The Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture (CCWOC) opened in 2008. It’s the first institution of its kind in North America, focusing on creative practices and scholarly research in both oral and literary cultural activities. It serves the University of Manitoba, and the wider community. The CCWOC is well resourced, with a state of the art recording studio and a writing laboratory. Other artists in residence had produced audio recordings, video art, publications and performances. These previous writers/tellers in residence came from a variety of impressive backgrounds, so it was an honour to follow them.
The role involved some teaching and storytelling, but I had freedom and time to work on writing projects I wished to pursue. When the writer or teller is in residence, one of her or his duties is to host a weekly storytelling circle. This can take the form of a story-swap, a workshop, or can focus on developing a group publication, recording or performance. Each week I led a storytelling workshop that took the form of a structured course, in order to cover various storytelling projects I’d participated in which were not so common in Canada (such as Kick into Reading, the football and storytelling project promoting literacy, and Listen Up! and Writing Together, and other long-term school residencies). I also held office hours to meet students, staff, and members of the community seeking comments on their creative writing, or advice regarding their own storytelling. The CCWOC supports all University departments, not just the Creative Writing and English degree courses, so many lecturers and professors also asked me to speak to their students on how storytelling and oracy related to their disciplines, such as education, kinesiology, history, archiving, and community and international relations. Encouraged to take part in various readings, conferences, seminars and symposia happening while I was in residence, and to join in social and arts events in the community via CCWOC’s strong links with many organisations, I met a fair number of Manitoba storytellers and storytelling enthusiasts keen to share experiences.
Stone Soup Storytelling
Kay Stone, storyteller, writer and folklorist, is one of a large group of people who started Stone Soup Storytellers thirty years ago. Kay, then a lecturer on children’s literature and folklore, began a non-credit course at the University of Winnipeg. Twelve people signed up, and they met in a children’s bookstore. When the course finished, everyone wanted it to go on, and the shop happily continued as host. It was agreed that they’d all run the group, with no one person in charge. Kay certainly couldn’t, as she was just going on sabbatical.
Collectively they devised a name and a way of going on. Everyone added their own ingredient to the project, hence the name Stone Soup Storytellers. They decided to sit in a circle, and not feature any guest as a solo teller. The story stick would go around with everyone in the circle getting a turn to tell or listen, as they wished when the stick came to them. Occasionally they had a guest, but that visitor’s turn was strictly limited to twenty or thirty minutes at most, and such featured guests were rare; Dan Yashinksy was one, Jan Andrews another. Stone Soup Storytellers assured that everyone had a turn. That was the key to its success—all contributed, the format was kept simple and there was never a plan to make it big, to aim at sharing stories, rather than performing them.
Stone Soup Storytellers were at the children’s bookshop for two years. When it was sold, the group moved around several venues over the decades. The format worked everywhere, whether two or three people or a bigger group turned up at the space. Gatherings of like-minded souls wanting to share stories made each event pleasant and successful. They found it helpful having the same venue two years or more—meeting once a month, the continuity helped build and maintain regular participation.
One popular venue was Heaven Café, although they settled there after much discussion. Because of its layout, it required dropping the circle and sitting cabaret style. They feared this would lead to greater separation of teller and listener and a more formal performative mode. However, they maintained their philosophy and style of practice by keeping the story stick going around the room. Heaven saw some of the best storytelling they had over all their years, and also attracted their biggest crowds. The café ‘s popularity brought new listeners and tellers every time. They found, however, it was best never to be too big. Kay thinks the largest groups numbered around forty, though Mary Louise Chown, another stalwart of Stone Soup (and other Manitoba storytelling institutions and events), claimed that sometimes as many as a hundred participants attended Heaven Café.
Organisation ranged form informal to mildly organised, but never too organised. Early on they contacted a more experienced storytelling leader, Dan Yashinksy, in Ottawa. He advised:
1. No one person as the leader—that would lead to someone dominating, defining everything.
2. Meet regularly
3. Don’t push into a direction you don’t want (e.g., don’t do a festival or some big project just because some thinks that the group should or there’s a chance of money or wider publicity…. and don’t create a membership with membership fees and so on just because some one’s keen on organising)
4. Bigger is not better.
It’s a considerable achievement, not only to maintain a storytelling event for thirty years, but also to do so by sharing administrative duties, all negotiated and determined by group consensus. The only rule was no reading aloud. This was mainly because there were plenty of book groups and creative writing guilds at the time, so chances to read aloud were plentiful. But none of these meetings provided chances to tell stories.
