Leah Stinson

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Leah Stinson, storyteller and multi-disciplinary artist, didn’t waste any time diving into what she loves.

“It sounds really cheesy, but my parents told me I was born with a pencil in my hand. You know some people have a silver spoon? Yeah, they were on backorder, apparently.”

A Canadian born and raised in Toronto, Stinson was living in the capital city of Ottawa when she took her first big step into public storytelling.

“One year I had been to one of the storytelling events at the National Library in Ottawa, and I decided as my new year’s challenge for myself, I was going to tell a story at … their monthly, kind of informal, get together … I took the beginner storytelling course, and from there my storytelling evolved. At one point, too, I went from telling only traditional folk tales to telling personal stories.”

Before taking that leap, Stinson’s personal perception of having a poor memory held her back, but once she was faced with the challenge, she found ways to overcome it.

“I’ve always loved stories, I’ve always loved books, and I was always an avid reader - as a kid I read everything I could get my hands on, as an adult I always had a novel on the go.” She said. “But I had a perception of myself that I had a terrible memory. And one of the rules for storytelling, oral storytelling, is no paper. No notes, no nothing. So that was kind of intimidating at first, but then I learned techniques to deal with that.”

“Stories shouldn’t be, necessarily, sticking to a script … with storytelling, in my opinion, because it just makes it sound stale. You should be going with the flow, and it should be a slightly different story every time you tell it, and you should adapt it to your audience and their needs as well.”

When asked about how her storytelling has changed over time, Stinson noted that the decision to start telling her own original stories as well as traditional stories she had been telling marked another big step in her career.

“There was a huge transition from sticking only to traditional folk tales to telling personal stories - that was huge for me. My next step, but I haven’t gotten there yet, is I would like to combine personal story with folk tales. Not exactly sure how I’m doing that, but that’s my next step.”

Stinson’s biggest inspiration is Dora Award winning playwright, d’bi young, who she studied with during an artist’s residency at the anitAFRIKA! dub theatre. 

“I took the artist residency with her and it really just changed my perspective on art and on life, honestly.” Stinson said. “(Her methodology) is a way of looking at story from every angle, and examining all the characters and questioning yourself about, you know, where’s my integrity in this process, what spiritual aspect am I bringing into this … it just helped me grow so much.”

Young also gave her some of the best storytelling advice she’s been given – that ‘whoever shows up is who is meant to hear the story, even if it’s only one person.’

Stinson finds the art of storytelling is best performed and received live in-person. As the world dives deeper into digital life, she believes that oral storytelling, a tradition as old as humankind, thrives in the form it has been performed in for thousands of years.

“I like to listen to storytelling podcasts but I feel like there’s something lost in the recording of story.” She said. “Stories connect with an audience or a listener in a different way when it’s live.”

Stinson feels that story can be enjoyed anywhere, with anyone.

“Story is not always formal. Story doesn’t have to be on a stage, or around a campfire, it could be as simple as talking to someone you’ve never met at a bus stop. And sometimes, they or you have just the right thing to say, because I actually believe story is medicine. Like, story is healing. It has that potential.”

She brought up an example of a story her grandson told her when he was very young. He had retold a story he had found in a book at school where a character was dissatisfied with their current job, a position Stinson found herself in at that time.

“But what was really cool was he added some noisy neighbours into the story. And I had noisy neighbours but when I read the book, there were no noisy neighbours. So basically, he’s a novice story teller, and he’s telling the story I needed. I needed that story that day and somehow, he just new. And he picked the right one.”

A favourite part of being a storyteller for Stinson is when her stories are enjoyed to the point that somebody repeats them, or tells her how much they enjoyed it. One such proud moment happened when she performed a rendition of a story for Jess Smith, Scottish writer and storyteller.

“I (performed) for her and she just got this look on her face like, she was enthralled. And she kept smiling, and then after she said to me, ‘could I perform that somewhere with your permission?’ And I said yes, and then she ended up performing it at the Edinburgh International Storytelling Festival, so my work crossed the ocean!”

Moving forward, Stinson also has plans to release a children’s song along with a video. She’s planning to teach art online to children, and eventually in person, when the current pandemic subsides.