Storytelling comes alive at festivals

Whether as art form, everyday skill or pastime, storytelling is taking off in Singapore, with at least two festivals taking place this year

It is a Wednesday night and writer Paul Rozario is telling a story.

In the spare room of a cafe, an audience of 20 laughs and gasps as the 46-year-old recounts how he spent the night in a Djibouti jail after a mistaken arrest.

This is Telling Stories Live, a fledgling storytelling circle in Singapore, where strangers from economists to ex-convicts gather to listen to one another tell stories.

Speech coach Petrina Kow, 41, who co-founded the free monthly sessions in 2015, says: "Everyone has a story to tell, it's only a matter of taking the time to listen to each other."

It is a big year for storytelling in Singapore, whether as art form, everyday skill or pastime.

Next month, the inaugural StoryFest will kick off at The Arts House, where 23 local and international storytellers will perform and hold workshops for the public from June 2 to 4.

And a new non-profit organisation, Story Connection, was incorporated last month to run two- year-old 398.2 Storytelling Festival.

Organisers say this will not only allow them to expand the festival this November, but also hold more community activities throughout the year.

StoryFest organiser Kamini Ramachandran, 48, notes that there has been a resurgence in storytelling in Singapore, but that such festivals are also crucial to prevent this wave from tapering out, especially when it comes to keeping a younger generation of storytellers hooked.

"It's a great way to sustain an art form that is constantly being threatened," she says.

Kamini Ramachandran is the Creative Producer of StoryFest. PHOTO: THE STORYTELLING CENTRE LTD

Storytelling is a craft of diverse purposes, one that can be used to lull a child to sleep, enhance a company's corporate culture or even win a war, say those in the industry.

The storytelling scene in Singapore first bloomed in 1998, when American storyteller Cathy Spagnoli organised a workshop in Singapore that inspired a wave of budding talespinners, including Sheila Wee, now 59 and president of the Storytelling Association (Singapore).

The association currently has 67 members, 21 of whom are professional storytellers. It was founded in 2006 by 11 professional storytellers and had 40 members by the time it was launched as the first registered storytelling society in the region.

Ramachandran says the spread of events at StoryFest is meant to appeal variously to children, teenagers and adults, and to showcase different facets of storytelling. "I want people to know that there is more to storytelling than just the personal or the oral tradition."

A tradition that bridges cultures

The festival will feature international names such as Xanthe Gresham-Knight from Britain, who will perform the Asian premiere of The Shahnameh (The Book Of Kings), based on the epic poem written by Persian poet Ferdowsi more than 1,000 years ago.

Gresham-Knight has been performing The Shahnameh, which tells stories from the beginning of time to the fall of the Persian Empire in the seventh century, in Europe for close to two decades.

Other festival highlights include Australian storyteller Jackie Kerin, who will use the Japanese kamishibai method to tell tall tales from her native land; and British clinical psychologist Steve Killick, whose workshop on building emotional literacy through storytelling has already sold out.

Arts House chief executive Sarah Martin says: "In a rapidly evolving world, storytelling is one of the ancient traditions that bridges cultures and connects us to our inner child. It is timeless and manifests in various aspects of our lives."

"We are hard-wired for story," says Wee, who has taught the uses of storytelling in several areas, including early childhood education, corporate leadership and the military.

She describes a study conducted by the United States military into how stories could be weaponised to win over civilian populations in areas where they had military operations.

"If you're trying to persuade somebody, maybe you cannot influence them through facts," she says. "But you can give them a better story."

Last month, Wee joined another veteran storyteller, Roger Jenkins, in setting up the non-profit Story Connection to better run the 398.2 Storytelling Festival, which is named after the Dewey classification code for folktales in the library.

Jenkins started the festival in 2015 to fill the gap left behind when the annual Singapore International Storytelling Festival, which the National Book Development Council of Singapore had founded in 2006, ceased to run in 2014.

Last year's festivities at Woodlands Regional Library and the Asian Civilisations Museum drew about 1,500 people a day, over two days.

For the third festival, over two days at the National Library and Tampines Hub this November, Jenkins hopes bigger spaces and better visibility can bring the number up to about 2,000 a day.

Outside of 398.2, Story Connection is organising more community- based storytelling events, such as an inclusive carnival in September at the Enabling Village that could explore storytelling for the blind and deaf.

On Sunday, it began a monthly family-friendly event called Sunday Funday at the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, where they hope to pair younger storytellers with more experienced ones to perform.

Jenkins, 64, says: "We didn't have that when we started out, this support to develop someone's confidence and repertoire.

"I don't know how many more years we have left as practising storytellers. It's good to have new generations taking on the mantle."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Storytelling comes alive'. Subscribe