Maintaining the oral tradition of storytelling

On the third Monday of each month, the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild hosts Stories at Fern, a two-hour storytelling event.

Shortly after the doors open, the Victoria Friends Meeting House is crowded with dozens of voices, dozens of smiles. This event typically attracts around 40 people, but the spirited audience makes it feel more like 80. Nearly everyone is involved in a conversation, and those that aren’t are soon swept up in one. It feels more like a party than a performance, a house party in a small community where everyone knows everyone.

Then the first storyteller appears, and the room shrinks. Suddenly, the 40 people who felt like 80 feel like one.

Each storyteller brings the audience under their spell, inviting them into a nostalgic and peaceful place. Their warm voices and flowing hand gestures keep everyone in that time and place. There’s a feeling of reverence in the room; everyone watches in silent awe, not a single person’s mind wandering elsewhere. The audience can only be heard when deeply moved, or compelled to laugh. 

“It’s such a receptive audience,” said Pat Carfra, one of the founders of the guild. “Everyone is there to enjoy, to be entertained and to be there for the teller.”

The Victoria Storytellers’ Guild was formed in the early 90s, taking inspiration from another storytelling group based in Vancouver. The group had been invited to put on a performance and host a workshop in Victoria. Carfra attended both. A few months later, one of Victoria’s libraries put out a notice, calling for anyone who wanted to start up a similar storytelling group.

“Lots and lots and lots of people came, and that was the beginning,” said Carfra.

They were given a meeting room for free for a year before the responsibility was transferred to the newly formed group. Since then, the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild has grown to over 50 members.

The guild is part of a growing movement for traditional storytelling. Storytellers of Canada (Conteurs de Canada), Canada’s national storytellers’ organization, lists 72 storytelling organizations operating in Canada, nine of which are in BC.

“It’s growing, it’s reviving,” said Carfra. “It’s an ancient art that virtually disappeared, and now there’s worldwide revival, especially in North America and European countries.”

One thing holding storytelling back is the stigma that it’s only for children. Even though the storytelling community is largely made up of people from older generations, storytelling is still commonly associated with childhood nostalgia. There are certainly popular storytellers who tell for general audiences, The Vinyl Café host Stuart McLean being a prime example, but they aren’t necessarily associated with the medium.

There aren’t enough young people interested in storytelling either. Whenever there’s enough demand, the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild hosts both group and individual storytelling workshops. Motivating new storytellers of all ages is important to the guild, but those who are younger are especially valued. Youth interest is crucial for keeping the medium alive. In an age of distraction, though, this can prove difficult.

“There’s some spark of life that’s in a story and in the storyteller and in the listener,” said Faye Mogensen, another storyteller from the guild, as well as the Director of Spiritual Exploration and Learning for Children and Youth at the First Unitarian Church of Victoria. “There’s a human exchange going on that I think we all need, and that we’re not getting enough of.”

Oral storytelling thrives on a connection between the storyteller and their audience. This even sets it apart from other performing arts, which might seem strange, but think of the last time you went to see a play. Even though the cast and crew worked painstakingly to put together a breathtaking show, there were people in the audience who weren’t quite involved in the experience. Maybe the couple in front of you was chatting, or leaning on each other and blocking your vision. Maybe the person next to you not-so-inconspicuously checked his phone every ten minutes. While these things are certainly rude, they’re to be expected when you go to see a play.

In an oral storytelling event, there’s no room for that. It’s far more personal, with only one storyteller bringing forth a tale that means something to them. The storyteller is as familiar with the flow with the story as they are with the road leading to their home. The audience is compelled to that process, the emotional appeal bringing them along that road.

“Energy truly comes from the audience, and when they’re with you, your story becomes even better,” said Carfra.

Attitudes towards storytelling are changing, albeit slowly. Recently, BC’s language arts curriculum has changed to include exploration of the oral storytelling process. As a result, Mogensen’s 2016 book, Ancient Stories for Modern Times: 50 Short Wisdom Tales for All Ages, is being picked up in schools across the province.

The book came about after the Liberal Religious Educators Association made a call for its members to put together books of wisdom tales that would be useful for teachings in Unitarian churches. Storytelling is an important part of the Unitarian church’s structure for learning, along with reflection and discussion on the message of each story.

“When we tell stories in education, we’re taking advantage of the synapse flow in the brain,” said Mogensen. “It allows people to remember things better when there’s a path to walk down that’s in a familiar shape.”

Being a member herself, Mogensen eagerly responded. She adapted 50 wisdom tales both from stories she had worked with in the past and others that fit the theme. Rather than simply presenting the stories as they are, the book includes summaries and reflective questions for budding storytellers to derive their own versions from.

Storytelling is a natural, human experience. We are all storytellers in our everyday lives, recounting our days to our families and humourous happenings to our friends. Even so, we don’t often take the time sit down and truly listen to stories. There’s no telling whether we’ll lose this connection entirely or we’ll remember it’s importance, but regardless, the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild will tell on.

Used with permission and originally published as “Reviving Storytelling with the Victoria Storytellers’ Guild” by Claire Murray.