by Christine Mounts ~ September 3, 2023
While wandering the Minnesota State Fair conducting our annual folklore tour, Dr. Buzz’s State Fair Odyssey, we made a stop at the 12:30pm Arts A’Fair performance of the Black Storytellers Alliance. Being the last show, at lunchtime, and in the heat of the day, only two performers told stories under the foliage of the East Grandstand Plaza. But it was a real treat to see their performance.
If you missed the Black Storytellers Alliance at The Fair, you can see them perform by attending the 33rd Annual Black Masters Storytellers Festival on September 28-30, 2023.
Afterward, as our Founder Loren Niemi chatted with Master Storyteller Vusumuzi Zulu, I made my way around the gathered audience, circling the plaza with some promo materials and asked what I thought would be an easy question: “Are you interested in storytelling?” For ¾ of the people sitting on the benches in the shade, with corn and beer in hand, the answer was “no.”
OK, so maybe the State Fair is not the best place to find an audience for storytelling. To be fair to The Fair, the East Grandstand Plaza was a better location than the North End Event Center, which was a place of blazing sun and no seating last year. But I continue to be astounded by the lack of interest or understanding of this artform.
Storytelling? What’s that?
Storytelling is the Mother Art – the first organizing principle of shared human experience – the fundamental mechanism for religion, politics, history (familial, clan/tribe, nation), and all expressions of culture from literature to theater to digital media. Through recounted experience, imagination or accumulated wisdom, stories tell us who we are, what is necessary and valuable, what to embrace, and what to avoid.
It is so ubiquitous that its existence as an artform is not recognized. We just do it. But like all artforms, there is craft involved- in this case plot, characters, and narrative point of view. Boring academic stuff. You know, school (of storytelling)? So, in other words, not all storytelling is alike and not all stories that are told are well crafted or performed. Go down to your local pub and listen to the variety and quality of stories and tellers (who do not know they are storytellers).
So where to seek an audience?
I am the co-founder of the American School of Storytelling, but I am also a career IT professional which means I have looked at screens all day, every day for decades. At the end of the work day, I am not interested in streaming anything except wine into a glass.
And like many people, as I have gotten older, nightlife has gotten younger and younger. It holds no charm for me anymore. I am clearly not its core demographic. The cost of live entertainment continues to increase as venues try to cover the costs of running their space. And let’s face it- the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the performing arts (along with everything else) and it’s still reeling.
It’s hard to imagine that I am the only mid-life professional who wants affordable, low-key, thoughtful live entertainment that is not centered around a screen or booze.
Storytelling is balm for the soul.
Americans are increasingly lonely and isolated. Don’t believe me, check out this January 8, 2023 report from PBS NewsHour, ‘Why Americans are lonelier and its effects on our health’. I was single for about ten years and sometimes experienced bouts of intense loneliness. I also found when I tried to talk about it, I was often immediately discouraged from talking about it. It was as if I should be ashamed of my loneliness or I was to blame for my loneliness or the person I was talking to also had intense loneliness and was trying to manage it through denial, as if to acknowledge it was somehow inviting it.
Storytelling is balm for the soul. It reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness. It increases feelings of intimacy and connection as our empathy and understanding of our fellows also increases. The kind of storytelling I am talking about, and that which we teach and perform, happens at a particular time and place with a particular group of people, alive and ‘in the room’.
Where is everybody?
The need for live oral storytelling is real and urgent. So where is everybody?
We seek an audience, not with a king or dignitaries or the rich and famous. We seek an audience with you, our fellows, for connection, community, and fellowship. To share in the knowledge that we are not alone in this vast confusing experience called life, through the metaphor of traditional tales and the raw truth of personal stories.
When I ask you, “are you interested in storytelling?” and you tell me “no,” I don’t believe you. I just think you don’t understand what it is that I am asking.
Try it, won’t you? You might like it.