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Wanna hear a story?

Friday, August 10, 2001

By Michael Dongilli

Once upon a time, storytelling couldn't seem to shake its "for kids only" rap. But gather 'round folks. This weekend, Pittsburgh is about to hear from the lips of raconteurs just how much it has grown up.

Joe Wos likes to illustrate his stories. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

The Three Rivers Storytelling Festival, today and tomorrow at the Lodge in North Park, guarantees spell-binding banter far beyond any bedtime fairy tale.

Nationally acclaimed tellers will share stages with local talent in this extravaganza of epics -- the city's first at this level -- with proceeds going to the festival's organizers, the Northland Public Library Foundation in McCandless.

Between plot lines, patrons also can enjoy music, food and wandering entertainers, win a Mario Lemieux autographed jersey and other prizes, attend workshops to learn telling techniques and teachers can even earn continuing education credit. Storytelling is the central theme and, while children will always be a big part of it, adult audiences worldwide are being wooed by the words of engaging performers creating art out of anecdote.

Also, if animated book reading crossed your mind, your head probably has been in one too long.

Although its roots are as old as man, storytelling has matured in many ways. There are all sorts of movements within the medium, from digital tellers who use computers while they speak to costume performers and various prop artists where puppets, videos and even background gospel groups help the teller paint around their assorted parables.

Joe Wos, a full-time storyteller from West Mifflin whose appearance at Three Rivers will be one of more than 300 he does across the country this year, draws cartoons averaging about 17 illustrations for each saga he spews.

Polished raconteurs are nimble narrators that can have listeners scared, laughing and crying all within the same story. Many would argue theirs is the oldest profession, but one that until roughly 40 years ago stayed relatively obscure and relegated to kitchen table and campfire conversations.

That's when Marshall came to town and a renaissance began to take hold. "In the late '50s early '60s, people like Marshall Dodge out of New England started to bring storytelling out of the home and onto the college campuses and he became incredibly popular. He brought these great Maine stories to the public," said Dan Keding, one of the top tellers in the United States. Keding lives in Urbana, Ill., and is one of the five national acts giving Three Rivers star-studded notoriety for a first-year festival.

The award-winning Donald Davis will headline the event. If storytelling had a king today, Davis would wear the crown. Considered by many to be the best anywhere, his smooth oratory about mostly personal experiences growing up in North Carolina are legendary.

  Three Rivers Storytelling Festival

WHERE: The Lodge, North Park.
TICKETS: $17 all day or $12 per session for adults; $10 all day or $7 person for children ages 9-15; 8 and under are free. Workshops are $35.
INFORMATION: Shuttle buses are available from ice rink; call 1-888-292-2798, or visit www.3rstf.org

9 a.m.: Registration open
10 a.m.-noon: Friday Workshop I (Donald Davis)
10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Swapping grounds open
2-4 p.m.: Friday Workshop II (The Mountain Women)
10 a.m.-4:45 p.m.: Performances by featured storytellers
7:30-10 p.m.: Concert by all featured tellers

9 a.m.: Registration open
10 a.m.-noon: Saturday Workshop I (George Pedroza)
10 a.m.-3 p.m.: Performances by featured storytellers
10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Swapping grounds open
2-4 p.m.: Saturday Workshop II (Dan Keding)
3-4 p.m.: Stories by students from local schools
4-4:45 p.m.: Stories in honor of Joe Healy
7:30-10 p.m.: Ghost Stories by all featured tellers

9 a.m.-7 p.m.: Buskers (musicians, jugglers, entertainers) on grounds between storytelling programs
9 a.m.-10:30 p.m.: Sales tables of storyteller cassettes, CDs, etc.
10 a.m.-7 p.m.: Food vendors open
Noon-5 p.m.: Kids' crafts area open


Dodge got things started, but storytelling's most dramatic boost came in 1973 around a farm wagon in the shadow of a courthouse at Jonesborough, Tenn., population 1,500. The oldest town in the state, it was deteriorating back then and area leaders were looking for ways to revitalize the site and lure tourists. Building and street restorations brought back the historical look and Southern charm. Jimmy Neil Smith, a hometown high school journalism teacher, was driving a small group of students to have the school newspaper printed. On the radio was a country comedian named Jerry Clower whose storytelling prowess had everyone in the car bursting with laughter.

"I turned at the students just at that time and said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could bring storytellers like Clower to Jonesborough to tell tales together?' " Smith remembered.

Initially, his idea went over like a flubbed punch line. Undeterred, he went before the town fathers several months later, knowing Jonesborough's oral history should be treated as reverently as its bricks and mortar to suggest a storytelling festival.

"They said, 'What's that?' I said, 'I don't really know.' At that time, there was no other event devoted exclusively to the art of storytelling, as a kind of public and popularized event."

Maybe for good reason. Smith got the OK, but only 60 patrons wandered 'round the wagon to hear Clower and four others spout their fables. It didn't matter. "It was that little wagon and those 60 people, just average people, sharing their stories. That's what was magical, and we knew we were going to do it again and again," Smith said.

And they have, annually for the past 29 years. It has become the National Storytelling Festival, the most renowned gathering for tellers of every type, now attended by more than 10,000 registered guests each year. Smith, president of the festival, and his persistence ignited a storytelling revival across the country and other parts of the world. "Festivals popped up everywhere, professional storytellers and other organizations like ours began to emerge," he said.

Jonesborough isn't much bigger today, 4,000 people, but the tiny town has become the country's storytelling capital. It opened the International Storytelling Center in 2000 and expects to average 80,000 visitors a year. A sister organization there, the National Storytelling Network, has 3,000-plus members, many the medium's brightest stars.

First-year expectations for Marlee Flaherty, Northland's foundation director, aren't that high. She and her crew have been organizing the library's event for almost two years and would consider a break-even scenario a success.

