Smile Politely

C-U celebration of World Storytelling Day

If you love listening to stories, consider heading over to the Institute 4 Creativity in downtown Champaign this evening, where four accomplished storytellers will be hosting a concert of live storytelling as part of World Storytelling Day

Founded in Sweden, World Storytelling Day — a celebration of the art of storytelling — takes place all over the globe, in places as diverse as Singapore, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The purpose of the worldwide event is to celebrate oral storytelling of stories old and new in as many languages as possible.

At our local celebration, master storyteller Dan Keding will be joined by Linda Dust, Amy Atkinson, and Sue Searing to present a smorgasbord of storytelling topics and styles on the theme of “Wishes.”

I talked to Sue Searing to learn more about what to expect from the event.

Smile Politely: What is World Storytelling Day?

Searing: It’s an international event. All around the world people get together to tell and listen to stories. There has been a renaissance of storytelling in the last few decades, and World Storytelling Day is part of that momentum. Think of the popularity of things like The Moth or podcast narratives—people are paying attention to stories in lots of different media now. At the same time, World Storytelling Day is about preserving traditional folk tales and keeping oral cultures alive, so lots of the stories that will be told are stories that have been passed down for generations.

SP: What kinds of stories can people expect to hear at Champaign’s storytelling event?

Searing: Each one of us will tell a few stories, and the whole event will last a couple hours. This group is usually very interested in folk tales and fairy tales, but there will also personal stories. And all of us who will be performing tend to tell stories from different cultures. The event will probably have a bit of an international flavor.

SP: How did you become interested in storytelling?

Searing: I work in the university library, so I work closely with the graduate program in Library and Information Science, which teaches storytelling courses on campus. One year, while I was on sabbatical, I took a storytelling course. I’m someone who has never been afraid of public speaking; I like teaching and lecturing. During the course, I totally fell in love with storytelling. I wish I had started many years ago. Telling a story is different from acting. Actors often use the concept of the fourth wall to create some distance from the audience. But storytellers drop the fourth wall and are very engaged the entire time. Storytelling is part performance, but it is also more than that because the storyteller is interacting with the people who are listening. I’m also very drawn to the idea that people have told the stories I’m telling before, and that people long after I’m gone will keep telling them. Storytelling gives you a feeling of being part of something larger. And it’s also just fun. I like being a storyteller because I get to listen to a lot of stories from others.

SP: What is it like to tell stories at events like this one?

Searing: It’s an intimate art form. You have to feel connected to the audience and make that connection apparent so they are pulled into the story. If you have ever watched kids listen to people tell stories—that kind of rapt attention—that’s what we’re going for. That feeling of engagement and immersion. Every storyteller has to find stories they like telling, that they find personally meaningful. You’ve got to feel like it’s your story in order to tell it, even if lots of others told it before you. A lot of people tell personal stories—stories from their own lives, or stories about their ancestors. But folk tales or literary tales can also have the same feeling.

Storytellers learn tricks like pacing and gestures, and most of us develop a sort of individual style. But I think the experience is mainly about the storyteller’s relationship to the audience and to the story itself.

SP: What else should we know about tonight’s event?

Searing: Oftentimes people think storytelling is just for children. They think because they’re “grown up” they won’t be interested in listening to stories. If you keep an open mind, you can have a really different experience. Plus, since this is an event where we have four different people telling stories, so you’ll be able to hear four different kinds of stories and four different styles. I think people should come if they’ve never been to a storytelling concert before because this will help you get a sense for what kind of stories you like.

World Storytelling Day takes place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Institute 4 Creativity (111 South Walnut, Champaign). Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students; beverages will be available for a donation.

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