Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Sharon ‘Shay’ Knorr: ‘Storytelling can change the world’

In upcoming workshops in Cannon Beach and Astoria, the self-described "story doula" will help participants hone personal tales of their hero's journey.

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Storyteller Sharon "Shay" Knorr
Sharon “Shay” Knorr says one of the rules of successful storytelling is “no victimhood.” It’s ok to state the facts about bad things, she says, “but if there’s any victimhood, the audience will stop listening.”

Sharon “Shay” Knorr spent a good part of her life in the entertainment business, starting with Portland Civic Theatre at age 10 and later as a SAG-AFTRA member, acting in commercials, plays, videos, and radio. She was a member of a professional improv group in LA and performed in Angry Housewives at Storefront Theatre and in various productions of Hot Flashes! The Musical. Then, in 2008, Knorr produced, directed, and performed her own one-woman show, Why Can’t I Marry the Cute Beatle, and, just like that, “I was hooked,” she said.

These days, Knorr lives on the North Coast and shares her love of storytelling in workshops there and beyond. Her recent workshops at the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita will culminate Feb. 2 in a public performance at the center. She also will teach workshops Jan. 27 through Feb. 24 at Coaster Theatre Playhouse in Cannon Beach, and March 17 through April 21 at Ten Fifteen Theater in Astoria.

We talked with Knorr about the craft of storytelling and her passion for the oral tradition. Her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

After years of acting, what prompted you to write Why Can’t I Marry the Cute Beatle, a show just for you?

Knorr: I think lots of people have that desire to write a one-woman show or to write their memoir. I’ve always just told stories … at cocktail parties and that kind of stuff. I had so many stories and I thought to myself, you know, I could do a show.  Also, my son died when I was 50. He had been my only child. It was 10 years. I wanted to talk about that, too, because so many people have lost children.

How does storytelling differ from acting?

As an actor, you say other people’s words, and sometimes they’re not very well written. Sometimes, you as the character might really want to say it differently. In storytelling, it’s your story. So, you can tell everything.

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

Those of us who can get on a stage and share our lives and experiences, it’s almost like a duty or a ministry. There are people in the audience who don’t really know what their feelings are, who think they are the only ones who feel that way. After a show, you get people coming up to you going, “Oh my god, that meant so much to me when you said that, because I felt that way for a long time, but I didn’t know anybody else felt that way.”

I really think that storytelling can change the world…. We’re all the same. You take a mother in the Sahara Desert walking two miles with her baby on her back to get water. And you take a mother in New York, dropping her baby off at daycare in her Mercedes. They have nothing in common until they start talking about their children. People really do share common beliefs and common feelings, no matter who they are.

Is it difficult to teach storytelling?

No. I call myself the story doula. I seem to be very good at getting people to get into their feelings. A good story is the hero’s journey. You start out being one thing, and then something happens to you. It doesn’t have to be a tragedy. It can be something else, and after that tragedy or chaos is over, then you come out on the other side a different person. It’s that different person the audience is interested in hearing about.  It’s relating what happened to us and how it changed us, and then they can take whatever they want to from the story.

How do men and women’s storytelling differ?

Men like to talk about sports, or growing up, or a story about their father. Why do women start their women’s group or book clubs? They really need to share their feelings and things that happen to them without having to worry about men being around and hearing them, you know?

A long time ago, I was in a women’s group, and we talked about everything. One friend’s husband was in a men’s group, so she asked him, “What do you guys talk about?” He goes, “Well, you know, the latest movies that are out….” I did have a young man whose daughter died about eight weeks before he came to my workshop. His therapist suggested he come. He was a real, modern kind of guy, and he didn’t have trouble talking about his feelings at all. Younger men are better at it.

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

What kind of stories do people share in your workshops?

These are grown-up stories, so there are grown-up subjects. I’ve had rape stories; I’ve had war stories; divorce stories. I’ve had funny, funny, funny, funny stories; alcoholic stories; the gamut. Storytelling is great because it’s your story. And if you forget that fabulous line that you wrote, well, it’s OK.

Are there any no-nos in storytelling?

You can’t have any inkling of being a victim. You know, shit happens to people. People have terrible things happen to them. Those are the facts. You can certainly state the facts. That is, we have to name it, not blame it. But if there’s any victimhood, the audience will stop listening. There’s a way of saying “poor me,” but it has to be facts, not victimhood.

You talked about losing your son; how do you do that on stage?

You just talk honestly about your feelings. I never felt like a victim when my son died. It was never, “Oh, why did this happen to me?” I’m not a religious person. I have a very high spirituality, and death is a whole other thing for me. Although I was devastated to lose him … it was easy to talk about the facts, and I just told everybody how I felt. You never get through it, and life does not go on. You don’t get over it. You get a new life that you don’t want, that you have to make the best of. I have kind of a before-Tim and the after-Tim, and no matter how I try, most of my stories come back to that, and that is really powerful for people.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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