Preview: The Ark's 29th Annual Storytelling Festival
Humankind’s oldest art form is also the basis of one of The Ark’s longest running events. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of The Ark’s Annual Storytelling Festival, a two-night event that brings the oral tradition from the primordial bonfires of yore to The Ark’s warm and welcoming concert hall. Saturday night this year’s featured storytellers will spin yarns geared toward a mature adult audience, and Sunday afternoon they’ll switch gears to entertain an all ages crowd.
Over the years the festival has welcomed a bountiful mix of perspectives and storytelling styles, and this year is no exception. This weekend’s three featured storytellers -- author, playwright, storyteller, and NPR correspondent Kevin Kling; acclaimed musician and children’s entertainer Bill Harley; and local Irish performer Yvonne Healy -- spoke to me about what kinds of stories they will tell each night, and how their work has changed with the rise of radio storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgement.
Headliner Kevin Kling is known for his humorous personal stories about his Midwestern upbringing and his experience with physical disability. Though he has been featured regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Kling says he prefers performing in front of a live audience.
“Garrison Keillor really put us on the map, and somebody said, I thought very accurately, that he plays a microphone like a Stradivarius,” Kling says of his distinctly Midwestern colleague. “He's so wonderful on the radio. He really has found that medium. I'm a bit different in that I love a live audience. There's something visceral and chemical, something that happens on stage that neither sound waves nor lightwaves can quite fill. That to me is the magic of a live performance. You don't see a lot of standing ovations in front of the radio.”
Kling says he always knew he wanted to be a performer, but early on he had no idea he would get paid to simply stand on stage and talk about his life. He says his professional career as a storyteller began in that most fabled of artistic proving grounds: the dinner party.
“I was in the kitchen at a party, you know that's always the best place, and I was just blabbing away,” he says. “Little did I know there was a theater producer in the kitchen and she said, ‘Do you want to be in our season next year?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ Before I knew it, before I knew what I was, I was on stage telling stories in a theater in Minneapolis. And then I went to Seattle, and then off-Broadway, doing pretty much what I did in that kitchen.”
Kling says he doesn’t know exactly which of his two-hundred-plus stories he will tell this weekend. He likes to show up to a venue with a good chunk of his repertoire in mind and read the crowd before deciding where to take the audience for the evening. One topic he is certain he will touch on, though, is disability, something he’s an expert on. Kling was born with a deformed left arm, and he lost the use of his right one after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Still, he assures us he’ll keep things as light as possible no matter how serious the subject matter he chooses to delve into might be.
“It will be done with humor,” he says. “That's the best way for me to get through that because you can laugh at something that doesn't control you anymore. Everybody in the audience knows loss. People say, ‘What's the difference between stand-up comedy and storytelling? You close a door with a joke with comedy, but with storytelling you open a door with a joke. It's like you're saying, ‘Now that we're all here, let's get to it.’’
Joining Kling on stage this weekend is another nationally renowned storyteller, Bill Harley. Dubbed “The Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music,” Harley pairs wit, humor, and song to embellish tales of his childhood, coming-of-age, and family life.
When asked why he is drawn primarily to telling stories from his youth, Harley responds, “I find that if I talk seriously about childhood, then everybody usually comes along. That's the birthplace of our disaster, so that's pretty fertile territory.”
Harley says he probably won’t tailor the topics of the tales he chooses for the adult and family sessions this weekend, but rather the manner in which he tells them.
“It's not so much structure as it is language, nuance and subtext,” he says. “If you talk about childhood or coming-of-age seriously, those experiences we carry with us through our whole lives, everytime we touch on those experiences it brings up something that touches us, that reaches adults just as much as it does younger kids. Obviously with the family show, I'm less likely do to do a 40-minute story. With a family show you can't mess around. You've got to keep your pedals moving and your foot to the floor and be very aware of what`s going on. With adult performances, there's a lot more nuance, and there's a lot more chance for discovery.”
Harley’s performances will ensure the melodic comfort The Ark typically traffics in won’t be entirely lost for the weekend. He says audiences are often surprised and delighted by the way he flirts with the intersection between song and spoken word.
“When you sing a song, people go, ‘Okay, we know that,’” he says. “And then you put your guitar down or you're holding your guitar and you start to talk, and all of a sudden people are kind of waiting for the talking to end and the music to begin again. And slowly, they realize this is something other. I always have people come up to me and say, ‘I haven't been to something like this for years. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to something like that.’ It's an amazing experience.”
Local Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy rounds out this weekend’s bill with a rollicking blend of traditional Irish folklore and mythology and flamboyant tales of her own personal experience. Healy, now a resident of Howell, was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. She says her upbringing straddled the cultural mores and traditions of both countries and gave her a master class in the art of storytelling.
“Inside the house was Ireland, and outside the house was the United States,” she says. “So inside the house we spoke Irish, and we danced Irish dances and sang to Irish music. We behaved in an Irish way, and part of that is learning to tell stories properly, with proper accent and proper detail. I learned by rote, phrase by phrase.”
Healy’s father had a profound influence on her interest in telling stories. She describes him as an alternately charming and argumentative contrarian who could worm his way out of any situation with a good yarn.
“I asked him one time, ‘How is it that you never get beat up?’ And he said, ‘Well I got beat up once. Now, whenever I get to that point, and I like getting them to that point, then I tell them a story and confuse them. And then they let me go.’ So really, talking is a martial art.”
Like this weekend’s other two storytellers, Healy says she doesn’t yet know exactly what stories she’ll bring to the stage. She says Sunday she will stick to traditional folklore and mythology because she believes children, who are are developing their perspective on life, need the neatness of literary devices and literary structure. For Saturday night, she says she will cull stories from her own life. With more and more people being introduced to live storytelling via NPR, she says that seems to be what people want to hear these days.
“I think it’s because we have such an educated populace,” she says. “We can figure out where stories are going to go, but real life is not neat like a fictional story is. Real life is messy and doesn't have those kind of fictional constructs, and so that's very interesting to us. We spend a lot of time alone or with screens in our contemporary society, and I think having deep, real conversations with other people face-to-face is very moving for everybody.”
Healy elaborates on that last remark. Live storytelling, she says, is a conversation between the performer and the audience.
“The story changes depending on how the audience reacts,” she says. “If you're losing some people in some place, you kind of come back and go back into the thread and go off on another digression, but only if the audience is responding to it. A story is really co-created by everybody in the room.”
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer, and he would love to tell you the story about the time he saw a UFO.
The Ark’s 29th Annual Storytelling Festival runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, at 1 p.m. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. Tickets are on sale now through the Michigan Union Ticket Office and at The Ark's website. Tickets are priced at $20 for the Saturday evening show and $10 for the kids’ show on Sunday afternoon.