by Greg Wright

Dolphin Tale is polished, inspiring, and moving.  It seems there’s almost always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.

That’s the post-screening blurb I fed the publicists who shepherded me and a dozen or so other journalists through the press junket for Dolphin Tale in Clearwater Florida, the home of Winter—the disabled dolphin who is the subject of the film.

dolphin-tale-inset2Now… rewind to about 24 hours before that.  Almost to a man and a woman (if critics can be so classed as such), the troupe of which I was a part was not expecting much out of Dolphin Tale, positioned as it is in the late-summer back-to-school dumping ground that historically features cinematic also-rans and never-will-bes.  And when Hollywood gets its hands on such “true story” topics as this, well, the odds of hitting a home run are pretty slim.

But here are some things going for Dolphin Tale that Those of Us Who Should Know Better would have done well to take into account.

  • The film is produced by much of the same team that made The Blind Side—another fall feature that surprised the hell out of an entire industry.  Dolphin Tale even features some of the same character actors in minor roles.
  • Director Charles Martin Smith, while neither a household name nor a cineaste’s pick for Auteur of the Year, has over the years been a student and chosen instrument of bona fide auteurs like George Lucas, Brian de Palma, and Carroll Ballard.  And like the animal film master that Ballard is, Smith has himself chalked up one other animal genre classic: Air Bud.  So while you might not peg Smith as the likeliest guy to direct what may be the best feel-good movie of the year, he’s at least got the pedigree for it.
  • Kris Kristofferson as a grandpa + kids + animal star = Dreamer… or Dolphin Tale.  Get it?

Still, nothing is ever a given in this industry—because so many things can go wrong between pitch and premiere—and lightning rarely strikes twice. Dolphin Tale nonetheless shook our whole jaded crew out of its stupor and left us enthralled.

For those of you who haven’t heard yet, the film tells the gussied-up story of Winter, who lost her tail in a tangle with crab pots, and was rescued by a Clearwater aquarium.  When she was fitted with a prosthetic tail to save her life, she became an international celebrity.  The film invents subplots about Sawyer, a shy pre-teen with a deadbeat dad, and his cousin Kyle, a local swimming champion who goes off to war and comes back disabled… like Winter.  And when the story also introduces another subplot about a widower marine biologist and his chirpy home-schooled (also pre-teen) daughter, well… you can just imagine the saccharine waters this film might drift off into.

But it doesn’t.

And I can tell you precisely the moment it won me over, completely.  But I won’t, as it might spoil that magical sequence for you.  But go see the film, and I bet you a fin you can pick out that scene in a heartbeat.  It’s an inspired, thrilling bit of filmmaking that invokes Ballard’s The Black Stallion.

I was also not only right but almost prescient about asserting that “there’s always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.”  Says Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a cute story if you don’t mind temporarily trading in your cynicism for a bag of popcorn.” MSN Movies: “If it doesn’t bring a tear or two to your eye, you might need a visit to the cardiologist to see what you’ve got in there in place of a heart.” The Arizona Republic: “Attacking a film like this for being a tad cloying seems to be missing the point. … It’s like getting mad at a dog for barking.”  Rex Reed: “I dare even the most jaded cynic not to shed a tear of admiration and joy.”  And these are not marketing quotes, but excerpts posted at, which earlier this year hung Soul Surfer out to dry.

Need we say more?  Well, we could.  That’s pretty much the critical consensus rolling in, and glowing blurbs abound.  But we’ll (almost) stop here.

While I agree with other critics that the Motion Picture Academy will probably not be thinking of Dolphin Tale come time for acting nominations, performances are really quite excellent across the board.  Young Nathan Gamble, who’s had some pretty high-profile minor roles to date in his young career, reminds me an awful lot of Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terebithia) and was a brilliant find to cast as Sawyer.  The supporting roles are so understated that Gamble (and Winter, playing herself) have no choice but to carry the film.  And carry it they do.

