A new kind of storyteller finds a voice in the East Bay doing the personal, political, fun and audacious.
Some 35 years ago, if you wanted to hear a story, you’d pretty much have to beg your mother to tell you one. Storytelling back then was, in much of the U.S., a homely, unsung skill—not an art, but more of a comes-with-the-territory parenting task, like diapering babies or teaching surly teens to drive.
But for once, Mom has managed to squirm off the hook. Today in the Bay Area, you can hear live storytelling practically every day of the week. There’s story hour at your branch library, story swap night at your local senior center, storytelling brunches sponsored by your church group. Toastmaster’s Club members tell stories at their meetings, monologists tell stories at theaters and solo artists tell stories at any venue that will host them. Mature types take storytelling classes at Stagebridge, the senior theater company, while fans of cutting-edge tellers take in the “Tell It on Tuesday” series at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. And if you hanker to hear international stars in a scenic setting, the Bay Area Storytelling Festival in May is a must.
Not to worry; Bre’r Rabbit and Little Red Riding Hood haven’t gone the way of the dodo. But these days, as an abundance of storytelling and listening opportunities suggests, tellers of traditional tales are sharing the Storytelling Tent with a passel of other folks. The newer breed of storyteller sings, dances, raps, foments revolution, messes with your mind, makes you remember your roots, helps lawyers get a leg up, brings you closer to God and, occasionally, removes its clothing (in, of course, a very relevant way).
If it’s lap sitting you’re after—or, for that matter, lap dancing—you certainly won’t find it at “Tell It on Tuesday,” the monthly storytelling series at the Julia Morgan Center in Berkeley. However, you will get to park your posterior (in a chair) right on the scarred wooden stage, just a few intimate feet from the action. A quick scan of the audience on a recent Tuesday evening suggests that you’ll be rubbing elbows with a couple of young adults, a few full-fledged seniors, and perhaps 65 or 70 men and women who wouldn’t be shocked—and might even be pleased—to hear themselves described as middle-aged.
Tonight, Tim Ereneta, an East Bay actor, award-winning storyteller, member of the Storytellers Unplugged improvisational troupe—and former singing dinosaur at the Lawrence Hall of Science—opens the show. More closely resembling, with his neat button-down shirt and perpetually earnest expression, a middle-school English teacher than a flamboyant performing artist, Ereneta introduces a Louisiana folktale about two sisters. That the good sister will prosper, and the greedy sister get her comeuppance, is, of course, a foregone conclusion. Not so, however, the startling scatological turn of events in a second, Palestinian version of the story that Ereneta goes on to relate, in which one of the sisters accidentally passes gas in front of her husband’s boss. As though that weren’t traumatic enough, the poor woman’s fart then morphs into a flesh-and-blood character, an unctuous Hugh Hefner type who sports a luxurious cashmere suit with a fez, and eats grapes from the hands of serving girls. “Look,” the Fart (or rather, Ereneta, looking less clean-cut by the second) says in a deep, smug voice, “when I saw my chance to escape, I took it. And now that I’ve had a taste of freedom, I’m not going back.” Like the Fart, the audience’s shouts of laughter cannot be contained.
Storytelling, like other folk arts, is seldom a high-tech enterprise. At “Tell It on Tuesday,” the lighting is so unobtrusive that it is only later, reliving the evening in your own mind, that you see how a golden halo envelops each storyteller in turn. A stark gray screen serves as the only backdrop, a conference room chair as the only prop—and also the only place for a performer to sit. As the evening progresses, actress/storyteller Maryclare McCauley will kick that chair to the ground in a fit of theatrical pique as she relates a bittersweet, apparently autobiographical story about an unraveling relationship between lovers from different social classes. Solo artist Bruce Pachtman will rip through a monologue about breaking into the movie business, featuring unsanitized riffs about everything from anti-Semitism to California stereotypes (“I took EST . . . with a urinary infection!”), plus a climactic burst of profanity. Neshama Franklin, a Fairfax librarian and radio show host, will spin a story about coming to terms with her husband’s death, peppering this uplifting tale with earthy references to phlegmy bouts of bronchitis and the best way to relieve oneself on a moving river raft. “Mm-hmm,” an older woman in the audience will murmur from time to time in response not only to the more transcendent material, but also the frankly rude parts. “Mm-hmm.”