When Stone Soup Storytellers did do a festival, it was small, informal, and local. Called Tall Grass Tales it ran for three years. Only storytellers in their region were involved, with payment made by bringing food to share. In the morning, tellers did a turn each. Then the circle opened to any wanting to tell a tale. They then divided into workshop circles, each smaller circle exploring whatever they wished. More experienced tellers led some of these circles. These smaller groups could spend the day with everyone sharing stories. They could also focus on a particular topic, or ask experienced tellers to guide them on issues causing concern, practical exercises, or discussions. The festival was successful as their regular Stone Soup meetings, due to the flexibility of organisers and participants.
At the end of their two years there, Heaven Café was sold, leading to them trying various venues. They finally settled at Aqua Books, a quirky second-hand bookshop, café, and arts centre in Downtown Winnipeg. This shop hosted Stone Soup Storytelling for the longest period. The venue was free, but not always ideal: as a busy venue sometimes music or noise spilled over from other events, parking was difficult being in the city centre, and some participants felt uncomfortable in Downtown late at night.
The Stone Soup Storytelling night I attended was the last at Aqua Books. Eleven folks took part, two of whom wandered off the street (and one of those newcomers told his first story). There was a wonderful mix of traditional stories, personal and family stories, and a group-shared telling with Kay starting off the tale of ‘Stone Soup’ then passing the telling of it around with everyone adding their own ‘bits’. It was a charming evening. It reminded me very much of storytelling evenings one finds at Wexford Story Houses. They, too, gather groups of people who know each other, meet regularly, and pass the story stick around so that anyone who wishes can share a story, poem, recitation or song.
Recently Aqua Books has entered a phase of change and relocation. Though the shop will go on, while I was there it’s future uncertain, so Stone Soup Storytellers chose to open a new chapter. The original plan was to keep the format but meet in private homes, with occasional special storytelling events in public spaces. Since I returned from Canada, Stone Soup Storytellers have seen exciting developments promising a strong period of growth. McNally Robinson Booksellers have invited them to meet at their Winnipeg store. This is one of the biggest and most impressive bookshops ever seen, and a popular place with readers and culture vultures. Along with an impressive wide range of books, and a café offering great coffee and delicious treats (as many bookshops do these days), it is so large that by my count there were at least four areas for readings, book launches, children’s story times, and arts and crafts workshops (including sewing lessons!). Every time I popped in the store was busy and its events drew substantial crowds. This new home suggests Stone Soup Storytellers could be in for another successful thirty years.
The Storytelling Guild of Manitoba and Other Resources and Events
The Storytelling Guild of Manitoba started three years ago. Storytellers in Winnipeg and the province as a whole wanted an umbrella group connecting tellers, listeners and storytelling enthusiasts, and informing every one of storytelling activities around Manitoba. Mary Louise Chown and Wyne Drury, co-chairs of the Guild, are two active, popular, excellent storytellers with a long respected record in Canadian storytelling. Much like Storytellers of Ireland, the Guild promotes storytelling to wider audiences by providing information. It has a database of storytellers, lists events on their website, develops and disseminates resources, and organises workshops and meetings with visiting storytellers.
A special resource The Storytelling Guild of Manitoba can be proud of is the Joyce Birch Memorial Library at University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures (CYPTC). Joyce Birch was a nationally renowned teacher/librarian and a founding member of Stone Soup Storytellers, and a much-loved, respected storyteller. She donated her library to the Guild when she passed away. Stored in the CYPTC, it’s a great collection and available not only to the storytellers but also to postgraduate students and visiting academics.
