Of all the Wonder Weavers’ performances, the one that best displays the storytelling duo’s captivating act was one of their high school workshops, rather than one of their frequent children’s shows.
Eden Prairie’s preeminent storytellers, Colleen Shaskin and Tina Rohde, led a personal narrative workshop for teens at a small high school in western Minnesota a few years ago, the pair told Eden Prairie News. The course culminated in an evening event, an opportunity for the students to share their work. The principal expressed concern that only a handful of students would show up, but on the night of the event, 120 teenagers arrived, eager to share their stories, the duo recalled.
“It was standing room only,” said Shaskin, 69, with a smile.
The pair founded the Wonder Weavers in 1993 after Rohde met Shaskin as her children’s nursery school teacher. They became fast friends and traveled together with their families for years, ran art summer camps in Rohde’s backyard and attended a fateful storytelling conference that planted the seed of the Wonder Weavers.
“That’s where we fell in love with the art form,” recalled Rohde, 68. “We discovered we really liked working together and teaching.”
The Wonder Weavers employ soft puppets, from dogs and frogs to mystical creatures, in their act, as well as plenty of audience participation. That keeps 2- and 3-year-olds engaged and helps children who are English language learners or have disabilities follow the story more easily, they explained.
“They have a true understanding of children,” said Kathy Hopkins, director of Crocus Hill Preschool in St. Paul, where the Wonder Weavers have performed monthly for years. “Their laughter is infectious.”
“We just enjoy getting kids to laugh,” Shaskin said. “Having a good story is like having a good friend.”
There are only around 12 tandem storytellers in the U.S., according to the Wonder Weavers. Because of their small numbers and tight community, Shaskin and Rohde have found themselves featured in several books and studies about storytelling, presenting at various conferences, and recording their stories for a CD of children’s storytellers.
They stand out in the community, partially because of their longevity and partially because their act is entirely unscripted. When recording the CD, “We made the sound technician crazy” because they didn’t have a script, Rohde laughed, “We just tell them from the heart.”
That rapport makes for an almost-telepathic connection during performances.
“Tina can say a couple words and I already know what story she wants to tell next,” Shaskin related.
Shaskin’s extroversion, teaching background and family tradition made her immediately at home in front of an audience. Her brother, who died in a car crash in 2000, was also a dynamic storyteller who encouraged her to get onstage.
“He inspired me to feel comfortable telling stories,” Shaskin remembered. “It’s always been in my blood to enjoy being in front of people.”
By contrast, Rohde is an introvert who used costumes to feel more comfortable when she began performing. She honed her skills by performing for her son’s first-grade class.
“They got to be my best critics,” she said. “They were very honest about what they like and what they don’t like.”
The makeup of their audience shapes which stories the Wonder Weavers tell. Stories for senior centers often involve a nostalgic glance back at tools and experiences from the listeners’ childhood, but younger audiences are frequently confused by such references.
“Kids today wouldn’t know what a wringer washing machine is,” Shaskin explained.
“I talk about a telephone with a cord on it and they’re like, ‘Why?’” Rohde added.
While parents aren’t the target audience, Rohde and Shaskin keep them in mind while creating their content. Early on in the Wonder Weavers’ career, as a parent at library storytelling events, Rohde began to pay attention to what the entertainer was doing when she found herself interested, or disengagdd.
“If you see them not on their phone as much, you know you’re getting them,” Rohde related. “It’s that multi-generational content that we look for.”
Regardless of who’s listening, the stories’ core values − kindness, friendship, self-esteem − stay consistent, in part to provide a contrast to the violence and conflict that are often on television, Shaskin said.
“We like to be a counterbalance to that,” she said.
Not every lesson is from the stories the Wonder Weavers tell; some come from showing young people that adults can be goofy, have fun and work together. Rohde particularly loves children’s reactions when characters make silly mistakes in their stories.
“They look at me like, ‘You’re so dumb’ and I love that because adults can be dumb,” she said. “Kids look at you and go, ‘This is your job?’”
After nearly three decades, the pair are trimming back their performance schedule a bit. At their high point in the mid-2000s, they did nearly 300 performances a year, Shaskin said. Now, they don’t feel the same pressure to take every job that comes their way.
“We’re not doing things we don’t like,” Rohde said.
A curious reader can catch the Wonder Weavers at plenty of Eden Prairie public events, like Kidstock, PeopleFest and Winter Blast. The website is wonderweavers.com.