Features

Storytellers

Modern-day yarn spinners create an authentic art form

Once upon a time, storytelling was something people did to entertain themselves while sitting around a campfire or to pass on cultural lore.

Nowadays there are competitive story slams, professional guilds for storytellers and graduate programs in storytelling. There are as many styles of storytelling as there are storytellers and more and more venues in which stories are told. On Feb. 1, 2014, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum hosted its second annual Storytelling Festival, with the theme “One World, Many Stories.”

The festival featured storytellers representing several cultures, including Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy, who will tell interactive folk-tale-based stories. She says the Irish specialize in fabrication. “We say you can’t believe everything an Irishman tells you. You know, we value truth so highly that we use it sparingly, whereas imagination we’ve got no regard for at all and so we spend it like fools.”

Fairy tales, legends and tall tales are only part of the picture for Healy, though. “I do traditional stories,” she says, “but I also tell true stories, and I tell stories that are neither true nor traditional.”

Healy, who lives in Howell, came to storytelling naturally. Her family emigrated from Ireland to this country when she was a child, and she grew up speaking Irish in the home and listening to her parents tell stories. “I was the designated heir of the traditional stories in my family, and I had to learn them phrase by phrase and line by line and repeat them.” She grew up to be an actress and then a mother who told stories to her children and to their Sunday school classes. Eventually, she says, “I discovered I could make a living at it.”

Native American storyteller Austen Brauker, of Onekama, also grew up in a culture with a strong tradition of storytelling. As a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Brauker grew up with relatives telling all kinds of stories, not only tribal legends but family stories too. “I was just surrounded by that oral tradition constantly,” Brauker says. “And a lot of people have that, and they don’t realize what it is or what to call it, but I think it’s pretty common the world over. Stories are really a vital part of identity in remembering who we are, even our immediate family.”

Professional storytellers assert that everybody can and does tell stories. “We naturally tell stories. It’s in our blood,” says Allison Downey, a storyteller, singer-songwriter and Western Michigan University education professor.

Downey has presented workshops at storytelling conferences, and she also coaches individuals and businesses in storytelling. To tell a story well, she says, you have to consider how to capture the audience’s attention, how to construct the story and what you hope the audience will take away from it. “You craft it to make it more powerful, funnier, more poignant,” she says.

Healy uses different styles of storytelling depending on the age of her audience. With younger children, she often employs audience participation, including chants and repetition and having participants act things out. For older kids and adults, she uses “a purer form of storytelling where it relies on the expressive language and the expressive gestures or facial expressions of the storyteller.”

Stories serve various social functions in addition to entertainment and heritage preservation. Downey, whose research involves comparing different styles of storytelling to identify their common elements, says that the primary function of personal narratives — true stories that the teller experienced directly — is to give people a sense of connection.

A personal story can make the listener see things from a different perspective and empathize with the storyteller. “When you hear somebody’s story, you can’t dismiss them,” Downey says. It also can connect listeners to their own experience, as “when you hear somebody else’s story and you realize, ‘Wow, I’m not alone; I had that happen to me, too’ or ‘I felt that way before, and look where they’ve come.’ And that’s true with the telling of a story. Sometimes for people, when they tell a story, they feel a sense of validation.”

Brauker uses storytelling as part of his day job as a peacemaker and probation officer for the Little River Band’s Tribal Justice Center. He uses stories in mediating between parties and mentoring children, to impart a message that listeners can directly apply to their situation, without calling direct attention to any individual. “It saves face with people as a way to be able to confront each other or teach each other without having anybody look dumb in the process,” he says.

Brauker is a musician, visual artist, writer and filmmaker as well as a storyteller, and he doesn’t draw many distinctions between these acts of creation. “Story is … the same thing as music or dance or any (other art form),” he says. “They’re all different forms of the same language of the spirit, which to me is artistic expression. … We talk in words, you know, but when we talk with dance, music, art or whatever our art may be, that’s when we’re speaking from heart, and that can be understood by any culture, in any language.”

Despite its long-standing place at the center of human culture, storytelling does evolve. It also is increasing in popularity, via programs like National Public Radio’s This American Life and events like those held by The Moth, a New York City-based organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. “There’s a different aesthetic now with this This American Life, Moth-style (storytelling) performance that’s happening,” Downey says. “… It’s a different aesthetic than (is used) in the main-stage storytelling circuit. One of the key things is being authentic.”

Downey has taught raconteurs how to tell stories in this new style. “They’re very used to being polished, they’re very used to being performative, and so was I,” she says. “And this is kind of a stripping away, of being more authentic, being like you’re sitting across the table … so that you can really connect with the audience instead of performing for them.”

Healy has seen her audience flip in recent years from primarily children to primarily adults, and, like Downey and others who are studying contemporary storytelling, she thinks the art form’s increasing popularity among adults may be related to its ability to connect people. “I agree with the people who say that it’s because we spend a lot more time disconnected from each other, that it’s kind of a natural reaction to how much screen time we have. … And to counter that, there’s a resurgence in being present and sharing our lives and sharing the lives of other people.”

Because storytelling happens before a live audience, it is a fluid art form, with no two performances exactly alike.

Brauker says he might not know until the day of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Storytelling Festival exactly what stories he will tell. “(Stories are) real spontaneous, and they’re real dynamic, depending on the group, the setting and all that stuff,” he says. Storytellers get a feel for observing their audience, and, by doing so, “they know sometimes what stories they’re supposed to tell.”

Healy, too, gauges the audience’s interest and attention and adjusts accordingly. “When you see that they’re responding to something, you kind of give them a little more of that,” she says. “Or if you see that they didn’t quite get something, then you find a different way to get that across if it’s important to the story.” Although she’s planning to tell stories tailored to children at the festival, she says, “I might throw in a short story from my family if there are more adults than kids. Adult storytelling always has people telling stories about when they did stupid things, embarrassed themselves or when something strange really happened.”

In addition to Brauker, Downey and Healy, main-stage performers at the festival will include a group called The Storytellers, performing musical folk tales from various cultures; Adam Mellema, who portrays characters in his stories; and mime Rob Reider. Sign-language interpreters will be on hand for all performances, and the museum will screen videos of American Sign Language performances by deaf storyteller Peter Cook. Carri Wilson will use books and puppets to tell stories to preschoolers. The festival also will offer hands-on activities and a vendor fair.

Kalamazoo Valley Museum Program Coordinator Annette Hoppenworth says the festival ties in with the museum’s recently renovated history gallery, which is “focused on the stories of people and what they did in this area.”

“The museum, to me, is all about stories,” she says. “We become part of history when we look at our stories. (The Storytelling Festival) seemed like a natural thing to do.”

For more information about the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Storytelling Festival, call 373-7990 or go to the website kvm.kvcc.edu. To find out about public storytelling events around the state, visit the website michiganstorytelling.org.

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A Vital Part of Identity

As a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, professional storyteller Austin Brauker grew up with relatives telling all kinds of stories, not only tribal legends but family stories too.

“I was just surrounded by that oral tradition constantly,” he says. “And a lot of people have that, and they don’t realize what it is or what to call it, but I think it’s pretty common the world over. Stories are really a vital part of identity in remembering who we are, even our immediate family.”