Chat up your friendly local storyteller, and just see if you don’t hear the mantra (sometimes delivered as a gripe, sometimes as a guru’s wisdom): “Storytelling is not just for children.” In one sense, the statement speaks to the one-size-fits-all appeal of the art. Martha Shogren, who told stories to countless elementary school classes during her decades-long career as a children’s librarian at the Berkeley Public Library, recalls that frequently a teacher would remark in surprise, “Well, I have to say I really enjoyed the story, too!”
But “storytelling is not just for children” also means, of course, that there are some tellers—like the recent Fringe Festival performer who stripped to a G-string as he spoke—that you’ll never catch at Family Fun Night. It’s not just happenstance that there are no juvenile faces in the “Tell It on Tuesday” crowd: advertising for the series specifically states that the performances are “not recommended for children.” Sexual content aside, dark themes or sophisticated humor, à la Berkeley monologuist Josh Kornbluth, surely appeal more to those who are old enough to enjoy a cocktail before the show (or may require one to recover afterward). “Eating disorders, joining cults, date rape, obesity, mental illness, drug use, sex, paying taxes, suicide and racism”—there is no dearth of edgy topics in storytelling today, says Ereneta, a longtime observer of the local storytelling scene. But, he points out, these gritty stories tend to be judiciously crafted and honed by the distance of time so that they are “not therapy, but art.”
Venturing into noir-ish waters of a different sort, Joel ben Izzy, the globetrotting Berkeley storyteller known for his soulful renderings of traditional folktales, also offers his services as a story consultant to the kind of clients who wear suits and ties. “Storytelling is about connection, about building bridges,” says ben Izzy, whose résumé includes freelance stints with Hewlett-Packard, Kaiser Permanente, Wachovia Bank, Pixar Animation and the California Attorney General’s Office, among others. “That’s the true line. When I go to work in various corporations or businesses, which is something that a lot of storytellers don’t even deal with because it’s not in the realm of what they’re interested in, I’m helping them build a bridge, too, to help people connect with their work.”
But, cautions ben Izzy, “You can’t tell a story without somehow putting your heart and soul into it.” Hence, his reaction to being approached as a creative consultant for a tobacco company attorney: “I already know your story. You created a product that kills people and you lied about it. Forget it. That’s not a story I’m going to tell.”
Um, so remind us again—just what is storytelling?
Ask a professional to define the multifaceted art, and for sure you’ll get a provocative metaphor—but not, it seems, a deeply factual reply. “Storytelling is a little like being a mother,” allows Gay Ducey of the Oakland Public Library, who leads a double life as a children’s librarian and a traveling storyteller. “Everybody approves of it. Everybody kind of knows what it is. But no one knows exactly how it gets done.”
Ducey has been telling stories since childhood. (Inspired by a visit to a church whose congregation “spoke in tongues and testified and jumped around,” she began conducting her own ad-hoc services, telling Bible stories, witnessing and presiding over pet funerals.) She has performed at prestigious national festivals, chaired boards, won awards, taught university-level storytelling classes and co-authored a book on storytelling technique. And, like many gifted yarn-spinners, she was raised in the South—a region, she says, where the ability “to hold the family’s attention at the dinner table” has been prized across race, class and 300 years of history. If anyone knows what storytelling is, it is Ducey. But parse the magic she will not. “It’s like trying to find the soul of a frog,” she says, pressed again for a definition. “It’s a fruitless exercise and it kills the frog.”
Actually, it’s not so hard to understand her reluctance to pin down the art—or, perhaps, the very impossibility of the task. Storytelling is surely among the most ephemeral of creative expressions, the spoken word vanishing into the air. But Walker Brents III, a Bay Area poet, oral essayist and storyteller, likes to imagine that the words of great storytellers don’t really disappear, but linger on in some ineffable way. “And then years later,” he says, “we can still draw from the air some piece of their work.” That, he says, is perhaps why “in timeless art expressions, there’s a richness there that is not of time and space.”
