Storytelling In Events: How One Event Planner’s Theatre Background Helps Him Tell Stories

August 12, 2020  |  by:

Storytelling in events is an art that requires a flair for the dramatic. Every event has a story behind it, and it takes a distinct perspective to bring that story to life.

If there’s one thing that’s true for each and every couple that walks down the aisle, it’s that in some way, be it big or small, their love story is entirely unique. Completely and totally their own. And it takes a lot of experience and skill to be able to not just hold a beautiful wedding, but to have guests walking away with a sense that they’ve truly gotten to know the bride and groom and have, in some way, played a role in their romance.

Woodland Events Logo

For Todd Harper, the owner and lead planner of Woodland Events, an event planning company based in Minnesota, the drive to tell each couple’s story has its roots all the way back from when he worked in theatre, specifically in stage and production management.

“One of the things that really drew me to that career was watching the impact it had on an audience. I really loved going into a theatre, during intermission or after a show, and hearing people from the audience have conversations about the impact it all had on them,” Todd explains.

In their own words, Woodland Events plans weddings and events that bring our clients’ stories to life and are remembered for a lifetime.

And to me, that looks like an accurate description.

A Storied Past

Todd Harper of Woodland Events
Todd Harper of Woodland Events

Todd was in theatre for ten years when he realized he’d gotten to a place in his career that had placed him further away from the audience than he was happy with. With a yearning to get back to storytelling and making an impact on people, he became interested in event planning.

“In addition to doing stage productions, part of my experience in theatre was also managing large events — parties, galas and the like. There were even a couple of big dance parties that had around 3,000 guests. I realized that event planning was very similar to doing theatre, and I knew that it was something that I could do, and do well,” Todd explains.

After doing some research into the industry, Todd decided that starting his own business was what would bring him back what he had been missing for so long — working closely with people to make something magnificent happen.

“After I started my own business, I knew I had to find a niche. I remembered the joy I saw from the audience when I was in theatre. It suddenly dawned on me — what better way to see that joy and the immediate impact it has on the people I’m working with than in the world of weddings?”

And so Todd got to work. Starting with smaller events, and a focus on weddings, and after a move from California to Minnesota, Woodland Events was born.

Photo by  K Schulz Photography

Relaxed And Romantic Storytelling

One of the best parts of his job, Todd says, is his amazing clients, and how delightful they are to work with. “I tend to work with couples who are a little more mature, in their early to mid-thirties. I really love working with them; none of my clients are Bridezillas,” he laughs. “They’re a little relaxed. They’re excited about their weddings, they know what they want, and they’re not afraid to ask for it. Still, they’re not stressed about everything happening in a certain, rigid way. They tend to roll with the punches. They also tend to be more established — they might have a house together and established careers. Nobody’s just out of college or high school.”

And it’s precisely this more laid-back attitude that is the perfect blend of California cool and Minnesota cottage country relaxation that has become the hallmark of Woodland Events. “Moving to Minnesota felt like a shift from palm trees to pine trees, from oceans to lakes. I wanted a way to really capture that with my brand — that mental shift,” Todd remembers. “Because of this, I tend to work with more woodsy themes. I think because of the name of my business, couples that come to me often say they want to include tree stumps, wood slices, those kinds of beautiful, rustic touches to their decor.”

All Life’s A Stage

The love of storytelling in Todd’s theatre-loving soul has made for a beautiful transition into creating one-of-a-kind weddings for unique couples. Todd tells me that storytelling is of the utmost importance when producing an event utterly unique to every couple.

“As a production manager in the theatre, my role was really to take the vision and the creative direction of the artistic team and implement it into physical production. I was a middleman, a translator, really, asking myself how to take the artistic language of those teams and translate it into something for my builders, my costume crews and everybody that was actually building the elements of a production,” he explains. “I think that I use that experience a lot in my event planning because design services really aren’t a part of my planning packages. So I take my clients’ vague understanding and limited vocabulary for what they want and translate that to a vendor team. I can tell a florist and a photographer and a rental company exactly what they’re looking for.”

A lot of this process, Todd notes, is based on gut feeling, which was also big in the theatre world. “I don’t know that there’s an exact science. A lot of it is just experience and years of gathering information and knowing what to do with it. It’s all about listening to what the client is saying and really getting at the ‘why’ of what they’re asking for.”

Find The Why

Todd says finding the answer to this ‘why’ is incredibly important in preserving the integrity of the design and vision. It opens up a whole world of possibility for different aspects of the design from different vendors. 

“I don’t just ask my clients what they want — there’s always a more gentle way to get at that. You need to get them to elaborate on what their vision for their wedding means to them. So I always try to get at the root of every single aspect of their event. And whether part of the design or something we’re incorporating into the timeline, all of those pieces tell a story. Even down to what food is being served.”

I was instantly intrigued by how food could tell a story, so I asked Todd to elaborate. He says that everybody’s been to weddings with the typical three options: chicken, steak, and vegetarian. But what, he asks, does that have to do with the couple themselves?

