Have you ever had the opportunity to watch and listen as a master storyteller like Donald Davis, Heather Forest, or Margaret Read MacDonald performs one of their classic stories?
If you’ve had this good fortune, then you know what a treat awaits the audience as the teller steps onto the stage and makes a last minute adjustment to the microphone. When they spin their tales, we are truly transformed by their command of the story and their ability to bring characters to life, whether it is a trickster rabbit like Conejito, a lost friend from a distant childhood memory, or a greedy baker from Colonial New York. When you close your eyes, the teller’s words can fill your imagination with rich images that trigger a personal experience of the story.
I’ve had the good fortune to be in the audience at Jonesboro, at ALA, in an elementary school, and even in a church to see master storytellers play their trade. On one hand, it is performance art of the highest level that captures the jest of a story to create a magic moment that allows us to suspend belief in their presence. On the other hand, it is not unlike the experience of seeing a well-staged play from Shakespeare or a professional troupe perform Uncle Vanya.
Live performances can have a profound impact on children, transporting them beyond their everyday experiences of the world. I still remember the first stage performance that I attended in 2nd or 3rd grade of The Princess and the Pea at the Children’s Theatre in Louisville. Unfortunately, with the current budget cut backs that every school district faces, there are fewer opportunities for children to attend live theatre today. However, storytelling provides a very satisfying and practical way to provide the benefits of live theatrical performances at a fraction of the cost.
How sad to think that a child in an underperforming Title I school might never seen live theater or
performers bringing life to a classic story. However, children of all ages (from 5 to 75) can experience the thrill of attending a live performance through the magical allure of a gifted storyteller. Whether the storyteller is a talented librarian, a dedicated community volunteer or a touring professional, the impact and transformation for children can be dramatic (no pun intended). For many young children, the visit by a storyteller is their first and quite possibly their only exposure to live theatre, so storytellers are making a unique contribution to our schools.
This coming weekend, Friday, October 2nd through Sunday October 4th, some of the top professional storytellers from all over the world will be gathering in Historic Jonesboro, Tennessee to celebrate the 43rd Annual National Storytelling Festival. The festival features top storytellers performing their work, including three popular August House authors. Donald Davis, the Dean of Storytellers, Susan Klein, a gifted teller who has toured internationally, and the popular humorist Bil Lepp will be performing their tall tales. In addition to the featured tellers, there will be an array of special events, like the Ghost Story Concert and Midnight Cabaret, along with a range of activities that will keep any lover of stories captivated throughout the three-day event.
Since the National Storytelling Festival only occurs once a year, there are plenty of ways to experience storytelling in person. A widespread dedicated group of storytelling volunteers and professionals are working together to bring stories to schools, libraries and the public, The National Storytelling Network (NSN). NSN is dedicated to growing the art of storytelling along with preserving the oral tradition and the art of storytelling. It has active chapters throughout the country and many cities have their own storytelling guilds.
Even if you can’t join the thousands of people making their way to East Tennessee or watch online, there are a number of options. Storytelling festivals will take place throughout the year and even inside at bookstores leading up to the holidays. Today, there are over 50 major regional festivals and events dedicated to storytelling held at parks and community centers throughout the country. The NSN website includes a calendar that highlights upcoming storytelling events.
So check with your school librarian or the local event directory to see when a festival or story hour may be taking place nearby, and give this new generation of emerging readers a chance to share the magic of storytelling just like their ancestors experienced great stories from the oral tradition. It will be a special treat for children of any age or reading level.
Who knows what impact a storyteller may have on young children’s developing brains as they listen to a timeless folktale and use their imaginations to visualize a great struggle or feel the rush of excitement when a character overwhelms a scoundrel to escape and return home?