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Tall and Short Tales for All

The 10th annual Once Upon a Story festival in San Juan Capistrano will feature tidbits that teach, thrill and entertain 'ages 8 to 108.'


The notion of a public storytelling event usually conjures images of a soft-spoken librarian imparting tales to a circle of wide-eyed children.

But at the annual Once Upon a Story festival in San Juan Capistrano, storytelling is hardly limited to tots. The two-day event, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Friday and Saturday, is known for its ability to attract and entertain a wide variety of folks.

"It's an event that appeals to people ages 8 to 108," said Georgia Case, a festival board member. "That's a rarity these days. There aren't that many forms of entertainment that appeal to such a wide spectrum of people. It's the variety of performances that engages every member of the family."

Saturday morning performances by Diane Ferlatte, Jim Cogan and Ed Stivender and a Saturday afternoon show with David Holt will be aimed at young children. But other storytelling sessions--involving an array of topics from history and religion to folk tales and cultural anthropology--should possess a much wider appeal.

"When I look out at an audience and see a 10-year-old kid, a teenager, an old man, a middle-age couple, I'm thinking not every story is going to be for every person," said Holt, who is based in North Carolina. "But in the 45 minutes that I'm on stage, I'm going to offer something for every one of those people."

On stage, Holt merges storytelling skills with his talents as an Appalachian folk singer and instrumentalist. He is equally adept in both areas and has been nominated for two music-oriented and one spoken-word Grammy Award.

One of Holt's stories involves a 123-year-old woman who taught him how to play the washboard. Onstage, he performs a variety of folk instruments, including banjo, jew's-harp and spoons.

"This lady, Suzie Brunson, was the oldest person in the world at the time," Holt recalled. "She was born in 1870 and her mother had been a slave. The washboard was the only instrument they had in [her] community back then. So it was very important to play it correctly. She was very particular. It had to be played just right. Storytellers look for stories like that. It's pretty hard to resist the story and the rhythm of the instrument."

The main storytellers at the Once Upon a Story festival will present multiple performances, which should help reveal the breadth and diversity of their skills as raconteurs. For example, Ferlatte's "AESOP, Alive and Well" children's program on Saturday morning will be followed later that evening by her lighthearted look at her African American religious roots. The latter session, titled "Views From the Pews," will also include Martha Holloway's stories about growing up in the Bible Belt and Stivender's humorous look at his Catholic upbringing.

Not content to recruit only local talent, Once Upon a Story founder and artistic director Melba Jones searches nationwide for some of the best and most stimulating storytellers. But Jones has also passed on a few choice storytellers because of her desire to avoid politically oriented and evangelical performers.

The idea for creating a storytelling festival in Orange County first came to Jones 11 years ago when she attended the celebrated National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. At the time an elementary school librarian in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, the Tennessee native had gone to the Jonesborough event to learn storytelling skills that would help turn her students on to reading.

"I was so intrigued" by the Jonesborough festival, Jones said. "There was such a variety of ages enjoying it and it was some of the best live performances I had ever heard. There were about 8,000 people there. Sometimes the stories had you crying; sometimes they had you laughing really hard. Some storytellers used stand-up comedian techniques. But it goes deeper than stand-up comedy."

In 1990, Once Upon a Story was launched in San Juan Capistrano, a location Jones chose because it possessed the same type of unspoiled, small community appeal as Jonesborough.

Though the festival has grown during the last decade and now sells well more than 2,000 tickets to various performances and events, Jones wants Once Upon a Story to retain the intimate ambience that storytelling often demands. The festival now takes place at the Camino Real Playhouse and under a 700-capacity tent at the adjacent Historic Town Center Park in San Juan Capistrano. (Tickets are available for each individual performance.)


Several storytelling workshops again will be held at Once Upon a Story. These sessions are particularly popular with teachers and librarians.

"We've even had ministers come to the workshops to learn about intonation, their voice and delivery," Case said. "So that art that they learn in the workshops they take back to their respective audiences."

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