"Our goal is to do two days really well, and make people want more." Like the town fathers at Jonesborough, she was initially doubtful. "I was skeptical of the whole thing at the start, until I forced my [15-year-old] son to come to a volunteer luncheon at the library. There was a storyteller here and he was mesmerized."

Mary Morgan Smith, a manager at the library, feels all those who attend and especially someone who has never heard a professional storyteller before, will be just as captivated. "I think most people in this area won't have any idea what to expect. It's an art form with a very specific purpose -- it speaks directly to the person."

Sometimes laughter is the language. The Mountain Women, Suzi Whaples and Carrie Newman, hail from the hills of West Virginia near Charleston, and use their native flavor and hillbilly twang to the delight of all. The two tell in tandem, a rarity on the circuit, and are another one of Three Rivers' national attractions. Whaples -- "call me Mama," she insisted, because "that's what I am, everybody's mama" -- has three sons, and each of them have two kids "and that adds up to 12. Wait. Gee. I think I got six," she interjected. Is this the type of material people can expect? "The material is in our dresses," she answered on cue, "and I take lots of it, I'll tell ya."

The humor flows faster than whitewater on the Gauley River. When asked to reveal her performance fees, "Why I think I'll smack your mouth, boy." About her current partner of four years, "You have to be careful with that partner thing. We were at a motel in Florida and I said she was my partner and people looked at us real funny." Describe a mountain accent. "It's actually a lot of old English and old German kind of messed up. I mean words like 'reckon' and 'you can redd up the dishes.' And we don't wash [things], we 'worsh' them and that Bush man, he lives in 'Worsh-ing-tin' too."

The duo has traveled as far south to Florida and west to Iowa, but when they began to tour, they wondered how folks who've never seen mountains would warm up to mountain women. To their surprise, "We have found everywhere in the United States, people love homespun stories. Doesn't matter if it's mountain stories, as long as we relate to that human side," said Whaples, a former librarian. "Hey, you got indoor plumbing up there?" she asked out of nowhere. After a somewhat quizzical "yes" she shouted, "I don't really have to go, I just like to watch that water disappear." A hearty laugh followed her rhetoric.

Professional tellers are adept at eliciting emotion. They connect by stimulating, not by dumping lots of detail. Keding explained, "What I want the audience to do is as I'm telling the story to creatively compose it in their mind. There are stories where I never describe the main character. You'll know that they're young or old, male for female, but that's about all you will find out."

Provoking discovery and arousing imagination are part of the fun and the magic of a great teller's talent. "Be prepared to be taken on a trip. Every story will take them someplace. It's going to bring back memories, make them cry, make them think," Keding added. Especially adults, he noted, who need the same inspiration as children, only on a deeper level.

Attendees at Three Rivers will encounter multiple story types. "There will be two tents, one for children, one for families, and every hour on the hour, the tellers will start telling," Morgan Smith explained. Ghost stories will mingle with cultural tales, personal anecdotes and folklore. Original scripts are mixed with adventures handed down through generations. Gregorio Pedroza, another headliner at Three Rivers, expresses in two languages. "He does [it] in a combination of Spanish and English and is absolutely flawless -- you never notice he's ever doing it," she said.

Pittsburgh's homegrown tellers will be represented during the two days as well. From Wos' cartoon creations to the multicultural pieces of Highland Park's Jackie Jonas and the Shakespearean spiels of Squirrel Hill's Alan Irvine, nine locals total will state their stuff.

Their descriptions of Pittsburgh as a storytelling market range from great to spotty to medium. It's the only occupation for Wos. "If I wanted to, I could stay here and never go anywhere else," said the 30-year-old, who described his drawing-while-talking style as "creating live picture books." Most full-timers, though, say they must travel to make a good living.

Jonas was born in Tennessee and moved to Pittsburgh a decade ago. By day, she teaches computer classes for college students, but her passion is performing.

"I'm from the South and it's kind of cheating to be from the South and be a storyteller. You just have all this material. We tend to keep our crazy people at home, and that gives you a lot of room. I never knew how lucky I was until I moved up here and you tend to put all your eccentrics away. You don't have people naming your crops."

Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discovered his telling knack while in college during his summer camp counselor days. One evening, after the "lights out" call, he needed something to occupy time and connect with the guys. He told an old ghost story. "It clicked and for the first time in the session, there was a rapport."

Becoming skilled enough for platform telling -- live stage performances -- is a polishing act. "At some level, we all are natural storytellers. It's very inherent to the way people think and communicate," Irvine said. What separates the artists is technique refinement and what he described as concentration at "just getting more formal." He has straightforward advice for beginners -- keep it simple. "One of the reasons people mess stories up is they try to remember more than their memories can hold."

If successful, all the performers agree a festival of this magnitude could put Pittsburgh into national storytelling prominence. Says Jonas said, "One of the things holding the storytelling community back in Pittsburgh is we didn't have a [major] festival, or a conference that was big and consistent. If they can make this one grow into that, it can make a big difference."

Keding said he believes the city is a prime venue for the art form. "Pittsburgh is a good town for it because with its former industrial base, you have this wealth of urban stories and I'll make you a bet that it hasn't been tapped yet."

Flaherty said he knows a Jonesborough won't happen overnight, but he's confident the impressions will be memorable enough to foster strong word-of-mouth, build excitement and anticipation for years to come. "When you hear a story that is touching, that engages you and is thoughtful, it's an experience you don't forget."

And one that should make everyone live happily ever after. The end.

Michael Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

Three Rivers Storytelling Festival

Tickets can be purchased on event days. One price $15 for adults, $8 for children ages 9 to 15, kids 8 and under are free, buys admission to all activities for that day. For information call: 1-888-292-2798, or visit www.3rstf.org

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