When most people hear the word “storytelling,” they think of a sweet-voiced librarian reading a picture book to a circle of pre-schoolers. While the majority of storytelling is aimed at young audiences, modern storytelling festivals, such as this weekend’s event in Ojai that kicks off Thursday, are anything but bland. Often involving music, poetry, movement, puppetry and other art forms, seasoned storytellers are multidimensional performers with the capacity to hold audiences of all ages spellbound.
“To anyone who hasn’t experienced storytelling before, I would say first and foremost it is really fun, and really compelling,” said David Gonzalez, a New York-based professional teller who has traveled the world sharing his craft for 27 years. “It is life in vivid 4-D: height, width, depth and soul. When a storyteller is weaving a tale, bringing it to life, time and space shift and that fourth dimension of soul is really active and real. It is joyful.”
Gonzalez, recently named Joseph Campbell Foundation Fellow for 2010, worked for 20 years as a music therapist. He performs on his own as a storyteller and with groups as a musician. He got his start as a child telling stories with a puppet theater built for him by his uncle, who also made him his first guitar.
“Those two gifts, of theater and of music, have guided my life,” he said. “I love sound, movement, music and text. They are like rivers, with confluence and cross-streams … channels of information — cultural, personal, literal. Everyone uses nuance of voice, words and gestures in everyday life to communicate. The storyteller just pushes those further. This is how the continuity of natural human expression becomes the art of storytelling.”
Brian Bemel is the artistic director of the Ojai Storytelling Festival, now in its 11th year. A classroom teacher for 22 years in grades K-6, he found that stories, especially personal tales of trouble he had gotten into as a kid, were riveting to his students.
“I think they served as a gateway to capturing their imaginations and engaging them in learning,” he said. “Storytelling is a celebration of imagination and literacy. As we know, oral language comes before written, both in human evolution and in individual growth and development.
“So when a storyteller performs for children, he or she is modeling facility with language in a very basic way. And if kids are interested in oral language, their interest in written language will follow. They want to discover more on their own by reading. And of course it’s easier to tell a story than to write one, so storytelling can be used educationally. If kids can express themselves orally, writing is much easier for them later on.”
While reaching out to audiences of all ages, the festival has always had a strong educational component for local schoolchildren. Students from pre-school through 12th grade attend the outreach program on the Friday of the festival weekend each year. This year, more than 2,000 students from Ojai, Ventura, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks will attend Friday’s program as a field trip in the arts.
Angela Lloyd will return to Ojai after appearing several years ago at the festival. She is a longtime professional storyteller based in Victorville.
“What I like about Ojai is that there is the outdoor space, Libbey Bowl, which is really lovely. But mainly it’s that you can be outside and feel the breeze on your skin. It allows you to feel like you’re traveling with the different storytellers as you listen.”
Lloyd is another who makes generous use of music and song in her storytelling, playing a washboard festooned with spoons and other adornments.
“It occurred to me a few years ago that ‘song is the water for the story boat.’ When you’re listening to a speaker or a storyteller, there is a certain attention and tension there. But I think when we are listening to music we relax and can sink a little deeper in as a listener. I’ve always felt that music is a really important part of storytelling because I think it has a way of holding us as we let a story drop further into our body after hearing it, letting the images play some more in our minds … or as a transition to get ready for something else to come … or it just holds us.
“One of the things I love about storytelling is that I think each teller has the most success when they can truly be who they are, and share that with an audience. For example, so many of the things I love can fit in with stories — little truths I learned as a kid — like that I had to sit by the pool and wait for my skin to unwrinkle so I could go back in, or poems jokes or chants or rhymes. What I love about the form is that I can tuck all that in. There’s room for it. And because I play a washboard, I have even more invitation to include songs and old ditties.”
“Storytelling is an antidote to alienation and isolation,” Gonzalez said regarding its place in our technologically-driven society. “When we hear a story, we feel connected to the teller, and the story, and the humanity that informs that story. The storyteller is like a celebrant, creating the place where community is formed.
