We've been gone since Thursday evening to the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival in Pittsburgh, PA. I was one of three featured tellers--Tim Tingle and Kate Danaher were the other two. Along with storytelling, I also taught a workshop on ballads and ballad singing.
I cannot begin to describe the festival experience--but of course I'm going to try!
Kate Danaher, Tim Tingle, me
The first day started with stories for children, and I shared the stage with featured teller Kate Danaher and local tellers Edmund LoPresti and Mike Perry Pittsburgh for a two-hour set. Then it was time for a lunch program for seniors with Kate. We decided that rather than me telling for 30 minutes and Kate taking the stage, we would do a give-and-take program: one of us would start, and then the other take up with a story that spun from what the first teller had told. It was magical. It kept us thinking and making connections in our material, even though we had never met before that morning, and had never heard each other tell. The performance was lively, to say the least, with Irish stories and songs mingling with my Appalachian ballads and stories.
Soon after that I presented a two-hour workshop on ballads to a small but engaging group. We talked, discussed the ballads and their sources, the ballad tradition and the songcatchers and much more. I had handouts for the attendees so that could continue to learn on their own.
Then it was dinnertime--the day passed so quickly it was surprising to find that it was time to eat. After dinner Kate, Tim and I took the stage again, and later in the evening we participated in the ghost stories concert with Pittsburgh tellers Sean Miller and Scott Pavelle. Back at the hotel we were amazed at the huge number of people gathered at the hotel for a family reunion. They told us that over 300 people had come from all across the United States. And I thought our Connelly family reunion was big with our 120 folks!
The final concert followed dinner. Kate was hilariously funny, telling a story about someone using ball bearings instead of nonpareils to decorate a wedding cake with disastrous intestinal results for those who ate the cake, along with other comical tales from the collection of stories by Eamon Kelly, who had been one of Ireland's most famous storytellers. On Eamon's death, his widow entrusted his stories to Kate, entreating her to tell them. Kate has honored that request, not only telling the stories, but studying Eamon's voice closely to match every nuance of accent.
I followed Kate with two stories that are not part of my usual repertoire. I started with my favorite ballad, the first one I ever learned--Pretty Saro. The first story I told was Gracie's Cabin, which I wrote several years ago time ago and used to tell fairly often. For some reason I quit telling it; I don't know why really, but sometimes a teller will do that, just let a story rest. Gracie's Cabin came back stronger than ever, with some changes I had been mulling over that I think improved the story's ending.
I followed that story with the story of my parents--how they met, their early married life and struggles, and the quest by my sisters and me to find Mom's infamous fruitcake recipe after we lost her in 2005. I have been thinking about this story and how to present it, what connections I could build and how to find the "thing" that the story was about. Simply stringing together anecdotes isn't enough--there must be depth and some place of common understanding and experience with the audience to make a true and memorable story.
Then Tim Tingle took the stage and oh.my.goodness. His story was tense, funny, dark, witty, musical, sad, touching, and I will never forget the experience of seeing and hearing Tim tell it. It was the story of a man who had committed murder and spent many years in Alcatraz, but the story was not about the murder or his prison time. It was the story of someone of Tim's own Choctaw heritage, a boy who grew up hard in a hard time for Indians, who learned young to take what he wanted through violence, a boy who made bad choices and hurt both himself and many others by his decisions. It was hard to listen to and yet...I will carry that tale and that man in my heart. Sometimes the difficult stories are the ones that most need to be told and heard, aren't they? Tim's message--don't judge by what you see, look for the goodness in a person's heart--is one we all need to carry with us.
It was time to go. We lingered, talking, hugging, saying goodbye to new friends in the audience, and finally packing up our items that we'd brought to sell. It was time to go. Once again, a community brought together by stories dispersed to carry the stories home with them, and the storytellers went home to rest and remember the circle of faces that listened to our voices and gave us their trust. What goodness there is in the human heart.