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Posted on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 : 11:29 a.m.

True tales and more in store for The Ark's 26th Storytelling Festival

By Jennifer Eberbach

The three storytellers who will perform at The Ark's 26th annual Storytelling Festival gave some teasers about the upcoming show. This year's 2-day event will feature true personal tales told by national storyteller Donald Davis and local storyteller Laura Lee Hayes, and national storyteller Carol Birch will narrate 2 chapters from John Steinbeck's famous novel about the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath.

The 2-day storytelling festival includes a show for adults on Feb. 16 and a family show on Feb. 17. Both will be held at The Ark.

In addition, event co-sponsor the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild is collaborating with the Ann Arbor District Library to present a storytelling workshop with Carol Birch. Birch will lead "The Whole Story: Imagination, Feeling and Attitude in Stories," in the downtown library's Multi-Purpose Room, on February 16 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.


Storytelling Festival

  • Who: Local and national storytellers.
  • What: 26th annual festival celebrating the spoken-word story.
  • Where: The Ark, 316 S. Main St.
  • When: Adult show, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; family show, 1 p.m. Feb. 17.
  • How much: Saturday, $20; Sunday, $10. Tickets available from The Ark box office (with no service charge); Michigan Union Ticket Office, 530 S. State St.; Herb David Guitar Studio, 302 E. Liberty St.; or online from the Michigan Union Ticket Office.
Donald Davis is known for telling true stories taken from his own personal experiences. The seasoned national storyteller, who grew up in the an Appalachian region of North Carolina, spends most weekends traveling around the country to storytelling festivals and other engagements.

"The stories I tell are about growing up, trouble, things from my own life. They are stories that make people think of something they have done or seen themselves," Davis says. The reaction he likes to get is, "Oh! That reminds me of my own experiences," he explains.

It is not unusual for a storyteller to wait until the last minute to decide exactly what story he will tell. That is the case here with Davis' plan for The Ark. He is going to wait to see what the vibe is before deciding.

"It makes a difference depending on who will be there—who are the other storytellers, and who is in the audience," Davis explains. A lot of different factors inspire him to choose a particular story from his large repertoire over another, even "the weather and what is happening in the general news matters because those can change the whole mood."

Carol Birch happens to have a plan for her appearance at The Ark, although she agrees it is common for storytellers to decide at the last minute. Birch, a former children's librarian who is an acclaimed national storyteller, is known to narrate stories from literary sources.

She loves John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and is excited to share 2 chapters at The Ark. "I don't change Steinbeck's words," she explains, "but I edit them down so it becomes a satisfying oral presentation. A lot of description that can be wonderful to read can become orally numbing," she says. Her job as a narrator is to "make it conversational," which helps "build a bridge between the audience and the story." Things like facial expression, intonation, body language, and the teller's attitude about the words they are speaking are things Birch thinks can bring a novel to life for people.

Birch likes chapters 5 and 15 for a number of reasons. "Chapter 5 is a harrowing chapter about people getting evicted. First the bankers and then the tractors come and push people off their land," she explains. "I think it is relevant to what has happened in the news lately," she says, agreeing that there is a resonance between the stories of people's plights during and after the Dust Bowl and American's today who are still dealing with the fall out of economic and housing crisis.

The Dust Bowl was also the subject of a recent Ken Burns documentary, which makes Birch's reading timely. "Most people seem to have forgotten that the Dust Bowl was one of the largest man-made disasters ever. It is our past, and Steinbeck's novel puts faces and heartbeats to it," Birch says of the book.

And then chapter 15 "takes place in one of the hamburger stands along Route 66, and it talks about these wonderful truck drivers," Birch explains. The chapter is special to her because "my dad had been a truck driver, who had came into contact with people turned upside down by the Dust Bowl," she says.

Although the classic novel is obviously not based on her own experience, she thinks of the characters as "my great aunts and uncles. They are family as surely as any of my blood great aunts and uncles are," she says.

Birch's workshop at the library Feb. 16, titled "The Whole Story: Imagination, Feeling and Attitude in Stories," will explore some ways to make a story "vivid and alive," she says. She says it has a lot of do with "owning your voice, having a point of view, and having an attitude." Aside from people who like to tell stories, the workshop might also appeal to writers exploring the writing process.

Local storyteller Laura Lee Hayes, a member of the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild, will be first on stage at the two shows. She is ready to tell true life personal stories.

Sometimes a single year of your life will give you enough stories to tell for the rest of it. For Hayes, a year with the circus working as a wardrobe assistant about 40 years ago gave her a lot of material for storytelling.

The main characters in the circus stories she has picked out for The Ark will be the circus elephants.

When people ask Hayes what it was like traveling with a circus, she says, "it was wonderful, exciting, boring, and a lot of hard work. There was a lot of hurry up and wait, or you were on the road. There was a lot of time in between things when you could either sit around doing nothing or have little adventures," she recalls.

To pass her down time, "I was exploring behind the scenes and talking to the people and listening to their stories. I soaked up everything, and I tell stories about things that I experienced," Birch says. She was particularly fascinated with the wild animals - big cats, bears, and, of course, elephants.

"I felt a connection with the elephants. They look you in the eyes, they are always curious and they check you out," Birch remembers. Another things she noticed about the elephants is "they were always together, like seven cousins that you always see at the same time. My experience of the elephants was as a troupe—how they were together, supporting each other and interacting," Birch explains.

All three storytellers had nothing but positive things to say about The Ark and the good reputation that the The Ark's Storytelling Festival seems to have. AASG member Hayes is particularly impressed by how The Ark supports storytellers.

"The Ark is primarily a music venue. But spoken word is woven through it because there are musical performers who also do spoken word or tell pieces of stories," Hayes says. She thinks The Ark is making a good effort to include storytellers in this mix.

"In 2009, The Ark and the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild began a collaboration that benefits both organizations. AASG members consult with The Ark staff on the lineup for the Storytelling Festival and some of the local tellers at the festival are chosen from the guild's membership. When funds are available, AASG arranges for one of the visiting festival tellers to perform at local schools as well as conduct storytelling workshops for the general public," Hayes says.



Wed, Feb 13, 2013 : 10:49 p.m.

If they do this every year, then sign me up for next year. We are booked this weekend. Sounds like a lot of fun.