Donna Washington ’90 never meant to be a storyteller. Yet storytelling is the only job she’s ever had.
Washington came to Northwestern intending to major in prelaw but was drawn to theater by the end of first-year orientation. During junior year, “I was cast in the show Child of Courage, where I had to pretend to be a storyteller,” Washington says. “After the show, Rives [Collins, professor of theater] walked up to me and said, ‘You should be a storyteller.’”
The next quarter, Collins recommended that Washington enroll in two of his graduate-level storytelling classes. “I was just a kid, so I said, ‘OK …’
“So I show up the first day to this graduate class, and I am absolutely terrified,” Washington recalls of Collins’ class, The Art of Storytelling, which focused on learning the basics of the craft of storytelling, as well as new material. “Everyone’s introducing themselves. And when it gets to me, Rives says, ‘This is Donna Washington. She’s already a storyteller. She’s just here to learn some new stories.’ And to be fair, he was right. This is the only job I’ve ever had for 33 years.”
As a professional storyteller based in Durham, N.C., Washington is part writer and part actor. She holds the attention of an audience with nothing but her voice, body and the tales she tells. Washington works solo, primarily in schools, telling a wide range of both original stories and folk tales to young audiences.
“That rush you feel when you’re working with an audience — there isn’t anything [else] like that,” she says. “It’s like a drug. You get addicted to audiences. Kids will go anywhere at all with you [in a story]. They want to play.”
More often than not, Washington says, she will perform at a school and have to hustle off to her next gig immediately afterward. But sometimes she gets to linger. One day she was eating lunch in a middle school library between sets.
“This woman looks in and asks, ‘Are you the storyteller?’ I said, yes, and she came in and sat next to me, which I hate because I need to relax a little bit before I get back onstage. But here she is. And she says, ‘I have a kid who stutters. He never talks because he stutters so much. He was so excited to have seen a storyteller today that he came in and told me a story. I’ve never heard him talk that much. He stuttered the entire time. And he didn’t care, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to tell you that.’ And she left.”
Another time Washington was in Lima, Peru, telling stories to a Spanish-speaking audience that was learning English. “There was this one kid in the back laughing hysterically the entire time. He was participating, making all the noises, and the teachers were all weeping,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why is everybody crying?’ After it was over, I found out that his parents had died in a plane crash a month earlier, and it was the first time anybody had seen him laugh since.”
While young audiences are special to Washington, she holds a special place in her heart for the grown-ups too. “What’s cool is to work with adults and have them say, ‘I felt like a child again,’” she says. “And I always say, ‘No, you felt like an adult who didn’t know you could feel like a child,’ which is a completely different thing. It isn’t gone out of us, it’s just that we stop being encouraged to participate. Storytelling allows grown people to just let it go.”
For Washington, sharing stories is especially important to create connection in a time when people may get pulled apart more often than they get pulled together. “What I love about storytelling is the communal element. When you’re telling a story, you create this shared space. No matter what your thoughts or feelings are, you survive in that space. You can make it a joyful space or a scary space or whatever you want, but everyone’s there, and they’re willing to be there. And everyone leaves feeling more connected and better than they did when they arrived. That, to me, is lovely.”