Earning a Living from Storytelling in Australia
Storytelling is undergoing a resurgence as a performance art in Australia. It is possible, although not necessarily easy, to earn a living in Australia as a storyteller and a growing number of performance artists are doing so either as full time or part time storytellers. Storytelling is an exciting and satisfying art form. It has advantages over other performance arts such as minimal equipment costs and amazingly direct contact with your audiences. How could you go about earning a living from storytelling?
The first step might be to do some experimentation and learn, prepare and tell some stories in a range of different venues and to a range of different audiences. After each performance, revue it and, if possible, get some feedback from the audience or another storyteller. What went well? What could you improve? What did they enjoy? What did you enjoy? When were they bored, restless or embarrassed? Storytelling guilds, cafes, festivals are useful and supportive venues to perform in but you will probably have to set up some other audiences, for example, your local preschool, library or high school class as well. You will probably have to do these performances for free. I suggest you are honest about your tryout status but dont be apologetic. Every one can and should be storytellers.
From this process you should be able to get an idea of how much you enjoy telling and whether you enjoy it enough to make it your career or your hobby. Secondly, you should get a good idea of which audiences you enjoy performing with most. This stage may take a couple of years depending on how much previous training youve had or how much energy you put into learning the art. I suggest you spend some time and money getting some voice training. Your voice is your main performance tool. Make sure you can use it efficiently because it really will be stretched if you take up full time storytelling. If you want some hard line feedback some time, organise for a video of you performing to an audience. Watch for mannerisms, voice quality, energy, clarity etc. You might also ask a professional or long time amateur teller for feedback or direction. Joining and attending Storytelling Guild cafes, concerts, workshops and festivals is invaluable. You will get to see other performers and audiences and become part of the storytelling community. Storytellers are generally friendly and generous people.
Its time to start building a specific repertoire for the audience youve chosen. Pick stories that you enjoy, that have meaning for you. You dont have to know what that meaning is necessarily but you will need stories that you wont get sick of and stories that are relevant to your target audiences. You will need a set of stories for each age group you intend to perform to. It may be worthwhile employing an experienced teller to give you feedback or give direction or shaping to your repertoire and presentation. Theres not a lot of professional storytellers out there yet but there are an awful lot of musicians, dancers, authors, poets, puppeteers, animal farms, mime artists, multimedia specialists and more that you will have to compete successfully with so you must be able to be entertaining, educational, and relevant to your audiences or youll be wasting your time and energy.
Giving it a go.
The next step is to give it a go. You might like to try it half time at first. I worked two years half time before going full time. This gives you the possibility of going back to your old occupation if the storytelling doesnt work out economically. Some performers never make the transition to full time. Decide who your main audience will be. It it is preschoolers, for example, youll have to perform mainly in the morning and do other things in the afternoon. If it is adults you may have to be prepared to work evenings and weekends. If it is primary or secondary students afternoon work is possible but its harder to get work during school holidays and you should be prepared to do a fair bit of country school touring especially at first - a reliable car is essential. So plan with the audience in mind.
Different states have different authorisation requirements for working in the state school system. If you intend to work in state schools get in touch with your local Education Department. In Queensland this is organised by the Queensland Arts Council. If you decide to go for this authorisation be well prepared and make sure that your show is of both commercial interest to the Qld. Arts Council and is educationally sound from the point of view of the Queensland Education Department and curriculum. There is now a charge levied. It is possible to make a living in Queensland without it by working outside the state system however. Your local storytelling guild can be a good contact for information about these requirements. Another issue you may come up against, depending on which state you are working in, is that some employers, including some state Education Departments, require that you get police clearance to ensure that you are a suitable person to be working with and around children.
An agent is almost essential for some forms of storytelling work and just doesnt work economically for others. If you are concentrating on school performance any where but Queensland then you will almost certainly need an agent. This is because when you are performing is also the best time to be chasing bookings. Shop around. Find an agent you like and can communicate with, one you feel you can trust. How many storytellers do they already have on their books? What is their promotional material like? In Queensland, if you are employed by the Qld Arts Council, you wont need an agent. If you intend telling in kindergartens, child care centres you wont necessarily need an agent but may still find one appropriate for you. How an agent works for you is that they produce collective promotional material and spread the cost of mailing, phone calls and time chasing teachers etc over a number of artists. The promotional material is usually of a better quality as well. They charge you a percentage of what you earn from their bookings. You take your other costs - transport, accommodation, props etc out of the rest.
How much you charge is a wonderful balance between how much you, or your agents, think your performance is worth and how much you think the market can stand. Both of these factors vary with time and circumstances. It is tempting to think that it is best to be cheap when you are starting out so you can get bookings. There are some traps with this however. Some employers may think that your show is not worth much and be suspicious. Some other artists may think that you are undercutting their hard earned position and resent it. You may also price yourself too low to be viable. A useful guide is to find out how much other artists are charging for similar work and vary your charge accordingly. Another way is to do a market survey. It is, after all, a small business like all others.
When you decide on a price you can then produce a leaflet, distribute it and chase some bookings. Once again with your promotional material you can set a balance with the standard. Currently Im using a two colour printed leaflet with logo, business card and letterhead designed by a professional artist. I didnt start that way however. I produced my own leaflets, black ink on coloured paper, for quite some years. Word of mouth is incredibly important. If you do a professional job in a friendly and memorable way the word will get around.
It is worthwhile sending a booking confirmation letter or booking contract with each booking. In this way you can make clear the conditions you need to ensure that your performance will work and be enjoyable. It will also reduce the potential for misunderstandings around times, dates and cost. Post performance feedback forms and teachers notes are other possibilities worth considering. Teachers notes are almost essential with school work.
If you are going to earn your living as a storyteller, you will have to register a Business Name, unless you are trading under your own personal name only. Also, unless you register with the Australian Taxation Office and acquire an Australian Business Number, A.B.N., then your employers will be required to withhold 48.5% tax from your fee. You can register from the ATOs world wide web site. You may also consider registering for G.S.T. This is not compulsory if your annual turnover is under $50,000 p.a.. There are advantages and disadvantages either way. Not registering for G.S.T. means you can avoid all of that G.S.T. book keeping and B.A.S. statements, however it also means that you cant claim the G.S.T. you pay on such things as petrol, books etc. Its up to you and your tax agent. You can try one way or the other and change if it is not working for you.
Dont forget insurance. In the past, because storytelling has been a relatively low risk activity it has been easy enough to avoid Public Liability Insurance. It is getting harder to avoid it and more expensive as Australia becomes more litigious. Although a lot of venues will have their own Public Liability Insurance that will cover your audience, not all will and increasingly more will insist that you have your own insurance before they will employ you. However, this may change if the proposed changes to Australian compensation legislation come about. Likewise you will be self employed as a storyteller and will have to provide for your own superannuation, sickness benefits and income insurance.
Well there you have it. It is possible to earn a reasonable living as a storyteller in Australia and many fine storytellers do but it is a performance artform and you have to do the preparation one way or another. It is important to tell meaningful stories and to enjoyable audiences. Full time storytelling is a business and there are a range of small business matters to take care of including ABN, GST and insurance. The information above is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. There are as many different ways to tell stories as there are storytellers but youll never know unless you give it a go.
© 1998 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes are available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them whole or in part please seek my permission.