On the thematic front, Dolphin Tale fares well, too.  One thread focuses on the willpower that is within all of us to persevere.  That’s exemplified by Winter—who also, in real life, proves a daily inspiration for kids and adults alike—and amplified by the fictional characters of Sawyer and Kyle.  “Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken,” Morgan Freeman’s doctor reminds Kyle.

The other thread carries a decidedly spiritual bent: the idea that we’re not alone in our struggles.  As Dr. Haskett (the marine biologist, played by Harry Connick Jr.) contemplates the demise of his aquarium, his pop (Kristofferson) offers some marine insight, reminding his son of one of his favorite poems, “Sea Fever”: “‘All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ … Just because we haven’t got to where the star is pointing doesn’t mean it’s the wrong star.”  And that kind of leads into the sequel, too…

I’ll just close with the best note I jotted during the screening: “You invest in the things you want to invest in.”

I said that.  And I’ll say again:  I’ve invested in Dolphin Tale.  I think you’ll be happy you did, too.

Dolphin Tale is is available online via Redbox. and Amazon Instant Video.

by Greg Wright

On September 12 Warner Bros. will release the sequel to the phenomenally popular Dolphin Tale, the beautiful, inspiring, and fanciful tale built around the real-life story of Winter, an injured dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail. Like the original film, the sequel is built around the Winter’s saga… and, this time out, that of her young friend Hope.

During press events in 2011, I was fortunate enough to score a one-on-one sitdown with the film’s director, Charles Martin Smith—who, in 1983, starred in and wrote the narration for one of my top five films of all time, Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf.  You may also remember Smith as Terry the Toad in American Graffiti or Agent Wallace in The Untouchables—or as the director of the original Air Bud, among a number of other films and TV programs.

Sdolphin-tale-insetmith and the entire cast, including Morgan Freeman, are back for Dolphin Tale 2… which I fully imagine will be playing at a theater near you. (Dolphin Tale, if you haven’t seen it already, is available online via Redbox.)

The following is a transcript of my interview with Smith.

When I was preparing to come down to Florida for this interview, I was thinking of a line of questioning about life-affirming films that you’ve worked on—and knew, of course, that Never Cry Wolf would be part of that discussion.  But because I’m a critic, and something of a cynic, I thought we’d just be using Dolphin Tale as sort of a jumping off point for that. Because I’m jaded, I just wasn’t expecting that much out of this movie.  But after seeing it last night, I’d have to guess that, for you in your career, it has to rank right up there as one of those films that your Producer Broderick Johnson talks about in the press notes as “stories that lift people up.”  What is it in you that draws you to those kinds of stories, and want to tell them? Because, obviously, not everyone is trying to tell them.

CMS: Not everybody is telling them.  And I think you’ve got to hand it to Broderick and Andrew [Kosove] for really being the ones—and Richard Ingber, also, the guy at Alcon who found the story and wanted to make it—the ones that brought me into the process.  It wasn’t my idea to make this movie.  They found Winter and started trying to develop the story, and then they invited me in.  And I of course was thrilled.  I don’t know.  It’s so hard to make a movie; and I want to make films that put something positive out into the world.  It’s too hard to make a movie to just have it be an empty film that you forget about five minutes after you leave the theater, you know?


CMS: I mean, I was raised in a very artistic family; my dad was an artist, and my mother was a writer.  And I am a musician.  And I really did grow up feeling like that was the purpose of any art or creative endeavor: to illuminate something about the human spirit.

That’s what Faulkner said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature.  He talked about the role of art in lifting the human spirit and reminding us of what has built us up, rather than tearing us down.

CMS: Absolutely right.  Good man, Faulkner!

I was actually just trying to find a snippet of that quote the other day and came across the text of the entire speech on the Nobel Prize website. 

CMS: I’ll have to read that.

1939, I think it was. Very inspiring.  [1949, actually.]

