Once upon a time, for all of us, telling stories meant sitting at grandma's kitchen table and listening to yet another rendition of our parents' youthful mishaps, or lying still in bed for the 100th rendition of the umpteenth chapter of The Phantom Tollbooth. But for dedicated raconteurs across the country, who will gather here starting July 19 Downtown for the National Storytelling Network Conference, storytelling is an emerging, and riveting, art form.
"The way we relate to the world is narrative," says conference organizer Alan Irvine, of Squirrel Hill. He is the founder of StorySwap, a storytellers' group based in the Northland Public Library, in McCandless. Storytelling "is a performance art," he says. "It's a close cousin to theater. Storytellers react to the audience the way actors and musicians do. It's a conversation."
More than 300 storytellers and listeners will congregate here for the conference, featuring workshops for those who would like to hone their yarn-spinning skills and learn to tell different types of stories, as well as master classes taught by nationally known storytellers. Irvine collaborated locally with fellow StorySwap member (and Northland librarian) Mary Morgan Smith, as well as representatives from Story Works in Murrysville and the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival, to create the conference over the past three years.
Episcopalian priest Jack Gabig, who plans to attend the conference, says he is drawn to storytelling because it jibes with his philosophical understanding of life and faith.
"People structure their lives around stories. The Bible is a set of stories," says Gabig, of Bellevue, coordinator of youth ministries for the Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, a faction of the Episcopalian Church. "I'm of the mind that we don't understand the meaning of life unless we understand where we fit in a big story. Life is not about a set of facts, but about living out a story."
Irvine got his storytelling start in a more mundane way ... in his late teens as a summer camp counselor in Louisiana. To coax the campers to sleep in a forest cabin, he concocted a ghost story from personal memories and it became a hit. In the years since, Irvine, now a lecturer in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, has expanded his repertoire to include Cajun and Celtic folktales and legends, as well as homespun fantasy tales.
But to hear Irvine tell it ... and that would be the point of storytelling, wouldn't it? ... all stories are homespun. Every telling of a tale bears the mark of its teller.
"You have to work up your own version of the story," he says ... even when you're re-telling the "Three Little Pigs."
2006 National Storytelling Network Conference: See www.storynet.org/Events/Conference/2006/.