administrative details, she also makes time for reading and writing. "I like to work on stories just before I go to sleep, since I often get ideas about them in dreams," she says. "I like waking up with the story images and playing around with them in that otherworldly place before I'm fully awake."

And Warren has quite a few projects in the works. "I'm working on several stories for the November/December holiday season," she says. "I'm especially looking forward to Tellabration in Pine, Winter's Light at Community Christian Church, and the Republic's annual Storytelling Night at the Biltmore."

Beyond her own stories, Warren says she is working to broaden SMCC's storytelling program. "SMCC has the only academic certificate in storytelling in the nation based at a community college," she says. "We're working on a hybrid version of the certificate that would allow us to offer it nationally."

More storytelling for everyone? We're all ears.

I came to Phoenix with my future husband Mark Goldstein in 1981. But we didn't come from very far away. We had been living in Tempe. I'm a fourth generation Arizona native - born in Florence and raised in Gilbert.

I make art because I longed to be an artist when I was a little girl, but I couldn't draw or paint, and in Gilbert, Arizona, in 1964 that's what art was. Storytelling, which I discovered as an adult, gave me a way to be an artist in the world. So, the simple answer is that I make art because I can, and I'm grateful for that. Beyond that, live, oral storytelling is art that is co-created in the moment by interaction between the teller, the story, and the audience. I can't make it by myself. As a storyteller, I make art in order to interact with people of both the past and the present. The stories I have - whether they are personal stories, family stories or traditional stories - are built on human lives, experiences, values, losses, loves, foibles and triumphs. Some of those humans, including me, are living now, others are from the recent past, still others reside far back in history.

I'm most productive when I have a specific goal I'm working toward - a performance, a production, a new class, a festival.

My inspiration comes from a swirling mix of my own memories, the natural world, whatever I'm reading (from ancient myths to modern essays), whatever music I'm listening to, and whatever deadline is looming! I've spent a lot of time in Ireland and that landscape and its stories are a very important source of inspiration to me. Similarly, the landscape of Arizona, the desert where I live now, the farm in Gilbert where I grew up, where my grandparents lived in Skull Valley and in Globe consistently inspire and ground my work.

I've learned most from the discipline it takes to be a true storyteller, which I define as someone who can tell a story face-to-face to other people in real time and make a difference by doing so. It requires a commitment to personal authenticity and a willingness to be vulnerable and available to others and to the story during the telling. All sorts of folks are being called storytellers now - from filmmakers, novelists, song writers and dancers, to advertising executives. And it is true that all these artists and professionals use narrative, and often to excellent effect. But the art of standing in front of other people and relating - both relating the story and relating to the people - is a distinct art-form with its own demands, standards, and rewards.

For me, good work almost always involves other people. Ideally it involves a purpose, some risk and some fun. Over the last year I've been privileged to work and have a lot of fun with my SMCC colleague Marilyn Torres, Megan Finnerty from the Republic, storytellers like Navajo veteran Kyle Mitchell, storyteller and nurse Eileena Torres-Sierra, Doug Bland of Community Christian Church, local pro Sean Buvala, and many others.

Over the last couple of years storytelling in Phoenix has really exploded. There is storytelling happening all over the valley every week. To see what's happening, check out the calendar maintained by Mark Goldman at www.storytellermark.com/Calendar.asp. The vast majority of the storytelling going on right now is of personal and family stories. I'd love to see more opportunities for the deeply mythic folktales and epics that many of the local professionals are capable of telling.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski

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