CMS: That’s very well put.  And you know, you don’t get to talk about that stuff all that much in Hollywood.  It all feels artsy-fartsy fancy.  But I do believe that.  I do want to put something positive out into the world.  I want to make a film that entertains, too, but uplifts somehow, so that people walk out of the theater with something to think about, to talk about.  Even if it’s—  The last movie I made was about a crime: The Stone of Destiny, a good Scottish film about a kid who broke into Westminster Abbey and took the back the Stone of Scone… which technically was a crime, but they argued that it was also a crime when the thing was taken away from Scotland in 1296, and they wanted it back.  And people had different opinions about the morality of what those kids did; but to me it was a very uplifting story, and at least it could get people thinking about that stuff.

So going backward now to Never Cry Wolf.  At the time you called it a life-changing experience.  Can you look back now, to 1983, and still think of it those terms? 

CMS: 1980 for me, actually—I started on it in 1980.  So absolutely—yes.  It was an amazing experience.  I knew it when we were doing it.  I remember sitting there freezing in the Arctic after filming there for something like seven months, and thinking, “You know, this is absolutely wearing me down; but it’s wonderful.  I’m never going to have another chance like this.  I’m never going to have another chance to work on such a piece of art.”  Carroll Ballard is such an absolute artist.

Did it surprise you to find out that one of the screenwriters who worked on Dolphin Tale had also worked with Ballard on Duma?

CMS: No—I’d heard about that.

So it must have been pleasant, at least, to hear about that—that there would be a common connection there.

CMS: Yeah.  But I never really talked to Karen Janszen while working on this film.  So I never had a chance to—  Still haven’t!

She’s probably here in the building.

CMS: Yeah.  I saw her out there!  But I’m not sure what level of her involvement was with Duma, either.  Carroll writes his own films, pretty much.  Although he’s not credited as a writer on Never Cry Wolf.  He’s the absolute storyteller/guiding-hand behind everything. And I love that way of making films.  It was an amazing experience, the way he did that. His background was documentaries, largely; and that’s why his films have this sort of wonderful quality to them.

Well, I think of them as kind of—and this is going to sound terrible, but—Terrence Malick films with a heart. 

CMS: Yeah, that does sound kind of terrible, but I know what you mean.

Malick makes beautiful films, but he doesn’t move me.  It’s a very cold, sterile beauty much like a lot of David Lean’s films.  But with Ballard’s films, it’s beauty that’s connected—

CMS: Beauty connected to something.

To people. 

CMS: That’s the absolute thing.  And you have to.  Ultimately what moves us is people. I’ve always been—  Wow, this is a conversation that is going where no other one has gone today.  But having grown up with an artist as a father, I was always fascinated by the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists—and the difference between the ones who concentrated on landscapes, and the ones who felt like there was nothing worth painting except humans.  You know, the people who did portraits: Toulouse Lautrec’s studies, and Degas: how they would study people, and what they were like, as opposed to the others who were doing landscapes, largely.  Which is more valid?  I don’t know; they’re both valid, I suppose.  But it’s the connection between the two that I find the most interesting.

Well, the sequence in this film that really moved me—the one that got me to wake up, critically, and say, “Okay—I’m invested in this film; I’m going to drop whatever critical cynicism I might have because this has just got it”—was the scene where the boy swims with Winter.

CMS: Oh, good.

Which to me was so much like your scene with the caribou in Never Cry Wolf

CMS: Absolutely.

—or Alec’s sequence on the beach with the Black Stallion. Where there’s no words.

CMS: You can feel it in your heart.  Absolutely.

So were you thinking of that scene in those terms when you directed it?