There were numerous storytellers working in schools and community projects, similar to the work we see our colleagues doing through Poetry Ireland’s Writers-in-Schools scheme and other educational and community programmes. And besides the Stone Soup storytelling gatherings, there were also occasional performances in arts centres or, more often, in private homes. Across Canada and the United States, it’s become common for storytelling, and folk and traditional music enthusiasts, to gather for ‘House Concerts’. Some one with a room large enough for 40 or 60 people to gather hosts the event, with everyone making a financial contribution to cover the artists’ fees and expenses, and bringing food and drink to share. I attended one such House Concert, ‘The Dark of the Year’, with Michael Cobus, Kevin Scott, Tom Roche, Kay Stone and Mary Louise Chown, and music by Maniconomic. Being in early November the event celebrated the change of season and moving back of clocks, with stories and music from around the world exploring themes of light and darkness.
Other good news arriving from Canada recently tells of more big developments in Manitoba. St. Boniface Museum has begun weekly Sunday storytelling sessions in French and English. St. Boniface is a lively French-speaking community in Winnipeg, a neighbourhood settled and developed by the French explorers in the 17th Century. It maintains the Université de Saint-Boniface and many other social and cultural venues supporting French speakers. The House Concerts continue, with variations, such as a ‘Flavors of India’ evening at Charisma Restaurant, with performances by Canadian and Canadian-Indian tellers and musicians.
The Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival and The Thin Air Literature Festival and Tantalizing Glimpses of Storytelling Activity in Other Parts of Canada
Jessica Senehi, who works at University of Manitoba as Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Stories in the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice, is the organiser and director of the Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival. This event, happening in May and involving regional storytellers and tellers from abroad, is free to the public, and 2011 was the sixth festival. Jessica’s academic research focuses on narrative’s role in conflict resolution and cross-cultural exchange. Performances, workshops, and story sharing happen in schools, community centres, and libraries, not just one festival space. Featured storytellers in 2011 included Liz Weir and Dovie Thomason, two well-known faces for SoI members. Jessica’s husband, Sean Byrne, is from Ireland, and director of the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice. He shares her passion for storytelling, especially with regards to the way storytelling brings people together to play a role in restorative justice.
The Thin Air Festival happens in September around the time the teller/writer- residency at CCWOC begins. This literature festival also takes place across the city, in theatres, libraries, bookshops, schools and community centres. It features many prominent local writers, poets and storytellers, as well as verbal artists from across Canada and abroad. For me this was a great introduction the city and its people, and to many brilliant Canadian titles one wouldn’t discover over here (Canadian publications rarely get distributed in the USA or Europe).
Kay Stone reported that other regions had activities similar to Stone Soup Storytellers. Alberta had lots going on, and Edmonton had an active storytelling swap that at one time met once a week. Saskatoon also had a successful storytelling group for a while. Many groups did appear to get bogged down doing big things, like running festivals. These seemed to take over, so that organisers burnt out, or ran out of funding sources, making continuity difficult. Of course, the biggest storytelling scene in Canada emanates from The Toronto School of Storytellers. Many Irish tellers have visited Toronto, and there are strong links between the two places going back to Alice Kane, the Ulster storyteller and librarian who did so much to influence storytelling and children’s library work in Canada. Kay acknowledged the huge influence of Toronto storytelling on the rest of Canada, and the city continues to play an influential role on the art form across the country.
Experiences as a writer and teller in residence in a place so new to me provided experiences causing me again to see the world as very small or utterly synchronistic. When I spoke at The Peace and Justice Centre and met Sean and Jessica, the work of people there reminded me of the work of so many SoI members (Jan Caspers, Liz Weir, Aideen McBride, Clare Murphy, and Jack Lynch to name but a few). They all have been involved in cross community storytelling and projects helping immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers share their narratives. And similar thoughts arose when talking with a few of the Aboriginal tellers I met. Just as Ireland has a strong traditional strain of storytelling, so does Canada, contributed by First Nations’ people. Manitoba alone has sixty-three First Nations, including six of the largest bands in Canada, with five First Nations linguistic groups: Cree, Ojibway, Dakota, Ojibway-Cree, and Dene. They maintain their languages and traditions, even through substantial historic and contemporary challenges, similar to those of Native Peoples in other parts of the world. The little Aboriginal storytelling I heard appeared integrated into intimate social interaction, rather than taking the form of a big, formal performance styles seen in some modern telling. In a few formal examples, it was applied as testimony for restorative justice and in truth and reconciliation initiatives.
