Float, Drown or Swim Against the Tide

Questions of art and business in the time of COVID-19

by Brian “Fox” Ellis
Brian "Fox" Ellis stories
History In Person is a series of biographies based on the characters portrayed by Ellis, including John James Audubon, Walt Whitman and Meriwether Lewis.

As a storyteller, my job depends on large social gatherings. Within a few weeks of this pandemic, I lost more than 200 contracted performances; a few months later, 300 programs had been cancelled. I could have spent the spring and summer drowning my sorrows, and I could waste the rest of this article whining. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

More than just struggle to keep my head above water, I choose instead to swim in a new direction. As a friend recently said, “We can hope to float this out, drown in the rising tide, or swim against the current to find higher ground.” Allow me to share my choices, but how will you answer these questions?

What are your most valuable and basic skills and services?

This difficult time has challenged me to rethink my entire career. I am a storyteller. I love standing up in front of a large audience to entertain them, to challenge them to think a little deeper, to make them laugh, to give the gift of story wisdom that they can carry with them for future comfort. But I have also found many other avenues for storytelling: in books and magazine articles, designing websites and museum exhibits, and in documentary films. One of my goals has always been to bring storytelling to new venues. These other venues can be reached from home, on my laptop.

How do you adapt these skills and find new markets? New products? New projects?

I spent the first few weeks working in my orchard, planting trees, seeking solace in the garden. I also put in the effort to turn more of my performances into books and film, to create two series. History In Person is a series of biographies based on the characters I portray, like John James Audubon, Walt Whitman and Meriwether Lewis. Fox Tales Folklore are collections of folktales, poetry and nonfiction narrative wrapped around a theme, such as Bird Tales, Tall Tree Tales and Fox Tales. Each book includes lesson plans and is available on Amazon—but if purchased directly from Fox Tales International, you also get a link to the film.

I see these projects as long-term investments. There are costs involved, so at times I was nervous to spend money when I wasn’t making any. But I was able to find sponsors and sell a few hundred books in advance, so most of my upfront costs were covered. I also found a sponsor for a documentary I made about my hometown, A Storyteller’s Tour of Bishop Hill. I know I will sell more books at every performance once I get out on the road again. Within a few years, I could recoup a large portion of the funds lost this spring. Most importantly, I have several new products and have built inventory for long-term success.

By filming more than 10 hours of storytelling, I was able to create a video and audio podcast, Fox Tales International, available wherever you get your podcasts. While subscribing is free, there is a link to fund the episode via PayPal, or you can become a supporter via Patreon. A generous patron could even sponsor their local school or a library’s membership, or simply buy a membership for a child or grandchild.

Brian "Fox" Ellis

I have always written for regional and national magazines, another form of storytelling. With more time on my hands, I have redoubled these efforts, including three articles published this month. They generate some income, but more importantly, they help to sell books and podcast subscriptions. I have worked carefully to build a series of projects, each timed to support all of the others.

I have also worked as a business consultant, teaching storytelling, helping to train staff and creating websites. An international company recently hired me to help improve their sales and marketing through storytelling. I have rewritten several of their webpages as a model, to teach them to think like a storyteller and tell better success stories. This has been a fun challenge for me, telling stories using their highly technical vocabulary, and I enjoy bringing storytelling to a new audience. Most importantly, they value the work and recently extended my contract. This for-profit work helps to subsidize my nonprofit efforts.

But as the pandemic is extended, what are the urgent needs of our community? And how do we rise to meet them?

I believe storytelling is an essential business. The arts are even more vital in difficult times because they help us to create what could be, to imagine new possibilities. So, the one question I needed to ask: How can I adapt to meet the needs of our community—not just to create new streams of income, but to contribute needed services? 

Nearly 1.8 billion children worldwide abruptly shifted into homeschooling last spring, with parents and teachers alike unprepared for this radical change. As schools wrestle with the new school year, the work I have been doing for 40 years seems perfectly positioned to help in this moment. Knowing that everyone learns in different ways, my storytelling programs are available on many platforms: as books, videos, audio podcasts and ebooks. My free podcast is available on every device a student might have, providing fun, engaging material to support their teachers and parents. This accessibility is critically important as the pandemic highlights the lack of access to technology in some communities.

I am currently working with several museums across the country to provide weekly stories and lessons for e-learning. We are looking for sponsors to cover costs and keep it free for those who need it. I have converted my office to a studio so we can live-stream programs weekly. We will record and edit each live stream so it can be added to the library of podcasts. If an individual, school or school district, library or museum subscribes to the Fox Tales International Patreon page, they will gain immediate access to 10 hours of video and all of the accompanying lesson plans.

I have spent the past few months not so much sheltered-in-place, but striving-in-place, reaching out through the platforms I have access to in order to build something new and useful. One final question, knowing that the future is beckoning you to rise with the tide: 

In what new and transformative way will you emerge from this time of challenge?

For more information about Fox Tales International, visit foxtalesint.com. PM

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