Unlike an ideal autumn period offering crisp air and colorful foliage framed by a blue sky, this past weekend was misty, cool and dreary — in other words, perfect conditions for storytelling.
And the stage of the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mount Airy was the perfect location for the Tarheel Tellers Storytelling Festival, presented by the North Carolina Storytelling Guild Saturday and Sunday. Six master storytellers wove an array of tall tales, riveting accounts of real-life events and amusing anecdotes that regaled enthusiastic audiences.
This marked the first time for the Tarheel Tellers event, which has been held annually for about 18 years, to be staged here. A past president of the group is Terri Ingalls of Westfield, a storyteller well-known to local audiences.
In addition to story performances by accomplished purveyors of the spoken word, the festival included a workshop and other activities celebrating an art form that has existed since ancient times when tribal elders would entertain listeners around campfires.
It also had another purpose aimed at further perpetuating a craft that has survived through the ages — “to try and attract more people to storytelling,” said Jim Payne of Newton, a member of the festival planning team.
“I think it’s important because it connects us with our past — it connects us with our families,” Payne added Saturday.
In bygone days before radio and television, storytelling was one of the few forms of entertainment available to folks along with music.
And it remains viable in a 21st-century world dominated by computers, cell phones, 3D movies and more.
“It’s just like theater,” said Joe Leotta of Calabash, another person associated with the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, which has about 120 members who are spread across eight different states.
“It’s face to face,” Leotta said of one of the reasons for storytelling’s continuing allure. “Storytelling can be very personal — which you can’t get from a computer.”
“No story is the same twice in a row,” said Sam Pearsall, a professional storyteller from Raleigh who attended the festival.
Storytelling offers a unique forum for expressing a wide range of emotions to captive an audience and propel whatever plot is involved. In the absence of special effects and elaborate props, the tellers appear onstage basically in their own skin — relying on gestures, voice inflections and other talents to engage the listeners.
The subject matter chosen can be equally free and unencumbered — possibly including a real-life event the teller has experienced, a ghost story, depictions of historical figures or a fable offering a moral lesson or valuable advice.
Becky Stone, a former Philadelphian who now resides in western North Carolina, chose the latter for a tale she delivered Saturday afternoon from the Playhouse stage.
It was the story of Brer Possum and the Snake, with Stone explaining to the audience that “Brer” is short for brother, a term most people associate with Brer Rabbit.
Stone described the dilemma faced by Brer Possum in deciding to help a snake that was trapped by a stone, not only freeing the reptile but later placing it inside his clothing when the snake complained of being cold.
She used fearful facial expressions,, skeptical stares and arm movements that perfectly simulated the snake’s slivering, to the delight of the crowd.
Of course, in the end the snake bites Brer Possum despite the kindnesses he has showed — with Stone noting the moral of the story that if one courts trouble, similar to the snake, it will wind up biting him or her.
Pearsall, the Raleigh storyteller, says the free rein afforded by the craft allows a plethora of individualized techniques to be applied to it — from the sedate to the animated, as was the case with the performance by Stone. She also is known for depicting abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Modern art forms also can be integrated, as evidenced by the theme of Saturday’s workshop presented by one of the featured storytellers, Willa Brigham, which was titled “Adding spice to your story with rhythm, rap, rhyme.”
Pearsall said his own repertoire includes some true tales and some tall tales.
“The difference between my stories and the absolute truth is barbecue and pork,” he said of the style employed. “I add a little spice and a little smoke and cook it slow.”
Cuts across lines
Although storytelling is a throwback to mankind’s earliest days, this weekend’s festival vividly illustrated how it is still relevant today, particularly in a nation divided by political differences, racial issues and class warfare.
The practice provides a commonality for all peoples, state Guild members say.
“Storytelling reaches across these groups,” said Pearsall, supplying “something they can share.”
“It shows we’re all connected,” Leotta said. Many stories emphasize how everyone possesses common emotions or concerns, stressing their similarities more than differences.
“Storytelling is the best way to break down those barriers,” Pearsall said of the walls that can exist between people of various age groups, backgrounds or philosophies.
“Storytelling is non-partisan.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.