Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada Eastern Canada Annual Report 2008-2009.
“Storytelling is part of the heritage and local character of Nova Scotia,” says Dartmouth’s Cindy Campbell, who has been performing for 25 years as a storyteller, singer, musician, puppeteer, actor, and writer. “In fact, it happens so much that people don't even realize they are doing it. This is the biggest challenge for our local storytelling communities, to get people to realize that storytelling here is an art, and has value.”
Joan Meade, of New Brunswick, has told, written, read and been told stories all of her life. She has similar experiences of storytelling in the Maritimes being intrinsically linked to day-to-day culture. “We all tell stories in New Brunswick!” she exclaims. “It’s rampant in any gathering place.”
Meade gives an example of this from her own family: “Last evening our son came over and told us the unusual and amazing story of his misfortunes as he and his friends canoed down the St. Croix River,” she says. “Last weekend was a full moon: someone’s truck went up in forty feet of flame. There were incidents of losing glasses, piling up on rapids, wrecked canoe, overturned kayak, dropped camera, lost sneaker…and more. No one hurt in the end, two campers nearby whose pants caught fire, definitely a novel in the making!”
“I think storytelling fits well in the folklore of our area,” says Noella Richard, who researches and tells the Prince Edward Island Acadian stories that her ancestors once told.
“What is hard is to make it come alive again,” she worries. “For some reason, people always think storytellers are just for children, kindergarten age preferably.”
“It would be nice to bring it back, I just haven't found the formula to get people back into it yet,” says Richard, a wish shared by Campbell. “There is still a long way to go but I do see a difference the past few years as more people are interested in and recognizing storytelling as a singular art form,” Campbell says. “I believe storytelling could be advanced by creating more opportunities for storytellers to tell and for people to listen.”
Campbell, who is currently exploring partnership possibilities with a couple of well known Nova Scotia arts festivals and organizations, argues that storytellers fall far below the radar in the artistic world.
“A high profile storytelling festival in the Halifax area would be an asset, as well as, more storytelling workshops. The same can be said for elsewhere in the province, in our smaller communities where there is already an interest in storytelling.”
Even in big centres like Toronto, finding opportunities for storytellers to share their art can be sometimes difficult.
“In Toronto so much goes on culturally and musically, so in terms of audience we have incredible competition,” says Mariella Bertelli, a Toronto-based storyteller with an extensive background in puppetry and theatre. She also works as the branch head of the Spadina Library. She believes the storytelling community is slowly changing in Ontario’s capital.
“I wish there would be more cross-pollination between young and old, new and experienced storytellers,” Bertelli says. “Also it would be useful to have more opportunities for new tellers to try out their stories. On the other hand it is a big city so the potential for attracting a lot of people is huge. I think also that because Toronto is a big city there are pockets of small groups of storytelling friends who create their own thing.“
“The world is changing!” says Montreal storyteller Julie Turconi. “I mean, evolution is everything, and has always been – in a good or in a bad way. Storytellers deserve to be recognized more, but it’s not easy. I think there are fewer regular storytelling event organizers in Montreal; we need new and fresh initiatives to allow us to spread our words to as many people as possible! “
“Montreal is a multi-ethnic city, with a lot of communities,” describes Turconi. “Storytelling is a way to get to know these cultures and people… but it is also a great alternative to TV!”
Turconi believes that storytelling festival and event organizers also need to put a greater emphasis on emerging tellers.
“Allowing them to perform opening acts would be a great way to do this, and all organizers should consider it. Emerging voices are important even if they are not ‘profitable,’” she says.
So where are storytellers finding inspiration? Some find inspiration in local tales and tellers, while others look to the wider world for new voices. Mariella Bertelli cites English storyteller Hugh Lupton, who performed at the 2009 Toronto Festival of Storytelling, as one of her favourite performers of the past year.