Time and a limited ability to travel due to my own work meant I heard little traditional storytelling. One teller at Stone Soup related a marvellous Coyote story, improvised in parts and incorporating traditional and personal elements. I was delighted to meet Margaret Lavallee, the Aboriginal Elder in Residence at University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne Campus, the site of the Medical School and Hospital. She is of the Sagkeeng First Nation, and as Elder-in-Residence for the Centre for Aboriginal Health Education, provides cultural oversight for the centre, directing events while supporting Aboriginal students in the health professions. Margaret was keen to share stories, and learn about Irish folklore regarding leprechauns, fairies, and little people. I told her of Eddie Lenihan’s work, and described several piseogs regarding fairy thorn trees, fairy forts (and winds and roads, and so on), and customs surrounding these. Margaret reported similar beliefs and stories among her traditions: tales of little people who protect places in nature and inflect serious consequences upon humans who disturb them.
Many personal stories of individuals and groups are related through sharing, rather than performance. These arise from a process of truth and reconciliation regarding Aboriginal students’ experiences in Residential Schools. As happened in many places as a result of colonization and missionary movements, Canadian Aboriginal children were often treated appallingly, forced to abandon their language, traditions and beliefs while living far from their families. There was physical, emotional and sexual abuse. There is also much debate regarding treaties and land rights, and decisions making an impact on the environment. Now many are bearing witness to these experiences, through oral history projects, and literature, drama, film and storytelling.
One of the most delightful artists I heard was Tomson Highway of the Cree Nation, a celebrated writer and musician. Asked to speak at a university conference, his stories related what life was like in the far north when he was young, before boarding school, and how his life led to many joyful experiences and continues to do so. His vivid, passionate storytelling and charming personality made the fresh, clear wide-open spaces of northern Manitoba so real and appealing that one wanted to go there.
Towards the end of my residency the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Aboriginal Students held its first Day of Learning by premiering a documentary film. Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners. This told of ten First Nation men, nine of whom were in residential schools, who ran from Minneapolis to Winnipeg carrying the torch to open the 1967 Pan Am Games. When these teen runners arrived at the stadium after tracing the 800 kilometre ancient message route, they were not allowed to enter; the torch was handed to a white runner to do the honour. Thirty-two years after, when the 1999 Pan Am Games returned to Winnipeg, the Manitoba province issued an official apology and invited the men to open those ceremonies. Their stories were made into a successful play and this film. Three of the frontrunners, Patrick Bruyere, Fred Harper, and Charlie Nelson, attended the Learning Day, and each stood in turn to relate their memories and comment on their stories. This was one of the most moving and powerful oral narrative experiences I’ve ever witnessed.
In Kay’s opinion, the difference between the USA and Canada storytelling scenes is one of scale. Rather than put the focus on huge American festivals with big name tellers whom librarians from all over the States come to adore as featured performers, Canadian storytelling events were always participatory, and more local, incorporated into a wider setting like a community centre or popular public venue. Everyone was encouraged, and events depended always on local tellers taking part.
In this I saw parallels with Irish storytelling. One of Irish storytelling’s many strengths is its variety, along with a strong sense of inclusiveness, intimacy, and connection to the local community. Whereas England, Wales and Scotland do often go for big festivals and names, and lots of publicity and large-scale projects, Ireland’s Yarnspinner, Milk and Cookie Stories, and Story House events, and the Irish storytelling festivals, always feature a significant amount local involvement, personal sentiment, informality and participation. Looking at the history of storytelling in Manitoba the last 30 years, this sort of storytelling has sustainability, with lots going for it.
CCWOC has developed strong links with Poetry Ireland. Any Irish tellers or writers who make it to this part of Canada in the future will find a warm welcome and a wealth of storytelling.
The Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture http://umanitoba.ca/centres/ccwoc/
Stone Soup Storytellers
The Manitoba Storytelling Guild
The Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival
Thin Air – Literature Festival of Winnipeg
Storytellers of Canada – Conteurs du Canada