After Connecticut Magazine's April 2020 issue went to press, the Connecticut Storytelling Center's planned 39th Storytelling Festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In a message posted on their website, the Connecticut Storytelling Center says that “this isn’t how the story ends for the festival! However, the ‘ever after’ is still unclear at this point.”
In honor of the work the Storytelling Center does year-round — and In the storytelling spirit — we are presenting our article on the festival as it was written and published.
For Bill Harley, stories are an integral tool for making sense of the world.
“What a story is really about is putting events in context,” says Harley, a two-time Grammy Award winner and celebrated storyteller and singer-songwriter. “When you figure out the context of an event, that’s what defines the meaning of a story.”
Harley, who spent part of his childhood in Westport and now lives in Massachusetts, will headline The Connecticut Storytelling Festival & Conference April 24-25 at Connecticut College in New London. He will perform several times during the two-day festival, which is celebrating its 39th year. There will also be workshops and performances from other “tellers.”
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One of the stories Harley says he is likely to share centers around him trying desperately to put together an intricate toy pirate ship before his child wakes up on Christmas morning. “It sounds like a Christmas story, but it’s really not,” he says. “It’s just this nightmare of assemblage at 2 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve, and it’s basically about what parenting is and what love is.”
Other performers at the festival include Linda Gorham and Carolyn Martino. The latter was born with a large purple birthmark on her face and will share her story “Masks” about learning self-acceptance. In addition, there’s a dealer’s room with books on storytelling, as well as jewelry and storytelling props.
Ann Shapiro, executive director of the Connecticut Storytelling Center, which produces the festival, says conference attendees range from librarians to teachers and professional storytellers to members of the general public. “Our tagline for the Storytelling Center is ‘connecting lives, one story at a time,’ ” she says. “And that’s the feeling of the festival, that people are hearing stories that are universal in nature, so it creates a community in the audience.”
Barbara Reed, a literature professor at Connecticut College, founded the festival in 1982. “When she produced the first festival, it was with her students as sort of an end-of-the-year project,” Shapiro says. “But she had the nerve to call it the first annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival.”
The festival took off and a year later the Connecticut Storytelling Center grew out of the festival. In addition to the upcoming festival, the organization produces an event each November called Tellabration, in which it places dozens of storytellers at libraries, schools, historic centers and other participating community centers throughout Connecticut.
The Storytelling Center also reaches about 10,000 kids a year by placing storytellers in classrooms. “Rather than going in and doing assemblies, we like to come in and work in the classroom on a repetitive basis so that the kids are hearing the stories but they’re also learning to retell the stories and practicing all sorts of literary skills while they’re doing that,” Shapiro says.
As for what draws people to the medium of live stories, Shapiro says, “I love storytelling just because of the personal connection that it creates between people and how different it is from watching a movie or going on Facebook or any of the other screen-type storytelling that is available. This is more personal and helps people connect with each other. It has to do with eye contact as well as the art of being able to perform with nothing. It is just you and your voice.”
Harley says that he actively tries to foster that sense of connection by developing stories that touch on the universal. “I’m always looking for those little things, or big things, that really highlight what our experience is as humans, or as creatures that live on this planet. That’s where I start.”
He adds, “It might be just this little thing that happens to me, just losing my mind on Christmas Eve or something that is more earth-shaking. I actually tend to avoid things that are too earth-shaking because they’re almost too easy, and most of our lives are not earth-shaking. I’m interested in those small things that somehow highlight who we are as people. I’m looking for that moment when we see the world in a new way.”