CMS: I pretty much emulated it.  I don’t know—I know I never will, but I don’t know if anyone will ever make a better scene than the one with the boy and the horse on the island.  It’s fantastic.  Actually, before we started shooting, I got Karl Walter Lindenlaub, the cinematographer, and we sat in my room at the hotel and watched it.  And we just talked about it—how this was done, and how he captured it—how Carroll tells a story with images, and the drama: he’s a real dramatist.  And we talked about the Night Ballet, which is what I call that sequence in our film, and we talked about wanting to capture that there. And in the other scene—well, I would have loved to capture that in the whole movie—but the other scene on the beach when Sawyer’s rescuing Winter on the beach: when she’s wrapped up in the ropes, and he comes and sits with her, and gradually throws the trap away.  And we actually shot that the way Carroll shot a lot of things on Never Cry Wolf—which was difficult with these giant 3-D cameras!  We didn’t have the small, mobile camera, which is the way Carroll shoots.  But I wanted to capture that feeling of the boy and the dolphin on the beach.

Well, it really struck me, as you were talking about during the roundtable interview this morning, how that scene, without dialog, presented—you could see—  This just made me think of a contrast with Empire of the Sun

CMS: Oh, yeah.

—when Christian Bale, early in the film, is fleeing Hong Kong as it’s disintegrating and falling, and you can see in his eyes what he’s reacting to outside the car; but you never get to see what he’s seeing!  But here, you’re not only seeing the boy’s reaction but what he’s reacting to, as well: which is that sense of family in the animal rescue team—so you really know what he’s responding to.  “Here are these people acting as unit, like I’ve never seen before.  I don’t know what I’m watching, exactly, but it’s powerful: and I want to be a part of it.”

CMS: Yeah.

And it really worked.

CMS: I’m glad. Going back to the kid on the beach… I had a point there.

Oh, no!  I made you lose one.

CMS: No—that was the other thing.  There were a number of things I did in the movie that are drawn from The Black Stallion.  And one of them is the story of the Indian tribe and their legend of how dolphins came to be.


CMS: You remember the wonderful scene at the beginning of The Black Stallion when the boy’s father, before the story, tells him the legend about Bucephalus? And he gives him the little horse figurine?

That hadn’t occurred to me—and the same thing in Never Cry Wolf with the story of—

CMS: How Wolf was created, to cut the weakness from the herd.  Yes.  And then I put in this, too, actually.  [Smith draws from within his shirt a pendant of a tailless dolphin, carved from ivory.]  I had Harry give this to the boy—which is very much like the Bucephalus scene.

Very much like—

CMS: Yeah, I walk through life wondering, “How can I make movies like The Black Stallion?”

Well, now, there a couple of story elements here, too, that were in Karen’s script, that scream “Ballard.”  The boy and his mother are so much like Alec and his mother in The Black Stallion

CMS: Yeah!

—and the girl and her father are like the girl and her widowed father in Fly Away Home.  And wounded animals, and everything.

CMS: That’s true.  Yeah.

And yet those were there in the original script, when you got to it, right?

CMS: Yes, they were.  Those relationships, between Sawyer and Lorraine, were largely there, yeah.  Although, before I came on, in the script the character of Kyle, Sawyer’s cousin, the injured veteran, was his big brother.  So she was actually mother to both of them.  And she actually spent more time mothering the soldier.  And I didn’t want that.  So I moved the soldier—

Across the street.

CMS: —to be his cousin, across the street, still having a big-brother influence; but I didn’t want anything getting in the way of the relationship between Lorraine and the kid.

Now, one element of the script that Karen said came specifically from you—so I want to follow up on that—is the quote from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever.”

CMS: Oh!  Yes.  Really!

About the “tall ship and a star to steer her by.”  What’s your connection to that poem, and why did you want that in there?

CMS: I don’t know.  I wanted to find—  I just have always loved the poem, and I wanted to find some way to get into that conversation between the grandfather and Clay.  And I just thought—  Well, it’s an old trick: quote from somebody who writes better than you!  I’ve used that a number of times in my scripts!

Oh, yeah!  Critics do it all the time, too.

