The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday September 29th

Local Storyteller Makes a Living Out of Building Community

"I'm not saying that storytelling all by itself is going to change the world," said local storyteller Louise Omoto Kessel.

But when it comes to binding cultures and communities together, or helping individuals heal, storytelling comes close.

"I think when people are going through a difficult experience, the opportunity to tell their story is part of the healing process," said Kessel, who has used storytelling at domestic violence centers and cancer support groups. "It's the opportunity to use mythic imagery to rework those experiences, and kind of transform an injury into learning or into a point of empowerment."

During an April Fool's Day performance at the Skylight Exchange, Kessel spun tales while a mime in red long underwear pretended to be a chicken -- set to tunes played by a man in a frog-shaped hat.

While this silliness was intended to entertain children, all in attendance from ages 3 to 83 were obviously enthralled.

And Kessel doesn't see stories as something only children can enjoy. "I don't know where that idea got started, because I don't see it as ever having been true," she said. "Traditionally, storytelling has been done for adult audiences. Something like 'The Odyssey' -- that was told out loud. That's not children's stuff.

"Adults love storytelling. Children love storytelling, too. I love telling stories for the whole age spectrum." Half of her work is with adults, she said.

Kessel makes her living as a full-time storyteller -- "It's my livelihood," she said. She started telling stories as a volunteer while at Goddard College in Vermont.

"I just wanted to do something to be involved in the community instead of being on campus. I really loved it a lot and it snowballed," she said.

Although her career in storytelling "just kind of fell into place," the art is more than a form of entertainment for Kessel.

"There are a lot of things I love about storytelling, and I wanted to do something I love for my work," she said. "It builds community and brings people together. It's a way I can explore ideas and values that are important to me without giving a big lecture. It's kind of a nice, openhanded way to share ideas."

Kessel has been telling stories full-time since 1981. The revival in storytelling that is now in full swing was just getting started at that time, she said.

With or without a revival in popularity, Kessel believes that storytelling has an important place in human activity. "Though it might not be in the same form people used 100 years ago, 500 years ago, it's kind of an innate human thing to do, to tell a story. And people tell stories all the time. In that sense there's a continuity," she said.

"In the sense of professionalization of storytelling, and people coming out to hear stories as a formal thing instead of on their back porches or in their communities, there are many more people involved now than then. There are a lot more opportunities."

Kessel, who has a Japanese- and Russian-American background, employs her culturally diverse heritage in her storytelling. "I have stories that draw from both sides of my family background, and more and more I'm asked to present stories in that context," she said. "I enjoy doing that." Kessel will present Japanese Buddhist stories as part of the Ackland Art Museum's Five Faiths project April 29.

While it might seem that faith plays a large role in storytelling, Kessel maintains that it's the other way around. "I think storytelling plays a big role in faith," she said. "All of the religious traditions have storytelling as part of their heritage, sacred stories and teaching stories in a religious context.

"Those are some of my favorite stories -- they're really about what you believe and what you value."

Kessel rarely makes up her stories from scratch, "but sometimes they drift pretty far from the source," she said.

Although she gets a lot of her material from written sources, oral and written stories are "almost two different medium, like sculpture and painting," Kessel said.

"Oral language is so much different from written language. There's eye contact, and facial movement and the sound of your voice. It's really complex and rich just to say a single sentence when you're live in a room with someone. It's almost hard to compare them in a way."

When Kessel finds a story in a book, "There's a whole translation process where it changes into an oral story," she said. "There's a process of lifting it out of text and into the body." Kessel performs traditional stories as well as those from contemporary authors.

And if you ask five different storytellers what makes a good story, you get five different answers, she said.

"All of us are motivated by a lot of different things. I like storytellers that speak direct from the heart and really care about what they're saying as far as the content of the story, the message in it."

Kessel doesn't make a large distinction between professional storytellers and back-porch yarn-spinners. She'd even rather hear storytellers in the community than go to a festival, she said.

"It's very heartfelt, and it's exciting to watch people be culture bearers for their own communities," she said.

While Kessel used to spend half her time on the road, she's stopped travelling in the last five years and put her focus on telling stories in this area.

"The wonderful thing about community storytellers is that they have an ongoing relationship with their audience so they have the opportunity to find the story that that audience needs at that time," she said.

"And once they've told the story, it becomes part of the language of that community. It becomes a common reference point for everyone."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.


The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for March 7, 2022

Special Print Edition

Games & Horoscopes

Print Edition Games Archive