“His storytelling was amazing in terms of delivery- the way words tumbled out made me feel drank with words, he had an amazing rhythm,” says Bertelli. “Some of his stories were original and unusual - one was told in the second person and that was very powerful.”
“People often don’t realize that there is so much more in storytelling than tradition and children’s tales,” says Quebec’s Turconi. “I’ve nothing against these two kinds of stories – believe me! – but I think storytelling is also contemporary, innovative, and socially relevant.”
Turconi singles out Dominique Breau and Robert ‘Seven Crows’ Bourdon as examples of this link between storytelling and social relevancy. “Both are great tellers and human beings,” she states. “They each defend and represent a culture (Acadian / Amerindian) and are committed to the social aspect of their art.”
Professional development workshops are another way that Eastern Canadian tellers are honing their craft and gaining inspiration. Cindy Campbell was particularly impressed with workshops given by American storyteller Margaret Read MacDonald. “I attended several of her workshops during a Library Conference in Wolfville, Nova Scotia,” she explains. “I was inspired by her outgoing spirit, her willingness to share her knowledge and her ability to get everyone in the room telling stories. I learned at least 10 stories of hers by the end of the conference. Her workshops also made me re-evaluate my own workshop presentations just by observing her various methods she used to fully engage groups and individuals in participatory or 'on the spot' storytelling.”
Dale Jarvis is the founder of the St. John’s Storytelling Circle, and serves as president of the St. John’s Storytelling Festival, the largest storytelling festival in Atlantic Canada. He also serves as the provincial folklorist for Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I admire Dale for his excellent storytelling but also for his entrepreneurial spirit and exuberance for Intangible Cultural Heritage which includes storytelling,“ says Campbell. “He tirelessly promotes and represents our storytelling community as a whole by his presence at various festivals, concerts and conferences around the world. I admire his ability to recognize opportunities for promotion by utilizing social networking tools on the internet such as Youtube, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.”
“By his actions, Dale is a good example of what can be accomplished when you explore the possibilities,” says Campbell. “He is a valuable asset to the storytelling world and an inspiration to storytellers like myself.”
Jarvis is passionate about both the history and the future of storytelling.
“The storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador is not just a cultural survival of something that once existed,” argues Jarvis. “It is part of the living heritage of the province, and as part of that, it is not static, but ever changing, and constantly evolving. Each successive generation puts its own stamp on what came before.”
There is a refrain that is oft repeated: the oral tradition of storytelling in Canada, just as it is in other corners of the world, is at threat. Variously, it is at threat from technology, the internet, urbanization, globalization, out-migration, television, and various other modern boogeymen.
But is this threat absolute? Is storytelling, as an art and as a tradition, dying?
“For as long as writers have been bemoaning the “death” of oral tradition, others have noted that the tradition is still there, still breathing, and still a part of Canadian culture,” says Jarvis. “As society changes, that ever-resilient tradition of storytelling adapts alongside with it, in response and evolving to fit the needs of a living, vibrant culture. Oral storytelling ebbs and flows, shifting back and forth between performance private and public, traditional and contemporary, long-form and short, amateur and professional.”
It would be irresponsible to argue that the old tradition of long-form, oral storytelling, with traditional folktales or Märchen, learned through word-of-mouth, is as strong as it always have been. While that era may have ended, storytelling itself remains an integral part of Canadian culture. As noted at the start of this article, anecdote and gossip, and other traditions like tall tales, jokes, contemporary legend, and ghost stories all survive and indeed thrive at that conversational end of the storytelling spectrum.
At the other end of the storytelling continuum is the more public performance aspect of contemporary storytelling. At the very time that many of the older storytellers have died, and the private house and ceilidh performances of the early twentieth century fade from memory, public performance storytelling is on the rise, with the advent of festivals dedicated to storytelling, storytelling performance series, tall tale competitions, recitation nights, and organizations forming to safeguard what would seem to be a far-from-dying art.
As one era ends, another seems poised to start anew.