Storytelling finds new life through pop-up events
By KIM MULFORD
Aug. 20, 2018
HADDONFIELD, N.J. (AP) — Tucked within the well of Haddonfield's Inkwood Books one Sunday afternoon, Shirley Hough settled in for a chat with rapt teenagers gathered there to hear her stories.
The longtime widow told them about her beloved husband's marriage proposal and the happy life they built together in Haddonfield — all prompted when he caught sight of her photograph.
"I'm so grateful," Hough told the teens, as a smile danced over her 86-year-old features at the memory. "I've been lucky."
In libraries, bookstores, nursing homes, arts centers and festivals, storytelling events are seeping into South Jersey's cultural scene, elevating stories from everyday lives and offering new opportunities for listeners to absorb an ancient art form.
"Storytelling is not just a way to have a conversation, but to truly build a community," said Benita Cooper of Haddonfield, founder of The Best Day of My Life So Far. The nonprofit prompts older participants like Hough to share their memories with young people in casual settings, such as its recent pop-up event here, "Real Life. Real Stories."
Done right, a story connects people and creates relationships, said Cooper.
That same communal spirit flutters within The Butterfly, a monthly storytelling forum hosted by Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood. Held on the fourth Tuesday of each month except July and August, the concerts share the mic with both professional and amateur tellers.
Performances at The Butterfly aren't judged, as they are in some competitive storytelling forums, such as The Moth at World Café Live in Philadelphia, said Karen Abdul-Malik, aka Queen Nur, director of Perkins' Folklife Center.
Rather, they are celebrated.
At one Butterfly event, Abdul-Malik recalled, a woman relayed a true story about finding a love note from her deceased husband, during a moment when she was shattered with grief. As she tried to explain it away as a coincidence, the audience told her no — it could only be a message from the other side.
"Being able to tell that story lifted her," recalled Abdul-Malik. "To me, that had more meaning. That's what it's meant to do."
At New Jersey Storytelling Network's festival in September, listeners can become tellers during the annual event's Story Slam held at the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township, Mercer County.
Relayed from memory, stories are judged and prizes are awarded, said President Kathryn Weidener. Points are lost for stories that spill over the five-minute time limit, wander off track, or flit away into the fanciful.
Though it's said many people fear public speaking more than death, the festival's story slams remain popular year after year, drawing smiles, frowns, laughter and tears from every audience, Weidener said.
Why are amateurs stepping up to the mic?
"People are a little more open because of social media," mused Weidener. "I also think people may feel this is a live thing and, gee, what do live people think of me? They're willing to put themselves out there."
And maybe in a subliminal way, she said, it's a chance to reach out and explain we're not so different from one another.
Professional teller Denise McCormack of Bordentown City has noticed a theme among the stories she's heard at such events. Often, people share personal stories about how they endured the trials and tribulations of life.
"It's almost like sharing miracles," said McCormack. "Today where churches are losing their membership, this is almost a place to go connect with people so that people can be empathetic to the teller."
Ian Hanley of Maple Shade, a licensed clinical social worker, loves to tell stories in front of an audience as a way to let off steam. He crafts his own stories and retells them from memory. Sometimes, he throws in a story drawn from his own life or old folk tales.
"I enjoy creating and telling them, and hearing people's responses," said Hanley, who delivered a comedic tale last month at The Butterfly. "It's fun."
Irma Gardner-Hammond of Philadelphia weaves professional storytelling into her work as a music therapist. A member of the storytelling organization, Keepers of The Culture, Gardner-Hammond said storytelling is not just an art form, but a tool for teaching.
Older people always have stories to tell, she said, but they don't always pass them down.
"People think they're not important, but everybody has a story," said Gardner-Hammond, who recently performed at The Butterfly.
She held up her aunt as an example, a nursing home resident who was reluctant to talk about what it was like to grow up on the eastern shore of Maryland during the Jim Crow era. She later had five children, all college graduates.
Gardner-Hammond persuaded her elder to share her experiences with younger people, so they might be inspired by her example. She did so, during a gathering to celebrate her life.
"We have an obligation to tell stories and help other people," Gardner-Hammond said. "Everybody's story is important."
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/