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Dane Stauffer, Storyteller

Tell me about a time when you were resilient.

Special Note: This episode was recorded before the killing of George Floyd. Should this interview have happened later, Dane and I would have had a different conversation with a different tone. We present this interview in solidarity with all who are working to dismantle systemic racism.

Dane Staffer is a busy guy. He is an actor, writer, singer, director, improviser, educator, and sought-after party guest. In a word, he is a creative.

For the last three years, Dane has taught a storytelling class at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. The class is part of a Creative Aging initiative from Aroha Philanthropies. The class is targeted for those over 55 years old, with some participants in their 80s. The goal of the program is to upend the narrative on aging.

Unfortunately, during the winter, Park Square Theatre was unable to host the class. However, they gave Dane permission to continue the class elsewhere.

Dane went into improvisational mode. “I am so glad that I am steeped in improv,” Dane says. “Because two of the basic ideas of improv are ‘yes, and,’ and ‘adjust accordingly.’”

Dane found a room in his apartment complex, contacted interested students, and scheduled the first class for March 17, 2020.

With the class location settled and students enrolled, Dane traveled to the west coast. While there, news of the Coronavirus broke. Meetings began to cancel, and so Dane caught a class back home.

Minnesota went on lockdown, and the class was canceled. This was particularly bad news for Dane. He makes his livelihood from entertainment and education.

Again, Dane called on his improvisational skills. If the goal is to upend the narrative on aging, why not go all in and conduct the storytelling class via Zoom. “One of the stereotypes of this age group is that technology is not our thing,” Dane explains. “I pitched it as a beta test, because I believe in learning on the job.”

After a rocky start, the students became proficient in Zoom.

Typically, Dane’s storytelling class ends with a capstone presentation in a theater. Think of it as The Moth meets AARP. The stories can vary widely on topics.

In this case, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the rich life experience of the participants, Dane and the students decided to focus on a single prompt.

“Tell me about a time when you were resilient.”

The stories are as varied as the participants. The participants talked about the polio outbreak, about September 11, 2001, about World War II.

“I think it’s important that we show up authentically, even if it’s imperfect, rather than waiting until we get it all right,” Dane says. “So, my goal is to create an opening where we can generate stories.

“What we know from telling stories live is, the power of sharing your story ripples out into the community. My friend T. Mychael Rambo says ‘Every person is a library.’ And the only way someone is going to hear your story is when you share it.”

Looking Forward

Dane’s biggest concern is what happens next. “These students, I’ve worked with for three years, so we had a rapport. My challenge is, how do I build a rapport with a group who has not met each other. In my classes there are a lot of non-verbal listening games, passing around a mind-ball, and working on stream of consciousness.

“All of the things I do to teach, I’m trying to get at the seven ways of learning. Some are musical, some are audio, some are kinetic. I’ve geared my whole curriculum to give everyone an opening. I’m not really sure how to do that online.”

Still, Dane is up for a challenge. “I had someone ask, ‘Can you teach improv online?’ I said, absolutely not. That’s impossible. When do you want to start?”

A Lesson Learned: Is it Time, or is it Fear?

“I was joking to a friend,” Dane tells me. “I have all of these things on the back burner. I was going to get to them when I had time. Now I have time and there’s nothing on the front burner. And, it seems there are some things I don’t want to do, even when I have time. Am I willing to let those go? What matters to me? There were some things on the back burner that I thought was about time. However, it was about fear, procrastination, and hesitation.

“I always have to internalize the things I’m teaching my students. The teacher is teaching himself. I have used my creativity to create excuses for why I can’t take the next step.

“What I’ve learned is, when I practice what I teach, I create breakthroughs for myself and others, rather than excuses.”

As an example, Dane has a CD of songs that he recorded seven years ago. He has sold them at concerts, but he has never put his music online, until now. “The response has been amazing,” Dane says. “When I pushed go, I teared up. Because, I recognized that taking an action like that, where you believe enough in yourself to push send – I welled up with tears because I want to love myself this much. I take the actions that prove that I believe in me.”

Creating Empathy Through Storytelling

Stories allow us to connect at a deeper level, especially during dark times.

“When I tell a story, I want to do my best to embody the story, as it’s happening. I’m not sitting back and telling it as if I’m removed. I’m putting myself in the story. Because, the act of embodying the story as I tell it, creates an opportunity for the listener to do the same thing.

“The power I get from the story is not about telling the story. It’s about sharing the story. The power of sharing your story is the feeling. The people in the room, listening, nodding, resonating. They come up to you afterwards, thanking you for telling that story.

“The power of telling your story, takes it out of hiding and takes some of the darkness out of it. It gives the story a new purpose. It redeems. No matter how low you fell, when you share it with somebody else, it may give them hope, which feeds back to you.”

Coming Up!

Dane has recorded twelve stories from his class. Over the next three episodes, we will share four short stories on the topic of resilience. 

Learn More about Dane Stauffer: