Local Storytellers Bring Tall Tales to Life

WHEELING – For a group of local professional storytellers, telling a tall tale is more than just a fun hobby – it’s an important act of preserving history and connecting with other people.

Three award-winning local storytellers – Andy Fraenkel, Judi Tarowsky and Rich Knoblich – belong to the West Virginia Storytelling Guild and are carrying on the ancient tradition of storytelling in an age of instant information in the form of “tweets” and “texts.” They travel the country to perform in storytelling festivals, sharing tall tales, folklore, ghost stories, history, family memories and more – all for the sake of preserving one of the oldest forms of communication.

“Storytelling is passing down information,” Fraenkel said. “In cultures around the world, before there was technology the history of that culture or what the morals were and who the good guys, heroes and bad guys were, it was all embedded in stories.”

Fraenkel conducts a workshop called “In Search of Story.” Adults can learn how to tap into their own stories to share, something he learned to do as a young German immigrant to New York.

“When I came to America, I was thrust into the public school system and it was a total cultural shock,” Fraenkel said. “I had difficulties coping with that and expressing myself. Just being in New York and to deal with communicating, it was daunting. The way you express yourself is very important, and I’ve been grappling with that. Storytelling has been a lifelong struggle to develop communication skills.”

Fraenkel was heavily involved in theater work before he had a massive heart attack about 20 years ago. He said he couldn’t continue theater, but just before the attack, he had discovered a national storytelling organization in Tennessee.

“I was flabbergasted people were actually making a living traveling the country sharing stories,” Fraenkel said.

Knoblich has won eight ribbons from the West Virginia Liar’s Contest over the years and has authored “Talking ’bout the Relatives: Tales That Grow Taller with Each Telling.” He said a good storyteller is simply someone who likes good conversation.

“You have to pay attention,” Knoblich said. “You have to constantly be in communication. You can’t just memorize a story and tell it, it has to be organic.”

Tarowsky, a St. Clairsville resident who has performed all over the local area, said one important role of stories is preserving the history of a family. She said these family stories can be lost in only three generations, so she tries to encourage people to talk to their grandparents, parents and children and share stories of each other’s lives.

“I think it helps people make sense of their world when they hear a story,” Tarowsky said. “We are bombarded with information, we are bombarded with facts, but to take those facts and find how this relates to me. People come together based on stories they share.”

Knoblich and Tarowsky will be performing their stories at a storytelling festival Sept. 26-27 at Prickett’s Fort State Park in Fairmont, W.Va.