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While the City was positioning itself to win an ultra-high speed broadband network from Google and gain Internet access 100 times faster than is now possible, some Evanstonians were affirming the value of a mode of communication a world apart: the ancient and deliberate art of storytelling.
Next month the skill Scheherazade mustered to save her… skin and transform her king will be on display at a storytelling festival at S.P.A.C.E. on April 17 and in an ongoing series of storytelling sessions at the Celtic Knot on April 11.
As a prelude, a trio of professional storytellers came together at the Celtic Knot on March 21 to celebrate Women’s History Month with tales of women who changed their worlds. Neighborhood moms starred in Susan O’Halloran’s story of Chicago’s South Side. A child’s bag brought the Holocaust to life for the Japanese children in a tale Anne Shimojima based on the book “Hana’s Suitcase.” And Jane Stenson’s life-affirming story of Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai revealed how planting trees empowered rural women by providing firewood, shelter, food and income.
Celtic Knot co-owner Liz Bartlow Breslin became a fan of storytelling through her work as a sign language interpreter. Having “seen people’s lives change because they heard just the right story at just the right time,” she tries to book a storyteller into the Snug, the Knot’s cozy back room, once a month. The tellers themselves have “taken the Snug to heart,” she says. Though they perform for just what they collect from passing a hat, she is getting more calls from “tellers” as word spreads about the performance venue she says is a rarity in Chicagoland.
Having people “jammed in” to listen to stories together in the Snug creates “a wonderful sense of community,” says Ms. Bartlow Breslin. It squares with the Knot owners’ sense of what a pub should be, she says – a “public house” where people can come to hear music or stories, “even if they don’t have any money.”
“Storytelling is magic,” she says, and provides a rare opportunity for “people [to] sit down and listen.” She adds that often, when the “official” storyteller on a program is finished, “People start talking to each other and telling their own stories, some memory that might have been awakened by what they just heard.”
Stories, she says, “say a lot about how we’re all very similar in the end.”
Susan O’Halloran has based a career on a similar belief in the ability of stories to unite people. Even as she prepared for her appearance at the Celtic Knot, Ms. O’Halloran was putting the final touches on “JustStories,” a storytelling concert she is co-producing for performances at 7:30 and 10 p.m. on April 17 at S.P.A.C.E.
Billed as “a storytelling event devoted to strengthening and honoring the human family,” the eighth annual JustStories festival is moving to Evanston after years in Northbrook. The program meshes with the mission of S.P.A.C.E., the Society for the Preservation of Art and Culture in Evanston. It will give local adults and teens the chance to see a Chinese-American and an African-American teller, as well as Ms. O’Halloran, weave magic in their midst.
Nancy Wang will premier “Bittersweet: A Chinese American Daughter’s Legacy,” which she will present in Chinatown earlier in the day. An Asian folk tale performed by her husband, Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, will feature dreamlike music and movement, says Ms. O’Halloran. Reverend Robert Jones and Sister Bernice Jones will trace African-American history through blues and gospel music. Ms. O’Halloran will host the evening and conclude with a story of her own.
Performance is in Susan O’Halloran’s blood. After broken discs ended her life as a professional dancer with the Shirley Mordine troupe at Columbia College, she turned to giving talks on health and stress management and even tried stand-up comedy.
Then she heard a storyteller and says she realized “how powerful and respectful of its audience” the art could be. Stories can teach, she says, but they do so by “inviting the audience in, rather than telling them what to think.”
Ms. O’Halloran gave up the rapid-fire rhythm of stand-up for what she calls “sit-down comedy,” the chance to “settle in” to story sessions. The fact that storytelling styles vary widely allows her to incorporate her humor and personal experiences as well as her inclination to move and to illustrate life lessons with fables and folk tales of her own making.
In developing a story, she counts on the support of a cadre of national storytellers who live in Evanston. They have been known, she says, to gather on short notice in a living room – or on a conference call – to preview and critique each other’s work.
Her collaborator for the festival is Angels Studio/Chicago, the communications ministry of the Roman Catholic Order, the Society of the Divine Word. Their partnership was forged after Father Derek Simons of the Society saw Ms. O’Halloran perform. Besides the S.P.A.C.E. event, they have created “Racebridges,” an online repository of stories and lesson plans for high school classrooms designed “to allow us to walk in another’s shoes, so that the stranger will become a friend.”
That mission is at the heart of Ms. O’Halloran’s storytelling: “If you hear others’ stories, it’s hard to hate them,” she says. Washington politicians might lend an ear.
Admission to hear Carol Birch in the Snug at the Celtic Knot, 626 Church St., at 8 p.m. April 11 is free.
Advance tickets for JustStories performances, 7:30 and 10 p.m. on April 17 at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., are available for a suggested donation of $10 at evanstonspace.com or at the S.P.A.C.E. box office, 847-492-8860.