Practice Keeps Alive the Storyteller's Art

There were lots of tall tales being told in San Clemente on Saturday--but not the usual weekend boasts of new-found loves, rising careers and real estate bargains. These were stories about big bad wolves, wish-granting frogs, pink pigs, magic sea urchins, talking horses and seven-foot-long diamondback rattlers that can pound out some mean rhythm and blues with their tails.

The occasion was the second annual Southern California Story-swapping Festival, which drew yarn spinners from San Diego, Riverside, Santa Monica and the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys as well as Orange County. About 50 of them gathered in the auditorium at the San Clemente Community Center and spent all day honing their storytelling skills.

The festival, sponsored by the Orange County Public Library and the Storytellers of San Diego, was the creation of Harlynne Geisler, a professional storyteller from San Diego who is dedicated to helping preserve the age-old art.

"And I believe it is an art," said Geisler, who for five years has told stories professionally to groups of people of all ages. "It can be as high an art form as an opera or writing a book."

Storytelling as an art had all but disappeared--except for children's hours in libraries--until 1973 when a small group of enthusiasts got together in tiny Jonesboro, Tenn., for the first National Storytelling Festival.

Since then, storytelling groups have sprung up all over the country. Most are affiliated with the National Assn. for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytellers, founded by the organizers of that first festival in Tennessee.

"Right now, every major city in the United States has a storytelling group," Geisler said. She added, however, that even though Orange County has been the site of both the first and the second Southern California festivals, there is no organized group in the county.

"We do have Orange County people involved, and a lot of them are here today, but most are involved through the libraries," Geisler said. "There is no organized group here like there is in San Diego."

Orange County was chosen as the festival location because it offered a sort of half-way meeting ground for storytellers coming from Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Among those at the Saturday festival were members of five storytelling groups in Southern California as well as librarians, teachers and novice storytellers representing a variety of professions--law, accounting, real estate and entertainment.

Edythe Jacobs, from West Los Angeles, is a retired schoolteacher who for the past year has been telling stories at a day care center for the elderly. Ward Smith, from Chula Vista, teaches fifth and sixth grades and for 13 years has used storytelling as a tool in the classroom.

Part of Teaching Skill

Alan Fox, a property manager and a relative newcomer to the Santa Monica storytelling group, has been writing and telling his own stories for a year and has even recorded 10 of them, which he was selling for $6 a cassette at the festival.

John Bennett, a high school teacher from Sherman Oaks, also writes his own stories--in rhyme. "I call them story poems," said Bennett. He recited one part of a whimsical six-part series about Nordolf the Moose and Henrietta Von Goose. "My stories are aimed at adult children and the child in every adult," he said.

Getting up in front of a group and telling stories appeals to a lot of people, according to Geisler, who once aspired to acting but has turned her dream of a one-woman show into a storytelling profession.

"I believe there is a little ham in each of us," she said. "And we all love to be listened to. When you tell a story, everyone shuts up and listens to you."

The stories are more than entertainment, Geisler points out. "Religious storytellers use stories to teach religion. Psychologists use stories in working with patients. They use them in hospices in working with dying people, in convalescent homes with the old. With children, stories help develop imagination and a sense of humor. With cultural groups, stories preserve a sense of history."

Caroline Feller Bauer, a former librarian who is now an author, lecturer and storyteller, uses stories to attract people--especially children--to books.

"I rarely talk about the philosophical reasons for storytelling," said Bauer, who lives in Huntington Beach and is internationally known in storytelling circles. "I tell stories because they're fun. But every story I tell is from a book because I want to get people interested in books." Bauer, author of "Handbook for Storytellers" and "This Way to Books," was guest speaker at the festival.

Both Bauer and Geisler believe that storytelling does not have to be done before an audience of children to be successful.

Adults Like Stories, Too

"A lot of people think that you can only tell stories to preschool children," Geisler said. "But I have told stories to junior high, high school and adult groups, and I've had everyone listening, enraptured. I think the ideas of overcoming the giants in our lives, or of stealing a little bit of love, are universal and know no age limits."

The audience--all adults--at Saturday's festival repeatedly demonstrated that Bauer and Geisler may be right. During the storytelling concert that ended the daylong meeting, listeners appeared spellbound as story after story was presented simply and powerfully--in most cases, without props.

The only rule is that speakers may not use notes of any kind. Everything must be told from memory. Techniques vary from person to person, but many use accents, dialects and body movements to enhance their tales. Others stand or sit perfectly still and produce a convincing dramatic effect by merely reciting a simple story.

Storytellers at the festival included Janet Woo, who told an old Chinese folk tale about a magic kettle. Martha Stevens told a short but moving story about the creation of man. Kathleen Zundel and John Bennett together told a story based on an old joke, called "No News." Katy Rydell offered a traditional Maine folk tale called "Old Sticks," and Lily Kuroda of Garden Grove used paper folding to illustrate her story about a little boy who wanted to be a sea captain.

Story topics were as diverse as the people attending the festival. Geisler, who specializes in out-of-the-ordinary stories, told a very unorthodox version of "Little Red Ridinghood."

Fairy-Tale Variations

"I like to tell turn-around fairy-tales," she said. "Stories like 'Mollie Whuppie,' which is just as old as 'Jack and the Beanstalk' but features a girl instead of a boy as the main character. Other storytellers like to tell things like 'The Three Bears,' and that's fine too. Stories can be anything you want--things you have written yourself, old fairy tales, folk tales. They can be funny, sad, scary. People love ghost stories."

Geisler tells stories at many schools in the San Diego area, and likes to get her young audiences involved. "It's good for their imagination. And it gets them interested in writing stories of their own."

To encourage audience participation, Geisler, upon finishing her story, produces a pack of index cards. Each card has a single word--such as witch, frog, rose, star, river--written on it. She then asks the children to pick two cards and to make up a story about the words written on the cards.

"We've come up with some pretty interesting stories," she said.

"We once killed off an evil dragon by having him break-dance himself to death at McDonald's--on his head."

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