Storytellers breathe life into characters

Photo by Tommy Morais

Durham Folklore Storytellers offers creative minds a place to share and listen to stories

In small room at the Northview Community Centre in Oshawa, Kathleen Smyth tells her small audience, in her own words, The Silver Bell, an old Japanese folklore tale.

In the story, a villager visits a monk to borrow the church’s bell. He always wanted to have that bell. The villager is granted the bell with the condition that he must return it the following morning. When the bell is missing, the monk sends one of his own to search for it. Both the villager and the man sent by the monk are found dancing happily and uncontrollably around the bell. More people try to return the bell to the church. Same result. It is then implied a never-ending human chain would be formed, one where everyone would be happy and dancing for no particular reason.

“But what would be so wrong with that?,” asks Smyth before getting up and dancing herself, beaming smile, prompting a few in the room to join her.

By the time Smyth finished the tale, it felt as if the entire room had moved. Laughs were exchanged and many praised the story.

People like stories. They always have, likely always will.

Before the printing press and the internet, stories were traditionally passed on orally. Like painting or sculpting, storytelling is something of an art. The Durham Folklore Storytellers certainly believe so.

The storytellers consisting of around 8-12 members on any given meeting, are mostly seniors. They tell everything from fairy-tale stories to real-life stories. Every Thursday they get together to share tales, poems, sometimes singing and dancing their way through a story. Pictures are painted using only words, relying on the listener’s imagination. None of the club’s members are particularly shy, but they do like to turn off the light to get into storytelling mode.

The storytellers will often change their voices, altering tone and pitch when necessary so as to breathe life into the characters that lie within the story.

“One thing I find is the voices just come out. I told this story in a British accent. The story made me do it. It just happens, this particular story chose me,” says Kathleen Smyth, public relations for the Durham storytellers.

Enid DeCoe, treasurer of the group, believes telling a story orally is truly a special experience.

“What I do is I tell a story to your eyes. I can tell a story just by making eye contact,” says DeCoe. “I may talk about a scarf, but I won’t say what it looks like so you’ll have to use your imagination. We all see different things, that’s part of the beauty of storytelling.”

How does one become a good storyteller? With time and practice.

“It’s like when you write or act, it takes a long time,” explains storyteller Heather Whaley. “You become less inhibited about telling. Once you become connected to it, you tell the story.”

The same story can often be found in different cultures, each with twists that make them unique to their geography.

“You’ll read a story and you find out versions of it exist in different cultures,” says group chair Irene Johnston. “It’s fascinating.”

Every member of the group has a unique story about how they became storytellers. A few were told stories by their parents and developed a taste for it. Others took storytelling classes later on in life. Some have always had it in them.

“I was a kid in India at a party when they told me to take care of other kids. I was as small as them. We had no TV back then if you can imagine that. I started telling stories. Then I would do it on Saturdays and kids and adults would gather,” says travelling storyteller Summi Siddique.

Members of the Durham Folklore Storytellers encourage different ways to tell a story; using a traditional talking stick, alternate voices, dancing, the list goes on. Above all they like to tell stories. Regardless of the method used, the group unanimously agrees on one thing – there is no one correct way to tell a story.