I’ve been meaning to post about my experience of listening to storytelling at “Hearing Voices Storytelling Festival,” the finale of which was held right here in my hometown on April 8th.
Four acclaimed storytellers performed at the finale, and I enjoyed each very much. I made some notes about each teller and story, keeping in mind rakugo and hanashika.
The first three tellers — Leslie Slape, Habiba Addo, and Kirk Waller — narrated their stories much like authors of books. At points I would close my eyes and feel as if I were listening to talented readers of short stories.
Slape, who told the story “The Toy Piano,” incorporated little theatrical delivery, but this worked nicely because it felt as though she were speaking directly to the audience; this story for this particular audience. Her personal approach felt somewhat like the makura of rakugo.
Addo, who told “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” was quite theatrical in her delivery, including boisterous vocal interludes that went right to the heart. Different from Slape’s approach, Addo placed an invisible wall between her stage and the audience. Addo’s story was enjoyable live, but it might be equally enjoyable on CD or DVD.
Waller presented his stories, “Summer Time: Shasta Creek” and “Uncle Cleo,” with a nice mix of teller-audience interaction and theatrical performance. He also incorporated well his great sense of humor. Waller also incorporated more character dialogue, which allowed his protagonists to give the stories more life. Upon finishing, Waller received a kind compliment from the finale’s headliner, Tim Tingle, who told him his level of comedy and delivery could be likened to the great American comedian Bill Cosby’s.
Tim Tingle’s story was the longest, most detailed, and most powerful. His skillful and humorous prelude made audience fall in love with him almost immediately, and, before we knew it, he was smoothly into story proper. I am sure I speak for the entire audience when I say I was on the edge of my seat for the entire story, hungry for and satisfied by each new word, wishing it would never end. The audience laughed, cried, then laughed more. Tingle told “Crossing Bok Chitto” with tremendous expertness and perfect timing. It was a powerful ninjôbanashi-like human drama that earned him not one but two standing ovations. He used the narrator’s voice several times in the course of his story, but the heroes did most of the talking, and this is one more thing that made Tingles telling more like rakugo than any other stories told at the finale. Tingle is a seasoned, top-rate storyteller that all storytellers — aspiring hanashika included — could learn much from.
I found numerous points of comparison between the stories told at “Hearing Voices” and those at yose, but there were also many points of contrast. This is doubtless because rakugo consists of so much convention, all passed down generation to generation, master to pupil. Conventions such as wearing kimono, and kneeling and bowing head to floor before saying a word, make rakugo feel much more formal than the stories told at “Hearing Voices.” In the latter, American artists performed standing up, and in the clothes of their choice. Both are undeniably sophisticated oral art forms, however, more than capable of moving listeners to laughter, tears, and all the emotional phenomena in between.
I still prefer professional rakugo, but, until I can get back to Japan for a day at the yose, I will be more than happy to continue hearing and learning from the storytellers in the Portland Storytellers Guild and other American storytelling groups affiliated with the National Storytelling Network.