Why Mainers Are Embracing the Oral Tradition of Storytelling

By Sarnacki, Aislinn | Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), June 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Why Mainers Are Embracing the Oral Tradition of Storytelling


Sarnacki, Aislinn, Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME)


Sparks shoot up from the campfire, mingling with smoke to fade in the cool night air. Stars wink overhead. The flames crackle and snap. And people gather around, sharing stories, true and fictional, personal and passed down.

It's an age-old tradition, to swap tales around a fire, but did you know there are people who do this professionally, who are hired to captivate audiences with the spoken word?

In Maine, expert storytellers gather on a regular basis to swap stories and share their craft with others, and the trend is growing.

"Storytelling is alive and well in the state of Maine," said Phyllis Blackstone, a professional storyteller from Brunswick. "It's a wonderful way of communication, giving people a way to own and share their experiences. And it can be a window through which you learn about another culture or way of doing things."

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Becoming a storyteller

A group of unruly children was what first led Blackstone, now 70, to become a storyteller. It was 1970, and she was teaching a first-grade class in Augusta. In her struggle for the young students' attention, she discovered one thing that could transfix and engage them: a good story.

"Every time I said 'once upon a time,' they all sat down," she said. "That's how I found out that storytelling was a very powerful tool, and it became my professional teaching tool."

As a professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, Blackstone taught storytelling to her undergraduate and graduate students. And when she retired in 2014, she became a full-time storyteller, offering programs for a variety of audiences, from children to seniors, in classrooms, community centers, churches or private settings.

That's one story. But storytellers come from many different backgrounds.

Storyteller Deborah Freedman from Portland, for instance, stumbled upon the craft in the late 1980s while working on the national Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. A quilter, she transformed people's stories into fabric panels for the quilt, then traveled throughout Maine for more than 10 years sharing the panels and their stories.

"I would just stand up and tell stories, and then I got more stories in return," Freedman said. "And one day I went, 'Oh my God. I'm a storyteller. What is a storyteller?'"

As she learned more about the oral tradition of storytelling, she found a passion for fairytales, and more specifically, self-made fairytales. Nowadays, she specializes in taking people's personal stories and transforming them into fairytales, a service she does for special life events such as weddings and anniversaries, and most often when people are sick.

"Sometimes writing someone's life into a fairytale can help a person who is ill get back to the essence of who they are and why they're loved," she explained.

In 2001, Freedman was one of the founding members of MOOSE, the Maine Organization of Storytelling Enthusiasts. And since then, more groups or storytelling guilds have been established throughout the state, including WOODS -- Western Order of Dedicated Storytellers -- and LOONS -- Lovers of Old and New Stories. These groups meet monthly to hone their craft, enjoy each other's stories and bring new storytellers into the fold.

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Then, five years ago, Blackstone established the annual Maine Storytelling Muster, a two-day event in central Maine that brings storytellers together from all over the state.

"I'd say in the past 20 years there's been a big resurgence in traditional storytelling," said Jean Armstrong, a communications specialist from Portland who offers storytelling workshops and shows. "With The Moth [Hour] and all the story slams, storytelling is really hot right now."

The Moth Hour is a popular radio show that showcases storytellers around the world.

How to tell a good story

Award-winning storyteller Antonio Rocha of Gray, Maine, has traveled the world since the mid 1980s performing folktales and personal stories. …

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