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Winter 2002

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The Miracle Worker

Feeding the spirits at the Voices in the Mountains festival

By Jo Ann Dadisman
In mid-October the spirits gather from the hills and valleys of West Virginia at Jackson’s Mill, site of the annual Voices in the Mountains state storytelling festival. Thousands of school children attend to learn from and be entertained by the state’s finest tellers.The weekend brings in older festival- goers for varied events, including the favorite Ghost Tales Night, with its pleasures of frightful tales sure to chill the blood of even the heartiest non-believer. Storytelling sessions fill the weekend hours. Kind as well as malevolent spirits are to be found in the tales, but the strongest presence of spirits is in the tellers themselves.

The spirits who gather for the weekend are not other- worldly. Instead, they are the spirit of camaraderie and the spirit of education. Although this festival brings tellers together just once a year, they communicate regularly in anticipation of this long weekend. The Mill opens one of its cottages as a dormitory — so after the day’s events, tellers often talk into the wee hours as they gather to share ideas, resources and telling opportunities. Small groups of performers gather in twos and threes to share stories or songs. In this informal setting, the spirits are fed.

Each year a “story swapping” tent, patterned after the one at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, provides a relaxed setting for tellers to try out new material. It is also a non-threatening environment for young or aspiring tellers. In the swapping tent, as in the regularly scheduled performances, storytellers learn by example from one another. They see different interpretations of tales and ways to improve their own performance skills. This informal setting also feeds the spirits of camaraderie and education.

Throughout the history of the festival, tellers have had opportunities to share informally and to learn from one another, but workshops by featured tellers provide more formal opportunities for learning about the craft of storytelling. In 1999, nationally recognized and award-winning teller Jon Spelman directed a workshop. In 2000, folklorist Wendy Welch and Scottish musician Jack Welch shared the Celtic roots of Appalachian stories, while Marc Harshman conducted a workshop called “Appalachian Storytelling: Sources, Authority and Themes.”

In 2001, workshopping had an even bigger role. Four workshops — a smorgasbord to feed the spirits — addressed a variety of specific needs for teachers, storytellers and performers. On Wednesday evening, Phil Schenk, former radio announcer and current CEO of First Choice Health Care Systems, Inc., conducted a microphone workshop to assist tellers in strengthening their deliveries. By Thursday morning, tellers were already exhibiting improved skills with equipment. On Thursday night, Dr. Judy Byers, a leading folklorist from Fairmont State College, provided a workshop titled “The Story behind the Story of Ghost Tales,” which focused on the historical, social and cultural aspects of West Virginia ghost tales. Saturday brought two workshops, one taught by featured teller Granny Sue, who offered a “Puppets as Storytelling Partners” session to introduce the possibilities of puppets as a tool to enrich story performance; “Telling Scary Stories” was led by the storytelling duo Mountain Echoes for teen storytellers and others interested in ghost tales.

As long as tellers can learn from one another, acquire valuable resources and sharpen their storytelling craft, workshops at the festival will remain a key to the survival and promotion of storytelling in the Mountain State.

For more information about the festival or the West Virginia Storytellers Guild, contact: West Virginia Storytellers Guild, Route 2, Box 110, Sandyville, WV 25275.

Storytelling is for everyone

By Jason Burns

Back at home we have a saying: “Be careful what you do, or you might end up in a Burns Family Vignette.” This quote came from my brother’s girlfriend Shirley, who says that becoming a character in one of my family’s stories is her biggest fear. Because we are a mountain family, a lot of our stories are cautionary tales. For instance, there is a story about a headless horseman who roams the hollow at dark, which is told to keep travelers and children from roaming at night.

Granted, the stories my family tells on the front porch in the evening or around the wood stove during the winter aren’t filled with characters we’ve created. They’re mostly about relatives, friends or acquaintances (some of whom we wish we’d never met). A lot of our stories have been passed down through generations. Some characters were contemporaries of my grandparents and great-grandparents, who’ve played out their parts down through the generations. Storytelling comes as naturally to my family as breathing — and some of our best stories are ghost stories, which happened to be the theme of this year’s West Virginia Storytelling Festival at Jackson’s Mill.

In addition to being a member of the Burns Family troupe of storytellers, I am also a student at West Virginia University. As part of my independent study course in Storytelling, I attended the sixth annual festival at Jackson’s Mill. While there, I gathered information for a paper and a website I am building for the West Virginia Storytelling Guild.

Thursday night found me in the home of David Mann, the director of Jackson’s Mill, surrounded by a fantastic group of storytellers and musicians who were performing at the festival. One of the first people I met was Karen Vuranch. Karen’s specialties are stories of the working class and character performances of several famous women, including Clara Barton and Mother Jones. Her Mother Jones performance is so enlivening and honest that Karen has been asked to not perform it during the coal mine strikes.

For the next few days, I wandered through throngs of eager schoolchildren and storytelling enthusiasts in the quest for knowledge. Storytellers, as I was told by Ilene Evans, a professional storyteller from Thomas, WV, are first and foremost teachers. Ilene gives life to her stories through vocalizations, dancing and song. She said that in order to keep the attention of children, it is necessary to work with every bit of dramatic training she’s been taught and some that she has invented.

Storytellers are in the position to teach. Through stories, they can warn, explain and lend voice to morality. This point was driven home by storyteller Ernie Jack from Wellsburg,WV. One of his stories illustrated the importance of thinking before you speak, because it is impossible to take back your words.

On Saturday afternoon, I attended a ghost story workshop taught by storytellers Jo Ann Dadisman and June Riffle. They stressed the major tools used for telling all stories and showed how to apply them to ghost tales. One thing I learned at the session was the necessity of preparation. I had not realized the amount of time that professional storytellers spend in preparing a story.

“Granny Sue,” a.k.a. Susanna Holstein, uses many techniques to prepare herself. Audiotaping, telling it to a friend and performing the story in front of a mirror are three of them. Only the main parts of the story, or “bones,” are the parts the storyteller memorizes. In the story of Cinderella, these are those bones: Her father remarries a bad woman, the woman has two daughters, Cinderella is forced to be their servant, the royal ball is announced, and so on. Beyond that, the storyteller can fill in the details as needed.

Even if I do not call myself a professional storyteller, I plan to keep on storytelling. It is an enjoyable and traditional pastime for me. Of course, everyone tells stories, whether they realize it or not. A story can be about first love or a trip to the supermarket. Make it fun, make it sad, make it interesting — telling stories is something we can all do.