Les Schaffer was resting his elbows on a small square table at Carytown’s Sugar & Twine. The cafe was bustling all over that dreary Saturday morning, but nothing could distract from what he was about to say. Leaning in, he locked eyes with me and confided, “A good story will get you out of just about anything.” With a knowing wink, he added, “I’ve always believed that.”
It’s obvious that Les has a flair for the dramatic as any good storyteller should. He and his business partner, Judith Onesty, have been honing their craft for the past two decades. Together, they run a organization called Two Tellers Telling dedicated to teaching storytelling skills and hosting community events. They also participate (or “tell” as they put it) in story slams such as Tell Fredericksburg and Richmond’s Secretly Y’all.
This Valentine’s Day, Les and Judith will host Fools For Love: Stories, Songs and Other Sweet Things, a collection of tales about the pleasures and peccadilloes of relationships. It’s a show that the two have been refining for almost a decade, the first production having originated during their time with the storytelling collective Tell Tale Hearts. This is the second year that Fools For Love will be held at Firehouse Theatre and, as one of their most popular events, they’re expecting a big turnout.
Storytellers spin tales of love all year round, but this show lets them weave them together into a grander narrative. Les explained, “We do a lot of stories about couples, starting with Adam and Eve, then right through the life cycle of relationships.” As Les trailed off, Judith continued without missing a beat, “From dating young adults, to middle-aged people who’ve been married forever, and finally the elderly couple who can’t quite agree on how they met, but they do agree that they love each other.” These personal love stories, paired with traditional folk tales, are the meat of the show, accompanied with music by Eileen Edmonds, a belly dancing routine, and a dessert buffet.
Although they are both accomplished storytellers individually, Judith and Les are what they call “tandem tellers,” meaning that they interweave monologues, telling one story with two voices. Judith explained, “He has a part and I have a part. Hopefully, we start together and end together.” She shrugged at Les, who offered, “It’s like jazz.” Judith cracked a knowing smile, “Especially with Les!” This dynamic performance style, coupled with their natural chemistry, goes a long way toward bringing the stories to life.
Despite their dedication to the craft, neither of them has a professional performance background. Les was a therapist for 25 years and this past work experience informs his approach. “That was the first real place where I saw the value of stories outside of just entertainment,” he said. Judith, too, was drawn to the art of storytelling in part due to its value as a communicative tool. “A story can make a point without shaking your finger at somebody. It can tell them something they need to know without making them defensive.” Les wryly added, “But you’re a good finger-shaker!”
Jokes aside, the importance of storytelling as a tool for teaching, and on a more basic level, as a way of deepening our relationships with each other, is something that the two focus on in their community work. “I’ve been teaching storytelling to elders for about 12 years at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Midlothian,” Les said, noting that these classes have helped his students find their inner voices late in life. Although he quickly added, “I can’t call them seniors anymore because I’m older than most of them now!”
Podcasting has given birth to a new generation of storytellers with first-person narrative being the genre of choice for many. The rise in popularity of the form has also resurfaced old debates over the murky line between a “true” personal story and a tall tale. Les loves exploring that boundary in his work. To him, the answer is simple: “It’s art.” To illustrate his point, he gestured to a naturalistic drawing of four butterflies on the wall of the coffee shop. “These are true pictures of butterflies,” he said. “They’re not real butterflies, but it’s okay. You know more about butterflies looking at this than you might know from watching a butterfly skip across a meadow thirty yards away from you.”
This succinct observation echoed Judith’s earlier point about the power of storytelling to gently nudge listeners out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to consider new points of view. Leaning in once more across the table, Les said, “I think this world is going to hell and storytelling is probably one of the few tools that we have left that can save it.” He smiled again and concluded, “I really believe that.”
Fools For Love: Stories, Songs and Other Sweet Things will be held at Firehouse Theatre on Tuesday, February 14. Admission is $16 in advance, $20 at the door. Show starts at 7:30 PM. Tickets available at firehousetheatre.org.
Photography by Brian Brown