The Revival of Storytelling

Fred Ash is a Salvation Army officer in Toronto. He was an editor of Christian magazines for 13 years and has written hundreds of published articles. He is a part-time student at Tyndale Seminary.

Storytelling. Jesus did it. The Old Testament prophets did it. The Gospel writers did it. If truth be told humans have been telling stories to each other since the dawn of time. In those early days it was simply a matter of sitting around a fire recounting the day's events. Some of those stories were so powerful that they took on a life of their own and became legends. These were passed on from generation to generation. All that was required was a storyteller and a listening ear.

Nowadays humans tell stories much more elaborately — using books, theatre, audio tapes, video tapes, radio broadcasts, television shows, movies and computers. But there is a revival afoot. A renaissance. A rebirth. A return to the simplicity of storytelling by which one person sits (or stands) before a group of listeners and tells them a story — no fancy equipment, no elaborate props, no information technology, just a storyteller and her voice.

Gail Fricker is a professional storyteller who lives in Stratford, Ontario. With an undergraduate degree in theatre from Warwick University in Coventry, England, she used to tour Europe with her own theatre company before immigrating to Canada in 1990. She used to think that "the play's the thing" until nine years ago when she was surreptitiously introduced to storytelling by a friend who volunteered her to tell a story at a drama conference they were attending. Six weeks later she was invited to tell a story at a local church. Gail was converted to the storytelling art — so convinced that this was the way to go that she enrolled in East Tennessee State University (the only North American university offering a degree in storytelling) and graduated with an MA in the story arts.

But a degree is not a prerequisite to being a storyteller. "Everybody has a story to tell," says Gail. "The secret to being a storyteller is simply to start telling stories. The secret to being a good storyteller is to practise, practise, practise."

But where to begin? A person wanting to be a storyteller should first get some basic training in the art. While no Canadian university or college offers a degree in the story arts, a number of them offer courses relating to storytelling. Tyndale College and Seminary, for example, offers, on occasion, the course "Bringing the Bible Alive through Storytelling and Drama." Students may take the course for credit or audit. Those auditing the course do so for personal interest and not for any degree credit. Tuition for auditing is about half that of credit enrollment. Students range from young people fresh out of high school to retired persons, from those with theatrical experience to those who have never set foot on a stage. If no courses are offered locally, the next option for an aspiring storyteller is to read books on the subject and educate oneself.

Storytelling Revival

"There is a storytelling revival in Canada right now," says Gail, referring to the many folk festivals and community celebrations across the country which feature storytelling as part of the entertainment. "In the Church, storytelling is something new — which is an oxymoron, because Jesus was a storyteller. But as a tool in the worship services it is new. More and more churches are turning to storytelling as a means of communicating their message."

The storytelling revival is cutting across all denominations and generations. Freda Coulter is a 61-year-old grandmother and retired teacher who attends an Anglican church in Unionville, near Toronto. She audited one of Gail's week-long storytelling courses because she likes telling stories to children and wanted to improve her skills for use in children's time during worship.

Rebecca Burditt, 22, attends The Salvation Army in Oshawa. "Storytelling makes the Bible come alive," says Rebecca. "When you use storytelling to communicate the gospel, the message hits you in the face."

Twenty-three-year-old Ken Foo is a pastor-intern at a Chinese Baptist church in downtown Toronto. He sees storytelling as an effective tool for Vacation Bible School and outreach.

Cliff Ford, also 23, is youth pastor at an Alliance church. "The Christian faith is rich with stories, and storytelling is a great way to communicate this faith," he says. He has visions of using storytelling as part of Christian theatre, worship services and even public theatre.

"Storytelling has much to contribute to the life of the Church," says Gail Fricker. "While 75 per cent of storytellers work with children, storytelling is effective among all generations — and there are some storytellers who work exclusively with adults. Audiences range from pre-schoolers to seniors. I tell stories in schools, in churches, around campfires, at retreats and in prisons. Anyone willing to listen is an audience."

One of the most effective uses of storytelling is that of healing. A healing story is one that addresses a particular emotional or spiritual need of the audience. Gail cites as examples stories she uses in women's prisons or when addressing persons recovering from alcoholism or abuse. People suffering emotional and psychological scars from deep personal loss or trauma can sometimes be reached through stories when normal counselling techniques are ineffective. "Storytelling encourages others to tell their own story," explains Gail. "It gives them an opportunity to reflect either on their own lives or on the truths hidden in the story and apply it to their situation."

Oral Tradition

Storytelling is universal. Long before any written languages every culture had its "oral tradition" — stories it passed on through the generations. This is what makes Bible stories so easy to tell. The Bible was part of Jewish oral tradition before it was written down. Even the stories of Jesus existed orally for decades before the first written Gospel appeared. Bible stories tell well because they are part of the oral medium.

Storytellers, even Christian storytellers, are not confined to the Bible. Every culture is rich is folktales, myths and legends. Storytellers are free to draw upon these and adapt them as they see fit. Gail has told stories all over the world — Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, the UK, Europe, Africa, the US and Canada — and used folktales from these countries in her repertoire. "People are open-minded, generally, so that I am able to use a variety of stories — nature, Celtic, Christian," says Gail. She often adapts a folktale without changing the intent of the story; a "witchdoctor" will become a "wise woman," a "river spirit" will become an "angel."

There are challenges to telling stories cross-culturally. The story has to be culturally appropriate. Gail laughs when she recalls telling a story about snow to an audience in equatorial Africa. Translation can be difficult. Gail once told a story in English which had to be translated into a national language by one translator and then translated into a tribal language by another translator. "I was never sure how the final version of that story was perceived," she says.

Living Word

Can storytelling really compete against computers, interactive TV and 3-D movies? Gail Fricker smiles when I ask this question. "Yes," she says. "The storyteller just needs to be more 'on' now a days. People still like to hear stories." Her own experiences around the world are evidence enough of that, as are her frequent invitations to tell stories at schools, churches and retreat centres around this country.

Storytelling is personal. It is one-on-one. Even in a larger audience, storytellers speak to individuals, make eye contact and get on the same level as their listeners. In a storytelling situation the listener becomes a participant. In theatre the actors interact with one another while the audience observes. The same is true for movies and television. Computer games lack the personal element, and books are mass produced. When a storyteller is at work, the story is different each time it is told. Some storytellers never write their stories for fear of squeezing the life out of them.

Storytelling is a living art. It is a living word, which may explain why Jesus chose this medium through which to convey his message. And this may also explain the revival of storytelling in today's churches. Jesus did it, and so should we.