Yet another difficulty with defining storytelling, says ben Izzy, is that storytelling is utterly ubiquitous. “It’s a little bit like fish talking about water. ‘Water, what water? I don’t feel any water on me.’ Because it so fills our lives.”
Storytelling, despite its fleeting, transitory nature—and despite, also, any lingering milk-and-cookies associations—holds the potential to do real harm. “We are hard-wired to believe in stories,” explains Clara Yen, a teacher and resident storyteller for the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. “And when we allow ourselves to resonate with certain stories, they become our beliefs.” For example, she says, “the story of why we’re at war—because Saddam [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction—that’s a story a lot of people bought.” Even if you don’t happen to agree with Yen’s politics, there’s no denying that good storytelling skills are an asset to the aspiring propagandist.
Yet at the same time, storytelling is one of the most useful, life-affirming tools at our disposal. From the campfire tellers of the ancient world to their humbler modern-day heirs, the kitchen-table bards, storytellers have done more than merely bend our ears. They have served as our communal memory banks and transmitters of cultural and family values, our teachers and our entertainers. Through storytellers, we have been able to appreciate our lives as cogent narratives rather than random conglomerations of experience.
Even today, many of us rely on our own in-house storytellers to help us define our identities and how we connect with the larger world. The stories she heard in childhood from her immigrant parents, Yen says, were “my only link with my Chinese heritage.” Growing up in Southern California in the 1950s, she hungered for her mother’s recollections of early 20th-century farm life in Hunan—especially the specific “minutiae of daily life, like how they went to the bathroom.”
Yet in big-picture terms, storytelling in the Western world has been in decline since the invention of the printing press in 1450—a development that enhanced literacy and hastened the Renaissance but didn’t do diddly for verbal communication. Twentieth-century technology induced another big dip, in direct correlation with the number of people who now spent leisure hours listening to the radio or watching TV instead of talking to each other. So the current proliferation of professional storytellers is something of an unexpected plot twist.
Some credit the surprise revival to Jimmy Neil Smith, a Jonesborough, Tenn., teacher who, in 1973, was so moved by a radio story about hunting that he launched the nation’s first (and still foremost) storytelling festival. Others speculate that Smith’s creation, the National Storytelling Festival—a title that must have seemed grandiose at the time, but turns out to have been apt—didn’t so much spark a revival as fortuitously dovetail with a movement that was about to happen anyway. Either way, copycat festivals were soon springing up left and right—including, in 1984, the Bay Area Storytelling Festival (BASF).
Looking back, the first BASF might more accurately have been titled the Impoverished Librarians Stick Together Festival. Not only was the festival convened by a handful of East Bay librarians, including Ducey and Shogren, but the first act they booked was the Folktellers, two Tennessee librarians who told stories in tandem. A few years previously, the duo had bid adieu to the Chattanooga Public Library and taken up the lifestyle of troubadours. With a collective kitty of $2,000, they made their low-budget way across the country, camping out and telling stories (often at events organized by other librarians) as they went. By 1984, the now-flourishing Folktellers traveled by plane and slept in hotel rooms—but the founding members of the BASF had to dig into their own pockets to foot the bill. (Today, the BASF is produced by the Storytelling Association of Alta California, a nonprofit specifically designed for that purpose, and co-sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District.)
Wouldn’t you know, though, that the founding mothers of the Bay Area Storytelling Festival had a different long-term vision than their story-smitten peers elsewhere in the country? Their original spin was “to serve as a model for other storytelling festivals as a place to celebrate diverse collections of cultures,” says Ducey. “Diversity was a relatively new idea, I think, for some parts of the country. But to us, the diversity wasn’t just important; it was, and is, the essence of what we are.”