“It doesn’t say anything. It just says that you chose the standard menu options that were available. I like to dig deeper. I’ll often ask the couple what they ate on their first date or a meal they’ve shared that’s really special to them. Then we look at what a caterer can provide and how we can bring portions of that into the menu.”

The Tale Is In The Details

Another way to tell a couple’s story is through something as simple as place cards and table numbers. Todd relates this in a story about a wedding he did a couple of years ago. “There was a paragraph of text placed by the centerpiece of each table that told the story of one of the couples’ dates. It would have the date — for example, the seventh of September, date number three — and the tables were based on what date number it was. The paragraph explained what had happened on the date from each of their points of view. Guests really started to pick up on how different and unique it was. People walked around from table to table to read the story of the couple and see their relationship develop just through these little signs on the tables.”

Related article: Event Planning Skills & Sweating The Small Stuff

Storytelling In Events
Photo by Sarah Hanby Photography

Storytelling Requires An Element of Surprise

Of all the many ways that Todd helps his clients make an impact on their guests, one of his favorites is including the element of surprise. 

“There are going to be moments that surprise and delight both the client and their guests just because they’ve not seen it anywhere else. As an event planner, I’m able to know what works and what doesn’t work because I’ve planned hundreds of events. When a client is dreaming about what can happen, I logistically can immediately tell if it’s possible. And if it’s not, I can still stick to the integrity of their authentic ideas. I find something that gets at what they’re really wanting, but it’s maybe just tweaked a little. As an interested but removed third party, I have the experience to logistically speak to that.”

But surprises aren’t the only way to make an impact, Todd is quick to point out. “What is really important to me is that we’re telling the story that the couple wants to tell their guests. If that’s really surprising, then great. If it’s not, and maybe the story is one that’s been told a thousand other times, it’s just two people who fell in love. Now they’re getting married. Storytelling in events can be as simple as that and still be incredibly romantic. It’s still important to tell that story, even if it doesn’t have many twists and turns. Like any novelist or any playwright that’s writing a story, some plays have a pretty basic plot. It’s not got any surprising twists and turns, but it’s still a story, and it’s still worth telling.”

Married Couple with wands
Photo by Celisia Stanton Photography
Love the wizarding wands!

Explaining Vision To Vendors

With so much riding on authentically telling the couple’s story to their guests, I asked Todd if anything ever gets lost in translation when he’s discussing everything with vendors. Do they need to know the big picture, the story?

“Honestly, I try not to complicate it too much. A part of that translation process is trying to clear the complication for everyone. I want to get as much information from the client as possible and only give what’s necessary to the vendors so that we’re not making it too complicated,” Todd tells me. “Because I’m not a floral professional myself, I’ll describe to the florist a little more about the personality of the couple and what they’re trying to accomplish or what story they’re trying to tell. I’ll be a little more detailed with a florist. For something like decor rentals, the vendor doesn’t need to know anything.”

“We will take the storytelling aspect and figure out, based on that, what we’re going to order. And you can just go to the vendor and tell them what you need. And when we’re looking for a photographer, I’ll search only for vendors that I believe will help tell this couple’s story through the camera lens. Suppose there’s something that looks pretty or a photographer who has good work, but it doesn’t really capture that couple’s story. In that case, I won’t recommend that photographer. So even before we get into conversations with the vendor, I make some small judgments to find out if a particular vendor is actually going to aid in telling this story.”

Storytelling: A Link Between the Traditions of the Past and the Weddings of the Future

With the popular trends of interactive weddings and events, guests are often no longer happy to just sit down and take in a ceremony, have dinner, do some dancing and then go home, Todd affirms. “People want something more — they want things like petting zoos, like jump houses and mini-golf. Guests are expecting more. At the same time, I think it’s silly to want a mini-golf course and not have a reason for it, something that ties it into the couple’s story. So telling the story is important because we want to find new ways to have meaningful and interactive experiences for the clients and their guests.”

Storytelling Makes For A Lasting Impact

Todd says storytelling really helps weddings to have a lasting emotional impact that can make a couple’s bond even more durable. “With the wedding telling a story, the couple can remember how the first three or four years of their relationship were captured perfectly in one meaningful day. They can see how their relationship has developed so much beyond that. And how that was really foundational to where they become. I think whether it’s just a distant memory or an integral part of us, an ever-developing relationship, it’s still this really key emotion. Humans crave storytelling, we need it. Whether it’s back when we were cavemen gathering around a fire to reading books and watching movies and plays, we crave storytelling in every aspect of our life. Why not incorporate that into our events as well?”

In the end, both Todd and his clients are thankful for his career in theatre. It’s something that Todd asserts has made him into the event planner he is today – one that understands storytelling in events.

“Every event is a production. It’s just that with weddings, you get one shot to do it rather than months of rehearsal and many presentations. It’s one day, it happens and then it’s over. But it’s really incredible how you can watch it on people’s faces — just that impact it has on them. And that makes it all worth it.”

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