The art of storytelling provides a delightful entryway into other worlds that, like fairy doors, can only be opened, and entered, by those willing to become part of the adventure that waits beyond. Storytellers are performance artists who combine the lore and legend of the past with their own creative energies. Like the oral stories and histories that preceded written language, the story, alive in the mind of the storyteller, is transferred to others gathered around. The cultural roots and realties of the stories’ plots remain with each telling, but woven within the tale are segments of an ever-changing evolution of scenes that bring the tale alive for the storyteller and the audience.
One local storyteller, Cris Riedel, has been weaving wondrous tales in this part of New York State for more than twenty years. Riedels’s journey into storytelling started with an early career as a performance artist in New York City; she holds a BA and MFA in acting. When disability required her to leave that art, she completed an MLS with a concentration in school library. Riedel’s love of stage, stories, and enthusiastic audiences steered her toward a second career as a certified school librarian. It was during her schooling that she met two storytellers who collectively ignited her storytelling spark. The contrast between these two great American storytellers, Jay O’Callahan and Jackie Torrence, inspired Riedel as much as their storytelling magic. O’Callahan would make “laps around the stage” as he told his original stories; whereas Torrence, who focused on traditional tales passed down from her African American ancestors, told her vibrant and engaging tales from the seat of a motorized cart. In seeing the contrast in these storytelling styles, Riedel – facing her own physical challenges – fell in love with the art of storytelling, and saw in it a means of continuing her work as a performer. Her role as a school librarian provided her an ideal setting in which to hone her skills as a professional storyteller.
Storytellers are conduits for tales, Riedel shared; the stories are brought to life by how the tales are told and by the audience’s involvement. When the audience gets “fired up, when they come along for the ride,” the story gets better and the energy in the room increases. Children are often the most honest and, as such, the most challenging audiences. One way she knows the audience has joined fully in the adventure is when it is “pin drop time,” as happens with her Mount Morris group of 3rd to 5th grade story listeners – one of the groups served by her Livingston Arts Grant storytelling program.
The Livingston Arts Grant storytelling program incorporates a different theme each year, with this year’s theme being Building a Better World,” based on a literal interpretation around construction. The number one rule in storytelling, Riedel tells me, is that the storyteller must love the story. So in working around the assigned theme she looks for tales that she loves. Tales such as “Lazy Jack,” about a boy who gets jobs to help his widowed mother. He makes many errors that allow the children to guess at what he will do next. Jacks many mistakes lead, ultimately, to his success.
Humans are hardwired for storytelling, listening to tales prepared us for the unknown and increased our chances of survival as a species. Even in today’s culture, stories play a crucial role in helping us understand possible scenarios and they help us better understand the unknown, reducing fears and increasing acceptance of different cultures. It is this cultural expansion that influences Riedel’s broad storytelling repertoire. She prefers traditional stories from cultures she has an understanding or familiarity with. The range of possible programs includes “Native Northeast,” “Woman Can,” “Tsalagi Tales,” “Bunches of Bugs,” and programs that look at global regions and issues (such as water). These general story destinations are custom fit to the listening audience – young and old alike – while retaining each story’s cultural integrity.
As times have changed, storytelling has become more associated with children, but the earliest storytelling circles, and many remaining traditional circles, are adults only. Fairy tales, fables and legends are based in historical events, and our human past is laden with tragedy, death, battles and suffering. The many book and movie adaptations of these traditional tales, usually for child audiences, have altered the tales and, in doing so, have altered the truth of the cultures of origin. Riedel offers the Three Billy Goats Gruff, a Norwegian tale, as an example. Really, it is “not so nice what happens with the third Billy Goat.” In the first published edition of the story (by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the mid-1800s) the goat “flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade.” Perhaps a fitting end, but brutal and gruesome all the same.
Even faeries are not the gentle wings creatures they are often depicted as. Fairies are not “cute or nice,” says Riedel, “they are wicked little creatures”. Even J.M. Barrie’s 1904 Peter Pan character Tinker Bell is “self serving.” Tinker Bell does help Peter, and she flies around sprinkling fairy dust, but she is spoiled and mean, at times, in the original tale.
Stories come from our desire to explain things, to understand our world, but we listen as much for enjoyment as enlightenment. Professional storytellers know this, and adapt their storytelling to the audience. Faeries will not play a major role in Cris Riedel’s storytelling appearance in Dansville Fairy Fest on July 7, 2016. She will rely on the kinder characters, such leprechauns, to captivate her audience. This storytelling session, like all of Riedel’s sessions, will evolve to meet the needs of the listening audience while staying true to the cultural roots of the stories. Everyone loves a story, so don’t worry if you don’t have a child to take along, to the Fairy Fest, shared Riedel as we parted, all the Fairy Fest events, including the storytelling, are fun for all ages – “Adults need not be accompanied by children.”