Promoting diversity wasn’t merely a matter of booking multihued tellers, it turned out—audiences also had to get up to speed. “At the earliest festivals, we might bring in someone, most often a Native American teller, who wasn’t the kind of European-based teller that the audience might be expecting,” says Linda Yemoto, a storytelling naturalist at Tilden East Bay Regional Park and, with Ducey, a longtime BASF co-chair. “And it might take [the audience] a while to understand and figure it out.” But over the years, she says, “our audiences have come really to appreciate and understand the gifts that different tellers bring.”
Perhaps another way of measuring success is that performers today at the by-invitation-only BASF don’t necessarily find their reception exceptional. Charlotte Blake Alston, a Pennsylvania storyteller who told traditional African stories and rapped a story about Louis Armstrong at the 2007 festival, doesn’t notice “any discernible difference between the people who come to storytelling performances in San Francisco or those who attend in Taos, New Mexico; Beijing, China; Basel, Switzerland; or Philadelphia.” Most festival audiences, she adds, “are story lovers and hence, story supporters.”
It’s arguable, however, that today’s typical festival audiences—predominantly middle-aged or older folks with, as Ducey puts it, “a couple of sous to rub together”—are not those who benefit most from the storytelling experience. “I’ll go anywhere they’ll invite me,” says Awele Makeba, an Oakland-based educator and “artist for social change” who aims to help potentially disaffected young people “see themselves as history-makers and history players.” Although Makeba has appeared at the BASF, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and in far-flung venues around the world, you’re just as apt to find her telling stories in a public school or at an education conference.
Another Southerner who inhaled her family’s stories right along with air, Makeba recalls, “My dad would tell tales, and my mama would say, ‘Stop lying to that girl!’” But her favorite storyteller was her grandmother, because she told and retold stories about Makeba’s early childhood. “It’s always fascinating to hear people telling your story, especially the things you can’t remember,” she says.
As Makeba pursued an evolving career as a teacher, oral historian and interactive storyteller, the significance of “people telling your story” (or, conversely, not telling it) emerged in a different light. “American history as taught in this country did not include African-American history,” she says. “In school, students only got the same stories—the myth of Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King every January,” she says. In fact, Makeba herself was unaware of the scope of youth involvement in the Civil Rights Movement until she stumbled on a narrative by Claudette Colvin, a teenager arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat—nine months before Rosa Parks made headlines. “The words were calling from the page,” Makeba says. “‘Tell my story!’”
Today, Makeba continues to research and tell little-known stories of the Civil Rights era, accounts of teens “looking around and saying ‘something is not right in this community and I want to do something to make it change.’” These, she says, “are the stories I have to tell so young people can know their own narrative. And to know that they come from a legacy of social change.”
In 1997, an otherwise successful surgery for thyroid cancer left ben Izzy voiceless—a devastating turn of events for anyone, but particularly so for a storyteller. Studying ancient stories helped him make sense of the loss, which he finally came to see as a gift—and which, in an even happier postscript, turned out to be only temporary. His transformative journey is chronicled in his 2003 memoir, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. “Storytellers in general are on kind of a spiritual path,” says ben Izzy today. “Most look for stories that have meaning, that resonate with their life. It’s a way of tackling the big questions.”
For Yen, storytelling can be a way of reminding listeners to look for deeper truths. For example, she says, “My old crotchety dad is easy to disregard, as so many old people are.” Yet this elderly man—so unprepossessing that a neighbor once mistook him for a homeless person—holds a Ph.D. in metallurgy. He also knows a wealth of Chinese proverbs and is, as it happens, an inveterate teller of classic “noodlehead” stories (the genre, common to many cultures, features a bumbling hero who is wiser than he appears). “I tell stories about and for him,” says Yen, who has also worked with seniors as a teaching storyteller at Stagebridge, “because I want to show that appearances mask the wealth of the stories that reside within.”
But for many storytellers, the most spiritual—or at least the most inexplicable—aspect of the art lies in the profound interdependence between teller and audience. You can, after all, write a poem for yourself, play a sonata for yourself, perhaps even dance a tarantella for yourself. But as any practitioner will tell you, it’s impossible to tell a story without an audience. “A story,” says Susan Ford, who edits Storyline, the newsletter of the Storytelling Association of Alta California, “is a living thing. Each time you tell a story, it changes because of who you are when you tell it and because of who’s listening. There’s a circular exchange of energy.” (On the other hand, without a storyteller, there is also no story. Ben Izzy recalls how, moments before taking the stage at a large school in Greece, it suddenly occurred to him that the 600 people eagerly awaiting his appearance were all Greek speakers—and he was not. But that is, as they say, another story.)
