Meet the Architect of the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, Coming July 13-14

by Greg Wright

“Pleasures were simpler then,” wrote Indiana novelist Booth Tarkington about the waning days of the 19th century. “But that has never meant less pleasure. Life was slower; but that means there was time to enjoy it a little copiously.”

Dr. Margaret Read MacDonald travels the world telling stories… and, like Tarkington, she is a Hoosier at heart. And, like fellow Indiana storytellers James Whitcomb Riley, Lew Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Theodore Dreiser, George Ade, and even Ernie Pyle, MacDonald is always on the lookout for more great stories to share. She shapes these “found stories” into tellable tales which anyone can share with ease; then, she fills her folktale collections with these winsome yarns. Over the years, she has published dozens of such books.

She hopes that you will read these stories a few times… then put down the book… put down the Kindle or iPad… and just TELL the story to your children. Like Tarkington, MacDonald recognizes that there are pleasures to be had in slowing down, and listening.

To a great degree, the fast-paced entertainment of the 20th century and beyond has spawned the famed “short attention span”—but it has also created a great appetite for the kind of storytelling that MacDonald seeks out and cultivates. Joining her Folklore Ph.D. with her 30-plus years as a children’s librarian, MacDonald’s books and presentations bring folktales to life in playful, lilting language that amazes both readers and listeners—and now, to the great benefit of the Puget Sound region, MacDonald has lent her experience, knowledge, and talents to the creation of a new annual Storytelling Festival in the wonderful natural setting of PowellsWood Garden.

Drawing on her service with both the Seattle Storyteller’s Guild and the National Storytelling Association—not to mention her years as Children’s Librarian with King County—MacDonald has recruited a first-rate slate of “tellers” for the workshops and performances coming July 13 and 14 in Federal Way. Donald Davis, Alton Chung, and Eth-Noh-Tec headline a program filled with wit, drama, and pathos. It’s a highly entertaining mix.

The passion for the material comes naturally. Even as a child, she says, “my head was full of imaginings and I got myself a notebook and started to write poems and plays of my own. My friends and I could make papier-mâché puppets and act out the plays I wrote.” By the time she got to college it dawned on her that the she could make a career out of her passion. “What fun! I got to have a great time every day of my whole life!”

She observes that “people through the ages have told folk tales to each other, and a lot of folk tales talk about things we need to listen to.” I had the chance to ask MacDonald some questions last week, and include a transcript of her responses following the entertaining video below.

Visit the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival website for details.

I’ve read about your thrill of discovering, as a child, the notion of libraries—houses full of books that you could borrow and devour. Did you ever experience a similar sort of storytelling epiphany at some point, where listening to a teller just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for you? Or did the excitement of the oral form just grow on you slowly?

Actually, storytelling yanked me in total surprise into my career as a children’s librarian. The summer of 1964 I had finished all the tortuous courses in science, math reference, and government documents at the UW library school in preparation for my career as a university librarian specializing in Anthropology. I had two courses left and could take anything I wanted. So I decided to just play that summer and signed up for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

My professor, Bernard Polishuk, was Coordinator of Children’s Services at King County Library System. The courses were delightful. On the last day of class, as I crossed campus, our paths met. “Aren’t you in my class?” he asked. “You are going to become a Children’s Librarian!”

“Oh no,” I explained. “These are the only courses I’ve taken in that area. It’s too late to change now.”

“Come to King County!” he exclaimed. “We will train you!”

That morning I told my first ever long story as my final exam. When I finished, Mr. Polishuk leapt to his feet! “Ms. Read! You’ve got to become a Children’s Librarian!”

So I went down to the King County Library headquarters the next week and he hired me. I told stories at all 24 of King County’s libraries that summer and was hooked. Now when I teach storytelling courses, I require my students to tell at least 10 stories during their training. By the time they have told stories 10 times to an audience… they won’t want to stop. The audience gives so much back to you with their own energy, that it makes the hard work of preparing a story something you want to keep doing.

There’s obviously a big difference between telling stories for friends and family and performing for an audience of tellers. How did it feel the first time you participated in a national event?

The audience is half of every storytelling event. Their energy is what keeps the teller afloat.

Donald Davis was once asked if it was very hard to tell to huge audiences of 1,000. He said no. The larger the audience the EASIER it was… because their collective energy just buoyed him up.

I actually don’t remember the first time I told to a large audience in the U.S. But I do remember a 1,000+ audience in Tokoyama City, Japan. I was telling in tandem with a Japanese friend, Masako Sueyoshi. She had invited me because she wanted tellers there to see the lively audience-participation style I use. Everyone told us we would never get the Japanese ladies at that conference to participate. But within seconds we had them on their feet chanting with us! That moment changed the way Masako’s telling could be accepted in Japan and allowed her to teach participation-style telling from then on.

Actor Michael Caine has talked about the joy of working with puppeteers—that his experience on The Muppet Christmas Carol was one of his favorites because puppeteers are such nice people, because the things they value in general are so sweet and joyous. Do you find that the community of tellers has a similar vibe?

For the festivals I help produce I always seek tellers who have wonderful connections with their audiences. These tellers really care about their stories and their listeners. Storytelling tends to be more of a mission than a career. They just do it because they love it so.

There is such a joy in passing on a great story to an eager audience. And in many cultures audiences are involved in the tellings too. I especially love this kind of audience-participation telling. The Whitman Story Sampler, Debra Harris-Branham, and Norm Brecke will be using these techniques in their family programs.

Adult audiences love to just sink into the string of a good story and we have those tellers coming too. Donald Davis will be sharing (usually) hilarious tales built on his own North Carolina childhood. Alton Takiyama-Chung will be presenting the World War II stories of Japanese-Hawaiians and Okinawan-Hawaiians.

In my own work I travel abroad a lot and need to tell through translators. I’ve developed a technique of tandem-telling for this which works quite well, and even wrote a book about this.

But I love seeing tellers who are bilingual and can tell in both languages at the same time! Joe Hayes does this, and I’ve asked him to feature his Spanish-English folktales from New Mexico at our festival.

And some tellers almost cross the line into theater. Eth-Noh-Tec do this with their stylized tandem tellings. Such fun to watch them in action!

Sorry! I took your question about the community of tellers and ranted off into a promo piece for the festival!

And you’re worried about that? I think we’re on safe footing here. Now, you’ve written that “a lot of folk tales talk about things we need to listen to.” In your study of storytelling from around the world, what common, constructive themes do you find running through them?

When I started looking for stories to include in my book Peace Tales: World Folktales To Talk About, I found it rather difficult to discover stories on the themes of kindness, reconciliation, and peace. I was distressed to realize that over the ages humans have told many stories about how-to-kill-the-giant; how-to-get-the-gold; how-to-trick-somebody; how-to-marry-the-prince… but not many stories about getting along with your neighbor.

Today’s tellers, though, look for those stories which do carry positive values and try to include some of those in every performance. And perhaps if we keep telling stories of peaceful reconciliation, we can change the way folks think. By changing our stories, we can change ourselves.

What’s your biggest hope for those who attend the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival?

My biggest hope for the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival is that many many people discover the joy of storytelling—the pleasure of just sinking into a tale and being drawn along by a caring teller. I teach my students that storytelling is not “performance.” Storytelling is a nurturing act. And for this festival I have selected tellers who understand this and come to their audiences with love and care.

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