E-books, iPads, and a preponderance of electronics have undoubtedly taken some of the magic out of entertainment and human interaction, but this weekend the Sierra Storytelling Festival puts the spotlight back on the age-old tradition of verbal communication.
The three-day festival begins this Friday and features six renowned storytellers, including event newcomer Joel ben Izzy and returning orator Bill Harley. While Izzy has been telling stories his entire life, his professional career began in 1983 when he began appearing at festivals around the world. He is now an esteemed performer.
“I’m really honored to be coming up to the Sierra Storytelling Festival for the first time, and to be sharing the stage with tellers I so admire,” Izzy said. “Though I’ve been to many storytelling festivals in my time, among festivals, Sierra is something of a legend - and in the world of storytelling that’s saying a lot.”
Harley, also a sought after teller, has previously been featured at the festival and returns to lead a workshop Friday afternoon and give a children’s concert Sunday morning, as well as take part in the Opening Night and finale presentations. All guest tellers will take turns taking the stage throughout the day Saturday, with a gala concert taking place Saturday evening. All events are being held at the North Columbia Schoolhouse in Nevada City.
“I’m endlessly amazed that the speaking of words can create images in someone else’s head, and that story is the way we make sense of things,” said the Grammy-award-winning artist and NPR commentator. “It’s the most basic of human experiences, and yet it’s still incredibly complex.”
Also on the program are the transcendent Abenaki Indian storyteller Joe Bruchac; classic wit Millbre Burch; the delightful and captivating Muriel Johnson; the National Storytelling Network’s Emerging Artist Kirk Waller and the riveting teller of Appalachian and Texas tales, Elizabeth Ellis.
The festival is known as the ‘Queen of Storytelling Festivals, most notably for its unique venue and the ability to attract premier talent. Founded by a local storyteller the event attracts guests from throughout California.
After a Friday evening welcome from this year’s guests, aspiring tellers can take part in a late-night Story Slam (10 to 11:30 p.m.). One of the festival’s most popular events, the gathering gives novice tellers the opportunity to strut (or say) their stuff on stage. Only 12 “slammers” will be allowed to perform, so names will be drawn from a hat to determine who will compete. This year’s theme is “Lost and Found.” Stories should be true and told within five minutes.
Previous winner and Nevada County local Tom Wade, who will take part in the Opening Night presentations, urges those taking part in the Story Slam to sit down with a clock and practice telling their story out loud.
“The trick is to get it in the timeframe,” Wade said. “Don’t think it in your head. Say it. If it’s less than five minutes, that’s even better. Things always happen on stage - laughter, pauses – a three-and-a-half-minute presentation can easily be a five-minute presentation. And learn to talk really fast.”
Wade first took part in the festival 10 years ago, when no one signed up for the (non competitive) Open Telling.
“I was excited. I feel more at home in front of people, the bigger the group, the more comfortable I am,” Wade said.
Those who’ve never been to a festival may still associate storytelling with children’s activities. Though the Sunday morning Children’s Concert is geared specifically towards kids as young as four or five (and entertaining for guests of all ages), most of the performances are mature and varied in nature. Tellers cover many genres with their words, some sharing anecdotes and life stories, with others passing on history and classic tales. They can be comedic or tragic, but always heartfelt and personal.
“It’s absolutely worth taking a chance on,” Jeff Adams, executive director of the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center, said for those who’ve never attended. “If you feel like life is a little too fast, this is a great treat – to immerse yourself in a story. Slow down, remember what if feels like to not be so busy. It’s almost like a meditation. People come away feeling refreshed and really positive about life.”
For more information about tickets and performance times, go to www.sierrastorytellingfestival.org, or call 265-2826.
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.