CMS: Exactly.  I tell you: nothing elevates your script more than quoting from somebody who writes better than you do.  Gosh!  I did that in Stone of Destiny.  I’m sure I did.  I’ve done that in everything.  In Snow Walker I had James Cromwell quote, “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” that ode to the pilots written by McGee, who was killed in the war.  And even in Air Bud, I had a Christmas scene in the middle and I had the mom read, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  You know that?  It was an answer written in response to a letter in the paper.


CMS: It’s beautifully written.  So I quoted that in that one.  So here I was thinking, “Well, this would be a good place for a poem—and what about this?”  A star to steer her by: and Winter is our star.  So…

And now, five years later, Hope comes along, too, right?

CMS: Yeah!  Isn’t that weird?  Five years and a day.  Rescued almost exactly on the same spot, and on our very last day of filming.

So what is that, in your conception of the film?  What is the star to steer by?  Is it hope, or something more concrete?

CMS: It’s hope.  It’s the hope, and the inspiration and belief that you can do it.  The refusal to give up is that star.  And that’s what Winter really has, and it affects everybody.  And the other thing that I wrote in there—  It’s interesting, I really don’t know Karen, and she wasn’t really involved during the shooting of the film—she wrote the early drafts that I based my scripts on—but I put in the hurricane sequence, because I wanted some drama there, and then to bring it back down again.  And then the Board of Directors, which I put in there so there was some tension about closing down the place.  I wanted there to be an opportunity for something like a little angel coming down from heaven, in just this one car. And I shot it from this angle—

The God shot.

CMS: The God shot, yes.  I wanted to film that whole sequence as if you weren’t sure it really happened.  Did this really happen, or is this some kind of wonderful dream?  This is part of that star to follow, that kicks off Act III.

by Greg Wright

What new insight could I possibly add to your experience of Dead Poets Society?  Very little, I imagine.  My own history with this classic film is long and deep, having been a fan of both star Robin Williams and director Peter Weir long before they collaborated on this tale of an inspirational (if incautious) new professor and alum of a historically stuffy and conformist Ivy League prep school.

dead-poets-society-insetMost adults, of course, seem to have very little memory of what being a teenager is like; the normal result is a lack of sensitivity and understanding, much as we see with the parents of Neil and Todd in Dead Poets (played brilliantly by Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke).  However, in his passion for flipping that insensitivity the opposite direction, John Keating (Williams) equally forgets the impressionability of youth—and with tragic unintended consequences.  Keating is not the catalyst for the tragedy, of course; but he’s not entirely unaccountable, either.

Here’s a smattering of the historical critical consensus on Poets:

Williams, who has comparatively little screen time, has come to act, not to cut comic riffs, and he does so with forceful, ultimately compelling, simplicity. (Richard Schickel, Time)

Hurrah! Poetry and passion, comedy and tragedy are fused into one absolutely marvelous affirmation of independent spirit in Dead Poets Society. (Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle)

The picture draws out the obvious and turns itself into a classic. (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker)

Nothing about this film sounds, as described, novel. Yet it grips, because it has been made with plentiful feeling and vigor.  (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic)

Williams is impressively restrained as well as funny, so fans need not fret. It only means that instead of Good Morning, Preppies, we’re given a bittersweet, even eerie Goodbye, Mr. Hip. (Mike Clark, USA Today)

Now, this is not a perfect film.  It’s not even Weir’s or Williams’ best (those honors would probably go to (Gallipoli and The World According to Garp, respectively).  But both are at the top of their game here, easily overcoming the more maudlin and contrived aspects of the script.

The greatest legacy of Dead Poets, of course, is that it is the contemporary standard by which all ensemble-cast prep/high school films are judged.  Weir’s casting and direction of the Welton Academy kids was uncanny, and beyond Leonard’s and Hawke’s stunning turns, characters like Knox Overstreet and Charlie Dalton are forever etched in a generations’ memory.

“Gotta do more.  Gotta be… more!”

