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National Perspective | CULTURE

At St. Louis Festival, Fantasies Come to Life in Storytelling

May 11, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The little girl was shrieking as she swatted the yellow jackets that were ferociously nipping at every inch of her skin.

Across the hall, a funny little chap with lips made of bacon and a hot dog for a nose was banging out a tune with a ladle and a pot. And upstairs, in a stuffy room smelling of sweat, a wise old woman named Mama Lou was singing her lonesome blues.

Yes, the 20th annual St. Louis Storytelling Festival was underway.

Fairy kings and talking turtles, brand-new bicycles and father-son fishing trips, Little Red Riding Hood and Cherokee heroes--all came to life last week in one of the nation's oldest and biggest free storytelling festivals.

At 20 spots around the city, tale-weavers transported audiences to a 17th-century German village, or a Guatemalan rain forest, or a mythical underground kingdom. They made listeners feel the wasp stings and see Mr. Bacon Lips swinging that ladle. They revived, for an hour or two at least, that wonderful lost art: imagination.

"This is better than videos because you make the pictures in your head," third-grader Shelby Boston exclaimed, sounding a bit surprised at herself. "It's much more interesting than watching TV," agreed Jimmy Poelker, a middle school student with a thin, eager face. "It doesn't get boring as quick."

A surging interest in spinning tales--and in listening to yarns both true and invented--has revived storytelling over the last two decades, converting it from folk tradition into tourist attraction. The industry is so successful that several hundred storytellers have turned professional. The best earn a living off their craft as they travel the festival circuit, inviting audiences into their world of words.

"This is about a rekindling, a re-sparking of our imaginations," said Steve Kardaleff, interim executive director of the National Storytelling Membership Assn. The St. Louis festival brings mimes, balladeers, dancers and tale tellers to this city by the Mississippi River for four full days. Other festivals, more slickly professional, charge $100 or more for tickets. In St. Louis, every event is free.

Thousands of children come through on class field trips, everyone from toddlers to high school seniors. Thousands of adults stop by as well--some with their kids, others on their own, all eager to slow the pace, to get away from the faxes and the voice mail and the gossip and, for once, to just listen.

"It's a way of connecting with who we are, why we're here and where we've come from," said Ron Turner, executive vice president of the University of Missouri and a festival founder. "That's why 20,000 to 25,000 people [each year] stop what they're doing and go and sit and listen to another human being."

Value of Listening Becomes Subtext

In the queasy aftermath of the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High, experts everywhere have been emphasizing the importance of listening: to kids, to neighbors, to friends. And although no one here tried to push storytelling as a key to violence prevention, organizers said the value of listening became a sort of festival subtext this year. One veteran performer even held a workshop on strengthening the family through storytelling.

"Families can nurture, heal, entertain, delight and teach one another through what they share in stories," festival director Nan Kammann explained. "Storytelling nurtures and strengthens communities."

None of this philosophizing mattered in the least to the kids who sat, barely squirming, through story after story. They cared about the plots, the characters and what happened after "happily ever after." Did the baker really give the fairy king a cake every single week? How was it that the tiny tree frog could out-muscle the brawny lion, using only his brain?

Although a few found the storytelling too low-tech to capture their interest, most of the kids were enchanted by the novelty of listening. And that's what the storytellers were counting on.

"People say you're crazy. You're going to stand up there with nothing but your voice and keep 100 children entertained?" local storyteller Sylvia Duncan said. "But you do. You do."

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