A lone candle served as campfire, fluorescent lights were the stars overhead, but there was enough magic in the stories being told one recent evening at the Westminster Branch Library to almost make up for the missing roasted marshmallows.
Storytellers Wally Clark and Nancy McQuillan demonstrated last month that a tale well-told can rise above even the most pedestrian settings. Tonight at 7, Clark and McQuillan, along with seasoned tellers Susan Hoyo and Jim Lewis, will rekindle the magic in a free storytelling concert for families at the Costa Mesa Library.
Clark and McQuillan, who are children's librarians for Costa Mesa and Westminster, respectively, and Hoyo, a Santa Ana elementary schoolteacher, are co-founders of the South Coast Storytellers Guild, a loosely knit group that includes teachers, professional storytellers and librarians dedicated to keeping the art of yarn-spinning alive in an era of high-tech entertainment.
"We're starting to see a small revival in storytelling," Clark said. "We get a wide cross-section of people who have expressed an interest in this, which shows that people are recognizing the power of oral tradition."
The guild presented its first group concert in February at the Costa Mesa Library. Additional concerts are set for Oct. 31 and January, and plans are in the works for a regular series at Costa Mesa's Blue Marble Coffeehouse. Members also will perform Saturday and Sunday at Kaleidoscope Festival in Irvine (see story, Page 4).
Clark, who has told tales at schools, camps, libraries and youth functions across the country, says children as young as age 4 enjoy his stories. To get the most out of the experience, listeners must be able to "turn the words into pictures in their minds," a process that some older children and adults find difficult, Clark said.
"Once you turn off the TV and take away the pictures, the only thing you have to focus on are those words. Some people seem to have lost that ability. They're so used to having something to bounce the story off of, whether it's a video, or a movie, or a book. Take those away, and (just listening to a story) can be frightening or boring." To safeguard against that, Clark often warms up classroom audiences with tips on the use of visualization and imagination.
Listeners at last month's Westminster Library performance had no such problems. While a single "storyteller's candle" flickered nearby, toddlers to grandparents pretended to bake biscuits and chimed in loudly during McQuillan's engaging delivery of "Sody Sallyratus," an Appalachian tale of a hungry bear and persnickety granny. And, when Clark followed with a story of a farmer plagued by insomnia, the audience obliged with a symphony of yawns and barnyard sounds.
"That's really the magic of storytelling," Clark said after the performance. "With television or even with a lot of children's theater, there is no possibility for interaction like we have here."
"Plus, storytelling is very fluid," added McQuillan, who led a storytelling program for the Cerritos Library for 12 years. "Every time a tale is told, it's a little different. . . . If the audience is having fun with a certain character, I'll bring it out a little bit more."
At monthly storytelling concerts at Santa Ana's Franklin Elementary School, Clark takes the participatory element one step further. After the performance, he invites audience members to get up and tell their own tales, whether they are well-loved standards or family anecdotes.
"One of the basic premises of our group is to empower people to tell stories on their own, to encourage them to keep passing along stories within their own families," Clark said.
The South Coast Storytellers Guild meets monthly at the Costa Mesa Library to share storytelling techniques and resources. But while members may draw from similar sources, including Richard Chase's collection of Appalachian folk stories, "Grandfather Tales," and Nancy Schimmel's "Just Enough to Make a Story," each member strives to bring his or her own distinct personality into the telling, Clark said.
"A really good story is the one that just hits you because the language or the feeling is unique," he explained. "You can't tell a story effectively unless it makes goose bumps rise up on you."
What: South Coast Storytellers Guild Concert.
When: Thursday, July 25, at 7 p.m.
Where: Costa Mesa Library (Donald Dugan Branch), 1855 Park Ave.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Harbor Blvd., south to Center Street (immediately before Newport Boulevard). Turn right on Park Avenue.
Where to Call: (714) 646-8845.