By Walt Belcher
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I was not aware that oral storytelling was a performance art form that I could do.
I had heard of The Moth, that monthly story slam out of New York, and I knew that some authors, such as humorist David Sedaris, can tell engaging stories on stage.
But I tended to associate the word “storytelling” with bedtime fairy tales for children.
I should have known better. Telling stories is in our human nature. Storytelling, whether factual or fictional, is as old as civilization itself.
Long before there were books, movies, stage plays, or other forms of storytelling, tellers used the spoken word to communicate.
Nearly three years ago, I discovered there is a world of storytelling for grownups. I learned that every day, somewhere in the world, people gather to share stories. And so, I joined that world.
For me it is a continuation of the written storytelling that I did for years as a newspaper journalist.
On Saturday, March 20, I will be one of thousands of tellers who will be celebrating World Storytelling Day, an annual event held on the beginning of summer solstice.
It celebrates the art of oral storytelling. The theme is “new beginnings.” What started as a local event in Sweden in 1991 grew into a global event by 2004 and has been celebrated every year since.
Groups of tellers in more than 25 countries will share stories within their own communities. Our Tampa/St. Petersburg guild, The Storytellers of Old Tampa Bay, will be celebrating with a live Zoom story swap at 10:30 a.m. Register to watch or listen to the event here.
Until the COVID virus shut just about everything down, storytelling was a face-to-face, gather-round-the-campfire experience at festivals, open mic nights, story swaps, and story slam competitions. Over the past year, it has become a virtual experience on Zoom, Facebook or YouTube.
The downside of COVID for storytelling has been the loss of group reactions from a live audience.
The upside is that through the Internet, you can attend festivals or story swaps all over the world.
“The World Story Day in 2015 was our first event,” says Ross Tarr, who founded The Storytellers of Old Tampa Bay that year.
Ross, who looks like the Santa Claus that he portrays every Christmas, is a marvelous teller and former character actor.
Ross says the guild has 233 members but not all are active. “My two goals have been to launch a story festival in St. Petersburg or Tampa and develop a troupe that could tell at schools, libraries, museums or retirement homes — any place that could use a storyteller.”
So far, Ross has guided a small group of us through two nights of ghost stories at Tampa Theatre, a live performance of Irish folk tales for a Celtic heritage event at The Straz’s outdoor Riverwalk Stage and local performances of the annual Tellabration! (another global celebration of stories) held each November.
The Storytellers of Old Tampa Bay is one of 13 storytelling guilds in the state under the Florida Storytelling Association which holds the Florida Storytelling Festival every January in Mt. Dora.
Just about every state has a storytelling festival and some have two or more. The National Storytelling Festival, which has drawn as many as 10,000 spectators, is held in October in Jonesboro, Tenn.
Over the past three years, I have created more than a dozen short stories, including tall tales, ghost stories and humorous yarns inspired by life experiences.
I tell them at open mics, Studio 620 in St. Petersburg, the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, the Orlando Story Club, a tall tale slam in Ocala, Tampa Theatre, Florida Folk Nights in St. Petersburg, a story slam in Fort Lauderdale and twice at the Florida state festival.
For me it’s a creative kick but there are numerous professional tellers who make a living at this, including humorists Bil Lepp from West Virginia and Andy Offutt Irwin from Georgia and folklorist Donald Davis from North Carolina.
Some tellers specialize in “original stories,” often humorous and not necessarily true. There are tellers with stories based on ancient myths, fables and legends. Some deliver intense, emotionally powerful stories. There are tellers of tall tales and ghost stories. And there are tellers who bring history to life.
Stories can range in length from a few minutes to more than an hour.
The story slam competitions are an offshoot of the poetry slams that began in the mid-1980s.
The most famous slam group is The Moth, which features monthly 5-to-7-minute true personal story competitions. Since the late 1990s The Moth has grown to include workshops, monthly events held across the country, a weekly podcast, a weekly National Public Radio series, a YouTube channel, and book collections of the best stories.
On March 21, Ross, myself and others in The Storytellers of Old Tampa Bay will join another Zoom meeting of international tellers at the World Ceilidh Café out of Holland.
This World Ceilidh Café is a two-hour session held every other Sunday. Host Marin Millenaar, a charming entertainer, started this online story swaps last summer after the venue in Amsterdam where he performed was closed.
I join them every chance I get because as Marin says “if storytelling gets into your system, you just cannot resist creating and sharing your story.”
Walt Belcher is a retired arts & entertainment writer for the defunct Tampa Tribune. He now entertains live audiences with his well-honed storytelling skills.