American Storytelling アメリカのストリーテリング


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.


2 thoughts on “American Storytelling アメリカのストリーテリング

  1. Thank you for this colourful description. I was wondering to what extent you think the formality of Rakugo, with its rules and canon vs. the informality of Western storytelling, where the individuality of the performer is more evidently expressed add or deprive this kind of performance of value or enjoyment. Why do you like Rakugo better?

    • Hi, Diego,

      I apologize for not getting back to your comment sooner than this… you asked some great questions.

      And for your great questions, I have inadequate remarks since all this might be better addressed in a full-length paper. In any case, here are some thoughts as they flow… less answers than more questions, I’m afraid.

      With rakugo, for the most, one has an idea what they’re going to get when they sit down to listen to hanashika do their bit. Listeners know that hanashika will make a more or less unobtrusive entrance, bow politely, make a polite or witty greeting, do their makura intro, get into the main story, and end with an ochi and another bow. Exit stage left. The more one listens to rakugo, the better trained s/he becomes to listen for finer details and nuances, listen for what may be left out or added as the stories grow (or don’t) with each telling. Oh yes, and those mistakes occasionally made –seasoned listeners, for whatever reason, love identifying these too…

      There seems on the surface to be less formality across the board in Western storytelling, but is this really the case? How about the conventions of the individual, or traditions for that. Kirk Waller (see post above) doubtless tells his stories again and again. His telling of “Uncle Cleo” is sure to evolve as time passes, indeed from audience to audience, but what about conventions therein? The stern eyes of Uncle Cleo as he chastises his nephew, the way he rocks in his chair at the beginning of tales then stops at climactic points– do these not become traditions-formalities-even rules, as they are repeated again and again? The storytelling tradition of Uncle Cleo is being passed by Mr. Waller to audiences, and hopefully to his children or students. These conventions will remain traditions if passed on. And as time passes, I have a feeling these conventions will change less than they are reconfirmed and finely tuned.

      The question of whether Kirk Waller learned from somebody — a “master” if you will — is important. And, has or will Mr. Waller take on pupils to teach his art to? It seems that Tim Tingle’s stories are a part of a great American Indian tradition. I don’t know a much about drums in Native cultures we have in the United States, but my impression is that they are indispensable in establishing ceremony, not completely unlike the white fan (hakusen) and deep bowing (ojigi) in Japanese culture. There is something more spiritual about drums in certain American Indian cultures–maybe like drums and even masks in noh?–and this may be a better point of comparison than contrast.

      It seems that if certain American traditions (if we can indeed call them that) haven’t died out, they have become hybrids or simply joined that large category of “storytelling.” The good news is that there are a number of well organized storytelling associations out there and the people involved seem determined to not let storytelling in America become something of the past. This is wonderful.

      Individuality strikes one as something markedly American, and this is the impression I got when listening to the four storytellers I introduced in my post. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when coming across individuality in American arts. Is it not part of our culture, after all? We grow up in the United States being told that it is good to stand out; it is good to be your own individual; it is good to have original ideas and to find your own path… Okay, maybe not all Americans are raised this way, but this is how I was raised. There is a notion that Japan is a largely collective society, and there are some good arguments for this being the case, but my experiences tell me differently. Japanese people– and certainly hanashika –are individuals. As we all know, ego and desiring power is part of human nature. While there is a stricter hierarchy enforced in sectors of Japan such as the rakugo world, Japanese people spend a great deal of energy monitoring hierarchies, trying to determine exactly when it will be their turn to move up, ask for more pay, take on pupils, tell a story different from the way they learned it from their master, etc., etc. So, while there seems to be more formality in rakugo, there is much that lies beneath this surface layer. They are individuals who want stick to tradition, and others just as eager to break from it.

      Why do I like rakugo better? Well, do I? I guess I do right now, because it’s what I know. I’ve been into rakugo for ten years now. It’s what I am comfortable talking about; it’s my specialty. It’s not only this; rakugo truly is a wonderful, enjoyable art. Maybe after I listen to American storytelling twenty or thirty more times I will start saying rakugo storytellers could learn a lot from these guys. Maybe not. As far as rakugo conventions go–the formal entrances, bows, the kimono, the music, the repertoire (keep in mind this is in a constant state of change–there are no scripts adhered to in rakugo), apprenticeships… I love all this. I have a feeling that I am not going to find much of this in American traditions as they exist today.

      Since I know so little about Western storytelling, I should really pick up a book or two on it. Until then, I would love it if anybody could chime in and help us to understand better.

      Grazie mille, Diego,


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