Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

In Praise of the Oral Tradition

by Maria LoBiondo

The word “storytelling” is bandied about so often these days, in so many different contexts, that I’m not totally surprised when people don’t understand what I’ll be doing with them as a storyteller. Some, I’m sure, expect me to open a version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to read or appear in a character costume, maybe as a kindly grandmother fresh from the farm.

They must be surprised when they see me without a book or costume.

Now I’m all for reading books—reading is one of my greatest pleasures, both alone curled up in my favorite chair, and aloud, as I did with my kids when they were younger, especially at bedtime. It’s now part of our family lore how my daughter enjoyed extended bath times while my son and I sat together on the floor enrapt with the first Harry Potter novel. 

But as a storyteller, and especially as a Storytelling Arts storyteller, I’m interested in the oral tradition—an emphasis on the spoken word rather than the written one.

To find the stories I tell I read a lot of books, and when a tale strikes me—like Cupid’s arrow—I look for as many versions as possible, from as many different cultures as possible, before I set about learning it. I don’t memorize it; I picture the characters and the sequence as if it’s happening just as I’m telling it (for me it is!) and the words flow.

Recently I was taken by what author Julius Lester had to say about storytelling. Lester, whose Br’er Rabbit adventures are classics, wrote in 1985: “The page preserves a particular telling of a tale, but not the tale itself. The tale is merely the theme on which the storyteller improvises, revitalizing the tale and making it ever new. The tale can never be what is on the printed page because what can not be printed are the movement of the arms, the body motions, the gestures of the hands, which are as important and integral to the tales as the words. Stories are told in equal parts by the voice and the body.”

I’ve been a theater-lover for ages, admiring how actors transform themselves chameleon-like into new selves. I have fond memories of my brief stint before the footlights as “Mei Li” in a high school rendition of the musical “Flower Drum Song,” and in the Greek chorus of a college staging of “Iphigenia in Aulis.”

But in the oral tradition there is no “fourth wall,” the imaginary space between the audience and the actor on stage. For storytellers in the oral tradition and our listeners there are no walls at all. We’re all part of the experience as it happens at that particular moment.

Here’s what I say at the opening of many sessions so that we all understand what storytelling in the oral tradition means in the same way:

  • Do you see a book in my hands? No? That’s because the stories are here—and I point to my head—and here—and I put my hand over my heart.
  • We’re going to make the story come alive together. If I tell a story with no one listening, it would just be a bunch words. But when I tell the story with you, we’ll imagine what is happening in our mind’s eye, each in our own way, and all together at the same time. You are needed to make the story live.

Storytelling in the oral tradition offers an individual and a community experience. It allows each person present to take what he or she needs from the tale at that moment in time. And if we are fortunate to hear the story again—maybe from the same teller, maybe from a different one—the plot may be familiar but the tale will be new and we’ll be enriched by it again.