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The Campfire Makes a Comeback
The old-fashioned art of storytelling is once again in vogue. Will its rhythms and traditions survive the all-about-me generation?
by Nirmala Nataraj on Nov 08, 2004
In recent years poetry slams and hip-hop inspired jams have drawn street cred and younger crowds to the spoken-word scene, but there's a quieter revival underway: good old-fashioned storytelling.
In libraries, at outdoor festivals and at open mikes in cafes and clubs, storytellers are regaling audiences with everything from urban legends to comic anecdotes. Bards, griots and old wives might not get the same props they've enjoyed for millennia, but there are few things that come close to a darn good yarn.
The national storytelling revival began about 30 years ago with the emergence of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, but the Bay Area has also enjoyed a resurgence thanks to several local proponents.
Gay Ducey, children's librarian at the Rockridge Public Library in Oakland, was instrumental in solidifying the National Storytelling Association, which is affiliated with the national festival. While on the association's board from 1987 to 1993, Ducey encouraged performers to shift from traditional myths and legends to personal narrative and a cross-disciplinary use of dance, mime and music to make the tales more accessible. "We needed to open our stages to more people of color, to the West Coast, to those doing edgier work."
Also instrumental in the revival is former children's librarian Nancy Schimmel of Berkeley. Schimmel began telling stories, often with female characters who sizzle with chutzpah, to mixed-age audiences at Bay Area fairs in the early '70s. She also taught storytelling classes in her home that eventually became the Mixed Bag Storytellers, a group that still meets at the Claremont Public Library in Berkeley once a month. The committee for the Bay Area Storytelling Festival, an annual weekend of storytelling put on entirely by volunteers, gradually grew from these meetings, too.
Now in its 19th year, the Bay Area Storytelling Festival will take place in El Sobrante May 22 and 23. This year's presenters are from all over the country and weave together theater, call and response, great-grandmothers' fables, Mandarin folk stories, and reports from the everyday urban world. The festival also includes one workshop per day and open mic sessions for audience members.
Ducey, who is co-chair of the festival, may have encouraged fresh material and artistic approaches on the storytelling circuit, but it's still an older scene. Berkeley-based actor and playwright Tim Ereneta has been a storyteller for ten years and at 36 years old is often jokingly referred to as one of the youngsters. "The Bay Area boasts a more diverse group of storytellers [than in other parts of the nation] and is more open to non-traditional forms of storytelling, but there's definitely still a generation gap," he says.
At this year's Bay Area Storytelling Festival, Ereneta will perform a solo rendition of his show "Happy Endings Are Overrated," retellings of fairy tales from Prince Charming's point of view.
According to Ereneta, the festival brings in the best storytellers from a variety of different cultures, but a divide between traditional and contemporary storytelling parallels the generational gap. "Many times, contemporary storytelling is referred to [by traditional storytellers] as putting one's personal therapy on the stage," Ereneta says. "But it includes a lot of other things beyond personal accounts."
For storytellers who don't fit the traditional scene but who don't want to do the fist-pumping, competitive work required at a poetry slam, there are other venues of expression. One such community started in 1996 at the Web site Fray.com. Fray began as a forum to share true, personal stories. Soon, its constituents were getting together once a year for an event dubbed "Fray Day." "Online communities have a craving to tell true stories, because we as people have so few avenues for that," says Fray founder Derek Powazek. "We still crave real contact, no matter how virtual our lives become."
Now, Fray Day takes place at venues worldwide; smaller gatherings called Fray Cafes also abound several times a year, from Sedona, Arizona to Wales. Unlike the traditional circuit, Fray draws multigenerational and multiracial participants. To Powazek, traditional storytelling has a lot to do with technique, whereas Fray underscores the cathartic experience of personal narrative. "Audiences will give a performer a lot of leeway when they know he or she is telling a story for the first time. You forgive the um'ing and aw'ing, because in the end you see the person is just like you."
Another bastion of the alt-storytelling circuit is San Francisco's Porch Light series. For two years Arline Klatte and Beth Lisick have been purveyors of urban storytelling with their chic monthly meetings at Café du Nord. The ground rules of the series are no memorization, no "performance," and nothing longer than ten minutes -- all, in some ways, antithetical to the time-honored format of storytelling. The ambiance is conversational and not unlike stand-up comedy, though the stories aren't always funny. The revolving cast includes cops, doctors, politicians (including San Francisco supervisor Matt Gonzalez), taxi drivers, novelists, nude housecleaners, and mushroom hunters.
"Some of our best stories come out of topics that are really broad," says Lisick in reference to Porch Light's January 2004 show, "I Quit," a cheeky counterpoint to the New Year's resolution tradition. Not all the tales were droll; one storyteller told how he left Jim Jones's People's Temple right before the infamous mass suicide in Guyana.
Porch Light takes risks with its format, too, pulling audience names from a hat to augment its regular roster of storytellers. It can be a gamble; in the first year one audience member stood up and spouted racist jokes, which put a damper on the festivities. "But it's almost always inspiring and cool," Lisick says. "It's amazing when you hear some of the stuff people make up off the top of their heads."
As Porch Light and Fray carve out venues for younger audiences and performers, organizers of the more traditional scene are worried that storytelling is "an aging profession," says Ducey. She takes heart, however, that there is a flourishing movement of student storytellers in the community who are making waves, some of whom have even participated in past festivals.
Even if, as traditionalists fear, the personal and cathartic style of the younger set becomes the storytelling vogue, Schimmel isn't worried. Oral culture, she says, is cyclical and is always tied into the desire to keep a register of history, whether or not it's intentional. "A lot of times people want to modernize and they lose the stories from their cultures. But the next generation realizes this, and they want to regain it. The act of storytelling is part of the human condition. The form will change, but it will never die out."
<a href="http://www.bayareastorytelling.org/">The Bay Area Storytelling Festival</a> runs May 22 and 23 at the Kennedy Grove Regional Recreation Area in El Sobrante.
The next <a href="http://www.porchlightsf.com/">Porch Light</a> gathering takes place Wednesday, May 26.
Fray.com live events can be found <a href="http://www.fray.com/events/">here</a>.
by Nirmala Nataraj on Nov 08, 2004
Photo (top): Jennifer Fox Bennett regales the audience at Fray Day 2003. Courtesy of Fray.com.