Tellers of Tall Tales

Story-spinning gets its own festival.

It will soon be the season-to-be-jolly, when friends and families gather for holiday meals and to swap stories around the table.

Tellers of Tales (TOT)--the storytelling pros--kick off their holiday yarn-spinning season Saturday, November 17. Members of the National Storytelling Association offer a "Tellebration" with presentations of the ancient art form at more than 200 events throughout the globe, on every continent but Antarctica, and Tucson is included in that lineup.

Storytelling is a language art that predates written history. It's also a performing art. And a teaching aid. And a process for cultural transformation. "Stories are the lifeblood of civilization," says Anne Lee, president of the 150 or so members of the local TOT group. Stories are a basic way for people of all ages to make sense of their experiences. Whether as a tool to inspire, teach or entertain, stories communicate more than words--they convey that as a people we are more alike than different.

"Especially now, following the events of September 11," says Lee, a teacher who has been telling tales to kids for a decade. "Stories strike different chords within people who are hurting and in pain. Storytelling can leave audiences feeling renewed and nurtured."

Storytelling is a connection with the past, with each other and with the world--much of it based on experience and often embellished with imagination.

Glenda Bonin, who specializes in Scandinavian folk tales, incorporates magic, puppetry and balloon sculpting in her presentations. "Stories speak to all of us when other forms of communication may fail," she says. "Old stories last a long time because they provide lessons in life, especially important in our fast-paced world that robs us of the quiet joy possible when one person shares oral history with another."

No one knows this better than Green Valley resident Dinghy Sharp, great-great-great granddaughter of Clement Clark Moore, who created one of the world's best-known stories, "The Night Before Christmas." She's been creating word pictures for more than 40 years, first as a teacher, now as a teller of old fables that keep schoolchildren enthralled.

"Storytelling has been a part of my life forever," she says. "I used to accompany my father, a doctor, on his house calls. We'd tell stories about specific incidents or family events that helped us pass the time traveling from one patient to another." Now Sharp shares Biblical parables as a Sunday school teacher, imaginatively translating concepts such as the Good Samaritan into modern-day applications.

Young children have no trouble immersing themselves in stories involving imagination because their boundary between fantasy and reality is not as solid as adults'. Their worldly experiences are limited. When adults listen to a story, they may stay detached and reserved, reminding themselves, "It's only a story." Children are not bound by those restrictions and more openly embrace the storyline. "You can teach history, literature and the love of language by totally involving an audience," says Sheila Pattison, a founder of the Tucson TOT group 22 years ago. "Storytelling develops imagination because listeners have to come up with their own mental pictures."

The man who bills himself "El Cuento" (the story), Martin Juan Rivera Sr., is a bilingual teller of tales who learned to appreciate family stories from his grandparents. He says active audience involvement is the magic behind oral tales. "I can tell you about a tree, but listeners have to draw their own image of what that particular tree looks like, how many branches, what color leaves. It's active, rather than passive, listening," he says.

The heart of most stories involves a problem to be solved, and for youngsters, the world is full of unsolved problems. Any plot line where a problem is confronted is immediately relevant to a young child because it teaches optimism, that problems can be solved.

Holiday time is a perfect time to gather in a group and pass on some family history or lessons in life. "Families can draw closer by sharing their history and special events," says Pattison. "Storytelling is an important way of communicating culture, values and life experiences, and preserving interpersonal relations," she says.

Specialists in human development generally agree that storytelling forms bonds and is a compelling way to reinforce values. Tales that deal with the notions of good and evil appeal to kids who look to grownups for cues about acceptable behavior. Family anecdotes foster a sense of belonging and personal stories--like the year when you really wanted a pony for your birthday--help children feel secure about their own feelings, knowing that their elders have also felt the same way.