Back from the Boob Tube: Storytelling Festival Aims to Captivate

by Bob Gilbert

'Tellebration!' showcases resurgent narrative tradition - and can help you tell your stories.

Andre Heuer knows a good story isn't only for kids. The Armatage resident offers a little bit of tale-telling for everybody at "Tellebration! 2003," a day-long storytelling event Saturday.

The event features all storytelling aspects, with educational workshops, stories for families and children, and from many local ethnic communities. The daytime program, beginning at 10 a.m., is free. An evening concert featuring six accomplished storytellers for adults begins at 8 p.m.

What's there

Andre at TellabrationThe Minneapolis Tellebration! features a different storyteller for kids and families every half hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To advance the storytelling art, workshops will help adults hone their storytelling skills. Intergenerational Storytelling is a workshop designed to teach elders how to pass on their family history to their grandchildren. Another workshop is designed for people who want to become storytellers but don't know how or where to start.

Tellebration! celebrates different storytelling traditions. Showcased during the day will be representatives from the Asian Dragon Boat Tellers, the Black Storytellers Alliance and the Jewish Storytelling Guild.

Heuer said each nationality has a different storytelling tradition. Chinese storytellers quite often tell a story within a story, while the Western tradition tends to be very linear. Black storytellers often tell stories reminiscent of old blues songs and focus on such themes as liberation, transformation, freedom and working through the tough time to something good. Jewish storytelling refers to the Midrash tradition, commenting on the Hebrew scripture in a moral and contemporary form. Native American stories involved tricksters, animals and how things got started. Still, part of their tradition includes a sacred aspect since certain stories are only told at certain times of the year.

"Every one of these traditions brings something unique to storytelling," said Heuer. "As a nation, we are a melting pot. When we get together in an event like this, we begin to recognize how broad the storytelling tradition is in America. Storytellers are always looking for more integration. I think that makes us naturally pluralistic and welcoming of diversity. We recognize that storytelling is something we all have in common. That's why the different groups are so willing to come together."

How it works

According to Heuer, a good storyteller immediately brings you into the storytelling trance, set up with a simple phrase such as "once upon a time" or "a long, long ago."

The components of a good story, he said, are identical with those of a good movie or novel, and include an interesting narrative and solid plot line that invites the listener to participate.

"In the oral tradition, a lot counts in terms of gesture, voice and the way in which you present yourself to an audience." Heuer said. "It is more accessible than the reading tradition because it engages all the senses. It makes you hear; it makes you see; it makes you smell."

It is more than entertainment to Heuer, who is producing the event. As a clinical social worker, he uses the power of stories to help heal sexual abuse victims, stroke victims and those contemplating suicide when manning the Crisis Connection Hot Line.

Around the world

As a boy growing up in Erie, Pa., Heuer was fascinated by the local history that extolled the heroism of Commander Mathew Perry and his ship, the Brig Niagra, which fought a navel battle on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. He was also absorbed by family stories, such his legendary Swiss-German great uncle who allegedly could spell the German alphabet forwards and backwards while farting.

Kingfield Storyteller Dorothy Cleveland, another organizer, said storytelling's virtue is that it can build community and bring people out of their isolation.

"You can't be enemies with a person if you share their stories," said Cleveland, who, during last year's Tellebration! told a story from "Beowolf" called "Grendel's Mother," a monster seeking revenge because Beowolf killed her son. "As soon as you hear a person's story, you gain a different perspective. You move outside yourself and look at them from a different angle. Once you do that, you can come to resolution of conflict rather than staying in conflict that can be so very isolating.

"There are core stories that transcend culture. Each ethnic group may tell them different, but the stories are the same," she said. "There are stories about famine, about fear, about survival and celebration, and why the sun rises and where things came from. You begin to see that we all have the same problems and the same joys."

The Minneapolis Tellebration! is no isolated event. In 2002, there were over 300 Tellebrations! in 42 states and in 10 foreign countries.

The first Tellebration! took place in 1988 at the Connecticut Storytelling Center (CSC) in New London, Ct. The event proved a success and expanded to several other states the next year. In 1990, it expanded nationwide, and in 1995, debuted in Japan. By 1997, Tellebration! was on every continent but Antarctica. Traditionally, it is held every November.

A comeback

As an art form, the oral tradition lost some of its influence with television's advent. But Heuer said in the past 20 years, it has made a rebound as people begin to see the value of narrative not only for telling stories, but in therapy, religion and history.

Cleveland isn't a big fan of prime-time television shows, which she thinks are sensationalized and lack depth. However, she said that quite often, the best boob-tube storytelling is done by advertising firms that visually and sensually tell a story within a 30-second TV commercial.

Is a good story better than the truth?

"It's interesting because we are so scientific that we think truth is only about fact," Heuer said. "We've lost sight of the metaphorical and symbolic truth that lies deep within us. The stories that appeal to us most are always truthful in the sense that they bring out that which is most truthful in terms of who we are as human beings."