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Once Upon a Time ...

The art of storytelling takes center stage at national conference

by Jacqueline Renfrow, Contributing Writer

September 1, 2010 | 10:45 am

From left: Ellen Switkes, Jane Hauser, Denise Valentine, Michael McCarty, Karen Golden, Rona Leventhal, Mary Garrett, Wenlock Duane Free, Bill Park and Mike Lockett. Photo courtesy of Michael McCarty

From left: Ellen Switkes, Jane Hauser, Denise Valentine, Michael McCarty, Karen Golden, Rona Leventhal, Mary Garrett, Wenlock Duane Free, Bill Park and Mike Lockett. Photo courtesy of Michael McCarty

Energy poured from the woman with flowing brown hair and a giant smile as she took the stage during the National Storytelling Conference, held this year at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills, July 29-Aug. 1. 

“I’m happy to represent the home team,” Karen Golden shouted to get the crowd warmed up for her performance.

After a short pause, she was in character, having taken on the mannerisms, facial expressions and voice of a first-grader in religious school.

Roars of laughter sprang from the packed room as Golden performed “The Big White Pushka.” Delivered with an endearing, childlike innocence, the tale recounts a pushke box and the comedy that ensues from the misunderstandings of a little Jewish girl. It’s a story best left for Golden to tell, in a way only she can tell it.

As a professional storyteller, Golden is known for bringing the Jewish tunes, tastes and traditions of Eastern Europe to Los Angeles. She entertains the young and old with personal, folk, family, historical and commissioned works, and performs on instruments ranging from the accordion and saxophone to the ocarina and nose flute.

As one of six children, Golden started telling stories at a young age as a way to get some airtime at the dinner table. The stories near and dear to her are the family stories she heard, about her dad emigrating from Lithuania and growing up in an Orthodox home in Milwaukee. Storytelling allows a “great connection not only to my religion, but my heritage, my history, my nationality and my native [Yiddish] language,” Golden said.

Golden, like many Jews for thousands of years before her, is passing on the lessons and history of her people through story.

Ellen Switkes, a local storyteller and one of the emcees at the conference, said that when Jews didn’t have real estate, there were stories.

“I’ve been in a Torah study group for several years, and my rabbi put it best when he said: ‘When the Jews did not have a country, they lived in The Book [Torah]. And The Book is nothing but stories,’ ” Switkes said. 

With many from the L.A. storytelling community attending the conference, the daily events lasted well into the night, because, as one attendant put it, this crew is not easily quieted. 

Workshops on the art of story performance were held throughout the four days. But in the evenings, imaginative characters came to life in story swaps, the sharing of anything from fairy tales to personal stories in an eight-minute format; story slams, higher-impact stories up to five minutes long; and fringe performances, an opportunity for artists to freely create.

Some of the best storytellers in the world, including Golden, performed in front of about 400 people on July 30 at the All Regions Concert. Storytellers from across the United States shared stories of childhood, family, folklore, humor, tragedy and the human spirit.

“With all the varied types of stories and everyone’s unique storytelling styles, each storytelling presentation was a unique experience,” said Michael McCarty, Los Angeles committee chair for the National Storytelling Network.

Denise Valentine, a Mid-Atlantic region representative based in Philadelphia, spoke in smooth, methodic tones while she told the story of how the Earth began. And Wenlock Duane Free, of the Western region, dug into his family’s past to show the humor and uniqueness of growing up in a Western mining town. 

Audience members not only seek to be entertained, they also expect some development within a story. And while each journey must have a beginning and an end, how a storyteller get there is shaped in part by the audience. Factors such as age, religion or cultural background might play a part in what words are deliberately chosen for a performance.

Finding material for stories is another part of the process. Storytellers draw not only from books and folk tales, but also from digging into their own life and pulling out “things that are out of the ordinary,” Golden said.

Golden also looks for life lessons all around her: “When I go through my day, I learn from experiences. People that I meet, uncanny things that happen, observations, how humans interact with one another — this is all material.”

Golden teaches classes that home in on what she calls the seven essentials of a good story. The first step is to open the door by introducing the listener to a person, place or time; it immediately brings the listener into the story. The second step is to incorporate maximum thought into minimum words. “Language should be powerful and should communicate all five senses,” Golden said.

Third, the performer introduces the magic moment when he or she actually becomes a character in the story. Fourth, fifth and sixth include trouble starting to arise, trouble hitting and then this trouble resolving. The seventh and final step is connecting the story to a bigger message.

The art of storytelling crosses continents, and yet the common thread is preservation.

“Many people who tell stories have had religious training because most religions are built on stories,” Switkes said. “You could say that stories —  not a military, not a government, not real estate — kept the Jewish people living and surviving for thousands of years. If the pen is mightier than the sword, perhaps the storyteller has more power than the generals, if you take the long view.”

Phyllis Larrymore Kelly, the storyteller-in-residence at Pierce College’s Farm Center in Woodland Hills, agrees that the key to preserving a people and a culture lies in spoken, not written, stories. For seven years she worked in the Atlanta Museum’s Wren’s Nest, telling “Brer Rabbit and Friends” stories. Although these tales were written down by Joel Chandler Harris, slaves on plantations originally told them.

Professional storytellers know what makes for a strong performance. According to Larrymore Kelly, it’s the energy. “It’s bringing the story to life with characters,” she said.

Also essential to making a story work is making it fun by adapting the poetry and prose and even playing with the rhymes and rhythms. Mike Lockett, a performer from Normal, Ill., was an educator for most of his life before finding his niche in storytelling.

For many interested in getting into the art of storytelling, knowing where to begin can be a daunting process.

“First of all, read a couple hundred stories,” Lockett said. “And if you don’t love it, then it won’t work. A good story is one I can put myself into and the audience relates to.”

The boisterous storyteller personified animals in his story about why bunny rabbits twitch their noses. As he walked onto the stage July 30, wearing a fedora and sport coat, he immediately turned his profile to the audience, brushed back his jacket, stuck out his rotund belly and let out a roar to introduce the character of the lion.

Mary Garrett, from the St. Louis area, said choosing which story to tell is part of the challenge. “You may read 100 stories, but then you’ll find one you want to tell because it somehow resonates with you,” she said.

At the concert, Garrett told a folk tale, which ended with a woman who “saved her people not with a sword, but with a story.”

Before a story is ready for performance, practice is needed — more practice than most people expect. Lockett says a storyteller needs to know his or her characters, and that means practicing at home — in front of mirrors, in front of family — sometimes up to 40 hours before it’s ready. And even then, a story needs to be tweaked — pauses for laughter added or subtracted, pacing adjusted — according to the audience’s response.

L.A. committee chair McCarty keeps his storytelling advice simple: “Practice, practice, practice!”

“There are lots of storytelling groups in the L.A. area where you can try out your stories,” he added. “And, most importantly, have fun.”

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