Kelly Swanson

May 2023 View more

Once upon a time a picked-on kid became a storyteller

Kelly Swanson

Part comedian, part corporate motivational speaker, Kelly Swanson is a true hybrid who’s now finding her place in the theater world. Her one-woman show, Who Hijacked My Fairy Tale?, has a May 13 stop at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn. We caught up with this author and professional storyteller from High Point, North Carolina, to find out what motivates her.

Q: How did you become a storyteller?
A: I was the picked-on kid growing up, the bullied kid, the weird kid, so I retreated into myself and created this whole imaginary place. My stories were my refuge. That’s where I, unknowingly, became such a fan of the power of story because I now believe, looking back, that I wrote the story I could live in. And I believe that’s what we all do: We all write a story that we live in—we write a narrative about ourselves, about others, about the world we’re in. Life is a small percentage of reality and truth and the rest what we’re writing from being in that moment, and that really ties into my show in a big way.

When I became a storyteller, I began to find out that people craved to know me, and that was weird because I was kind of an introvert. I hid behind the pen and the page. But they wanted to know about me and my journey. What I quickly learned was it wasn’t in my perfection that would allow me to connect with people, it was in my imperfections—it’s to draw my eyebrows on crooked, I woke up and my chin sprouted dreadlocks, it’s: Oh my gosh, am I a bad mom because I forgot to feed them lunch two days ago? So then I began to see: Oh, wow, people really do love these personal stories.

Q: How do you describe your show?
A: I think the reason it resonates so much with people—this whole “Who hijacked my fairy tale?”—is the idea that we bought into this story of who we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to look like, who we’re supposed to marry, where we’re supposed to live, this fairy tale. Even men too. And even if you didn’t grow up when I did in the ’80s. Even though fairy tales have morphed and changed, even today we buy into an idea of something that is not realistic. And the show breaks apart all those stupid ideas, that the prince is supposed to come riding up out of the woods on a horse, singing. Or that the prince is supposed to have milky white skin and no moles or rosacea. The one thing [the audience says] leaving the show is they expected just a comedy show, and it is so much more than that.

Q: How would you characterize your storytelling style?
A: I break the fourth wall; I talk to my audience. Sometimes in theater you feel like you’re sitting in a seat watching in a window. Where my tenure as a motivational speaker [comes in]—we have conversations, it’s like church. People like that sense that I’m really there with them. You’re in my living room, a feel that we’re just kicking back talking.

Again, it’s the power of story. Even though it’s my story, when I talk about the emotions in it—feeling invisible, feeling not good enough, feeling afraid, having everybody laugh at me—those are universal emotions. The story opens it up, so the person sitting across from me, psychologically, is forced to go into their own story and they’re standing in it at the same time, so now we’re touching on all types of people who—because the story is done right, because it has the right framework—it’s opening them up to apply it to their own message. That’s the beauty of story. And that’s where it’s different from other comedy shows where there are just jokes. These are stories.

Q: How important is humor?
A: People need to laugh right now, and I’m fully stepping into that, going on that stage, [and thinking] this is not about how many people come, this is not how much money you make, this is not what theater you get, this is not what the reviews say—this is you loving on people. And your job is well done if you can give them a hug from that stage and make them walk out a little better than you found them. There’s just no greater gift than that.


Photos courtesy of Kelly Swanson