Durham Storytellers: Folklore in action

Kathleen Smyth, chair of Durham Storytellers.

Durham Storytellers is fighting to keep the flame of oral tradition burning hot in a culture plagued by mass media distraction.

It’s an organization that, in short, tells stories. It operates in the region as a non-profit and spends its time entertaining and educating audiences.

Kathleen Smyth is chair of Durham Storytellers, which changed its name from Durham Folklore Society in July of 2017.

“More than anything, we would like those traditions to continue in a younger generation,” said Smyth.

She said storytelling is not limited to legends and curiosities of Germanic fairie  tales.  She says it applies to the everyday anecdotes and water cooler conversations regular people incorporate into their daily lives.

Durham Storytellers offer workshops to help people improve their storytelling and public speaking abilities.

The group also does presentations and shows for audiences both for the purpose of maintaining the spirit of oral tradition and to inspire and give hope to people who, according to Smyth, “need a good story.”

Smyth said Durham Storytellers go to women’s shelters and hostels to inspire with stories of strong women.

“They will talk to us afterwards, ‘Oh, those were fantastic stories. I loved those stories,” she said. “It really made me feel a little bit better.’ We’re taking away the things they deal with on a day to day basis and taking them to another place.”

The group held its first meeting in September of 1990 when it was founded by George Blake, who passed at the of 95 in January.

Blake was an active member of the community who also founded Storytellers of Canada and was recognized with the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the African Canadian Achievement Awards.

Smyth said Blake had an incredible passion for storytelling and always walked into meetings excited about what stories the organization would be working on next.

Blake was born in Jamaica. Smyth said a large part of what drove him to start the Folklore Society was his upbringing in an oral tradition based culture.

“That’s where he decided, ‘I’d like to do this here, I’d like to tell my own stories. Folklore from where I came from,’” said Smyth. “With three or four friends they decided they would get together and tell stories…I think the first place they started up was a bar.”

The stories the group tells today are varied. Usually the theme or central message of each story coincides with a specific event they are catering to, for example, World Storytelling Day which occurs annually on the March equinox. This year’s theme was the ‘Wise Fool.’ Stories the organization shares during this event will use that character archetype in their tellings.

Durham Storytellers meets on the third Thursday of every month. Volunteers and visitors take part in the art of storytelling and tell stories from a host of backgrounds, languages, and eras.

However, members are concerned, as the group is lacking in interest from young people.

“We have an aging demographic,” Smyth said. “There are more older people than there are younger people. I think the challenge for us is to maybe become a little more involved with the college and the university, and branch out that way.”

Smyth said the current digital age and the lack of personable skills is in part why they see fewer young people at their meetings.

Currently, Durham Storytellers is bringing its web presence and online presentation up to date.

Members hope an increase in traffic will encourage people to get off their smartphones and start building interpersonal communication skills.