Often, storytellers are aware of specific instances when the fusion with an audience is palpable. “I’m telling stories frequently in a playground setting,” says Brents, referring to his role as in-house storyteller at Berkwood Hedge, a private school in Berkeley, “and there’s mucho distraction.” But sometimes, even against the noisy backdrop of recess, “you intuit a kind of communality of their breathing or their concentration with your own. You sense reciprocity of expression and reception. And for a moment there’s a deep rich silence.”
Ducey—who never memorizes her stories (“That would be replicating, not creating”), but simply relates details from an image-rich movie running in her mind—has sometimes been astonished to hear an audience member refer to a detail that she has “seen” but not mentioned. “It’s happened to me many, many times,” she says. “I don’t think it’s exactly one of those California swoony things. But I think there is a transmission between the listener and the teller, an intimacy and a collaboration with what appears to be a singular artist, but is not.”
How do you know when a renaissance is over? As the tellers who rose to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s and their audiences have grown inexorably grayer, some members of the storytelling community have begun to fret. “What I see,” says Ereneta, “is the same people keeping the revival going.” So-called “new voices” on the scene, he notes, are often “performers in their 40s and 50s who typically have 15 to 20 years of experience under their belts.”
“The professional class of storytellers might buy the farm,” Ducey concurs. “It’s not necessarily axiomatic. But I am just so unconcerned that storytelling is going to die out.” Literally, she says, our brains will not allow it. “We know that when we hear stories, we make sense of information more readily. That’s why we make up stories, as ways of remembering, as a way of making sense. Nothing’s going to happen to that.”
Another facet of the human brain, of course, is its capacity for inventiveness—when one story ends, so to speak, we’re more likely to make up another one than sit staring blankly at the wall. Should today’s bumper crop of story fests, hours, slams, swaps, ’shops and classes start to wither, creative storytelling minds will no doubt find—or invent—some other source of sustenance. One possible plot line already in development is that a new generation of Web-based storytellers will have its own renaissance in the digital realm.
Few of us—whether storytellers or not—wholeheartedly embrace change. And yet, as ben Izzy puts it, “part of human nature is also to grow and thrive and reach towards the heavens.” That, he says, is why “stories are always about change and the paradox of motion.” And why, you might infer, they’re never really over.
Autumn Stephens is the author of several books of women’s history and humor, and editor of the anthologies Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick and The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedded Wives. She conducts private writing workshops in Berkeley and leads writing groups for cancer survivors at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.
It’s Story Time
Telling Tales: A Fall Storytelling Festival at Berkwood Hedge School
24th Annual Bay Area Storytelling Festival: Two-day festival featuring concerts by top artists, solo performances and workshops
Alameda Swap: Storytelling round-robin
Tell It on Tuesday: Performances by storytelling soloists
Storytelling at the Asian Art Museum: Asian Art Museum Storytellers present myths and folk tales of Asia for children
Tellabration: National storytelling event celebrated in community venues across the country—Runs throughout November
Storyline: Newsletter of the Storytelling Association of Alta California (SAAC) featuring comprehensive listings for festivals, events, classes and groups. Mailing address: 1 Rochdale Way, Berkeley, CA 94708; www.storySAAC.org
Stagebridge: Storytelling classes, camps, and school performances for seniors. 2501 Harrison St., Oakland, (510) 444-4755; www.stagebridge.org
Center for Digital Storytelling: Center for creating personal stories with digital media. 1803 MLK Jr. Way, Berkeley, (510) 548-2065; www.storycenter.org
Crash Course in Storytelling by Kendall Haven and MaryGay Ducey (Greenwood Publishing, 2006). Oakland children’s librarians share professional storytelling tips and techniques in this comprehensive reference volume