“Now, don’t get me wrong — I have my share of gadgets. I don’t go anywhere without my iPhone, honey! I think a lot of what people use technology for is connection and stories. Facebook, Twitter and all of that is about exchange of narratives, a community of quips. It’s virtual storytelling. What the art of storytelling does is open up to the meta of social networking. It’s mythic networking. “
Gonzalez addressed the difference between storytelling for children and adults.
“Most of my performances — and it’s the same for most tellers — are for youth audiences. And that’s a good thing. But I also know that most of us tellers really enjoy it when we have adult audiences because we’re all layered, complex people and we have stories that address the continuing maturation of our lives. We perform differently for different audiences.
“When I’m with first- and second-graders, I do things that are really interactive. With a family audience of mixed ages, I change what I do so that I can get to them all. When I do a show for just adults, I often mix music and poetry with stories about my life as an artist. It changes things. One of the operating principles of storytelling is adjusting to the audience, because what is paramount is rapport. That is a very different attitude and focus and discipline than being a theatrical artist. A big part of being a storyteller is not telling, it’s listening and perceiving and being present for who is there. It’s all about how to celebrate this, in this moment, with these people.”
Nancy Donoval, also a headliner at this weekend’s festival, has an undergraduate degree in theater and a master of fine arts in directing. She is a professional storyteller, and she does one-woman shows for adult audiences and travels to college campuses to speak on sexual assault. In addition, she is a story coach, helping people develop stories from their lives — often ones that are difficult to bring out.
“I do a lot of work in the schools, telling for kids,” she said. “And I often also end up telling to family groups at events. What I like is when the parents don’t just put their kids up front to listen and then sit in the back and talk among themselves. I want everyone to sit together. The story is there for everybody to get something at a different level.
“Of course, there is some material that is not appropriate for kids. And when people hear that, they often say, ‘Oh, so you use bad language or you talk about sex?’ But it’s not necessarily that. These stories just may be more complex emotionally or longer and boring for kids. But I also think that if you’re doing really good storytelling for kids, adults won’t be bored. I won’t tell stories that I’m not interested in. If I’m telling it, I know it engages me, so other adults will probably enjoy it, too.
“My favorite kinds of stories to tell are the ones with complex emotions. One of my favorite and most crowd-pleasing personal stories is about how my second-grade teacher took us on a field trip to the bathrooms of the opposite gender.
“It’s not only about learning useful information about life, but about breaking taboos. It was a fascinating experience, and I describe it in terms of what my second-grade self was seeing and trying to understand. People used to always accuse me of making up the story until I started including the part about how our teacher got in trouble for it, got sent to the principal’s office. As soon as I included that part, nobody ever questioned it. And I realized, of course, as listeners, we need to hear about the consequences, and that makes it real.
“In general, my funny stories always have a little bit of dark in them, and my dark stories always have humor in them. I just don’t see those things as being separate. Past the age of about 3, we don’t feel just one emotion at a time. Everything’s a mix. I think that’s really powerful.
“I tell a story about my father’s death when I was 15. That was the first autobiographical story I told, and the first time I learned how humor goes hand-in-hand with grief. Parts of the story are funny, even though it’s about the week of my father dying. That’s just life. It all goes together. Now, from an audience perspective, I have to carefully negotiate permission to go the darker places I go with those type of stories. Humor is a great way to give people a release of tension, and it also is a really useful way to let them know that I’m fine with the subject matter, even if it’s about a painful experience of mine. I think one of the best ways to manage the dark things in our lives is humor. That’s just my take on life.”
Speaking of stories for grown-ups, on Saturday, there will be a late-night show called “Naughty Tales” — just for adults, with wine and desserts. A select group of tellers will break out their somewhat racier material. Everything will still be tasteful, of course, but it’s a chance for them to let their hair down a little and tell stories they often don’t.
“This festival is a chance to see a variety of storytelling that you normally don’t get,” Lloyd said. “There is nothing like it in Santa Barbara. Any live performance only happens because the performer is there and you, the audience, is there. Storytelling is so dependent on the reciprocal energy of the audience.”
“The variety of this festival is phenomenal,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a panoply of humanity, a smorgasbord of ideas and styles, a feast for the senses.”
For tickets or for more information about the Ojai Storytelling Festival, click here or call Bemel at 805.646.8907.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.