Storytelling may conjure images and memories of children’s books at bedtime or an animated library hour for those toting sippy cups, but this weekend’s Sierra Storytelling Festival showcases artistry and performances created more for the mature listener.
The festival, now approaching its third decade, spotlights a profession and genre commonly overlooked but weaves together myriad talents, specifically theater, comedy and music.
“Most people think storytelling is about kids because across the nation, we have story time for kids,” Samantha Hinrichs, who co-produces the festival, said. “But the content here can be bawdy, Shakespearean, complex or with dark humor. It’s like seeing a play or movie.”
The Sierra Storytelling Festival is hosted at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center and has risen into the upper echelons among similar events, enticing renowned storytellers from across the nation. Hinrichs, who has been with the festival for 20 years, emphasizes that one reason the event is among the most prestigious of its kind is that storytellers can tell their more edgy tales, especially at Saturday night’s Gala Evening Concert. The performers will all have taken the stage throughout the day and are more warmed up and ready to deliver “exciting and saucy” material at the evening event.
Returning storyteller Baba Jamal Koram says he looks forward to performing at the historic schoolhouse because most national festivals are “about just autograph signing, but at Sierra, you can sit down with the folks that live there and talk to them.”
Organizers also want children to be able to experience the wonder of storytelling and offer a children’s concert with Andy Offutt Irwin Sunday morning. Irwin is new to the Sierra Storytelling Festival but is known across the country for his “manic Silly Putty voice,” astonishing mouth noises and hilarious stories. He’s also set to perform Saturday afternoon and evening.
The 28th annual festival begins Friday afternoon with a workshop featuring Laura Simms. An Opening Night concert includes anecdotes from all the featured storytellers, followed by a late-night (10 p.m.) Sierra Story Slam in the schoolhouse where seasoned and first-time storytellers throw their name in a hat for a chance to regale the crowds with their lively narratives. Inspired by poetry slams, novice storytellers have five minutes on stage with no props or notes allowed. This year’s theme is Lost Time.
Saturday’s lineup includes performances by Charlie Chin, who performs in a teahouse style, using a folding fan in addition to his classy outfits, sharp humor and cutting wit; as well as Irwin, and Koram. Koram’s storytelling is steeped in history, humor, music and lore of African and African-American cultures. He blends contemporary and traditional techniques with drumming and call and response.
Simms, a passionate New Yorker and recording artist with a cutting edge narrative style, will also take the stage Saturday, as will Tim Tingle. It will be Tingle’s first appearance at the festival. An Oklahoma Choctaw, Tingle began collecting tribal stories in the ’90s.
The storytellers will regroup Saturday evening for the Gala Concert with special guest Caroline Paul, who after graduating from Stanford University became a San Francisco firefighter. She is now an author, speaker, and storyteller. Collectively the performers have more than a century of experience, spanning from educator and musician, to traveler, actor and author.
After a day of inspiration and example, up-and-coming storytellers can share their stories at Sunday morning’s Open Telling. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. The festival concludes with an ovational concert that afternoon.
Hundreds of people from across the West (specifically Northern California) attend the festival. Hinrichs said that last year’s gala had upward of 800 attendees. Tickets are still available for all events and are generally available at the door, but she notes that seating is open and guests should arrive early.
For information, including a full schedule of events and ticketing, go to http://sierrastorytellingfestival.org.
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Grass Valley.