Watch it tonight! Dead Poets Society is available on Amazon Instant Video.

by Jeff Walls

Based on the novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, the original Planet of the Apes film inspired a franchise that included five movies between 1968 and 1973.  After a forgettable Tim Burton remake in 2001, the franchise was rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  While it is often referred to as a reboot, that movie stayed true enough to the original franchise that it could also be considered a prequel.  The franchise now continues with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which logically advances the progression from the events of the 2011 movie towards the events depicted in the 1968 original.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-insetAfter a credit sequence that creatively explains how most of the human population on Earth was destroyed by either a virus or war, the film picks up ten years after the events of the 2011 movie.  After disappearing into the woods above San Francisco at the end of that movie, the apes have continued to evolve.  They walk upright, ride horses, and even wear homemade surgical masks.  They have managed to stay out of the human wars and created a thriving community for themselves where they continue to evolve as a species.  The leader is Caesar, who has not seen a human in two years and wonders if they have all been wiped out.

He gets his answer when a small group of human survivors stumble into their territory.  The humans are part of a survivor camp located in San Francisco that is hoping to use the nearby dam to generate power.  One of the leaders of this group, Malcolm, manages to communicate their desires to Caesar, who cautiously allows them to work at the dam.  Some of the other apes are not as trusting as Caesar, though, and they suspect that the humans have deadly intentions.  Their distrust soon evolves into all-out war, not just between the humans and the apes, but between factions of the apes themselves.

The first thing that stands out when you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the special effects.  They are phenomenal.  The ape characters are created using such fine detail that every single strand of hair is distinctive from those around it.  No two apes look alike and you can tell one ape character from another just as easily as you can tell two human characters apart.  The effects don’t stop with the apes, either.  A herd of deer is terrifically realized, as was a giant bear.  Beyond the animals, the digital effects are also used to realistically create a post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the movie’s exciting climactic battle.  Even though cinemas have been crowded with stunning visual effects this season, this movie stands apart and will surely make the Academy’s shortlist come Oscar season.

Speaking of the Oscars, one has to wonder if this could finally be the year that an actor gets recognized for work in performance capture.  The undisputed champ of the art is Andy Serkis and he returns to give a spectacular performance as Caesar.  His performance is so remarkable that despite the fact that he is a simian, Caesar proves to be the most human character in the movie.  His every thought and emotion is portrayed wonderfully through the often subtle, never cheesy facial expressions that Serkis gives him.

The movie is impressive from start to finish.  It looks terrific, the story moves at a good pace, and the action scenes are as exciting as any others we have encountered this year.  It may run a little long at 130 minutes, but there is nothing in the movie that stands out as something that should have been cut.

Over forty years after the franchise initially took off, it seems that Planet of the Apes has once again become one of cinema’s more interesting franchises.  It will be fun to see where they take it from here.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, and Century Federal Way.

Find Theater Showtimes


by Greg Wright

Diane Ferlatte, the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence Award winner, will be a featured “teller” at this year’s PowellsWood Storytelling Festival.

The first day of the festival, which runs July 18-19 this year at PowellsWood in Federal Way, storytellers engage registered attendees with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories.

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time at key locations throughout the 3-acre garden. This year’s tellers include Donald Davis, Angela Lloyd, Barbara McBride-Smith, Ed Stivender—and Diane Ferlatte.

I had the opportunity to chat the other day with Ferlatte, fresh from her appearance at the Sydney International Storytelling Conference in Australia.

I understand you were raised in Louisiana. That’s ripe storytelling country. Were you born there?

Grammy-nominted storyteller Diane Ferlatte is featured at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival

Grammy-nominted storyteller Diane Ferlatte is featured at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival this year

Diane Ferlatte: I was born in New Orleans and migrated with my parents and two brothers to Oakland, CA when I was nine years old.

Can you recall the first time you were captivated by oral storytelling?

DF: We used to joke that my father had a motor mouth. Both he and my grandparents could really spin yarns on the porch in Louisiana, but I was too young to really appreciate it at the time.

When did you become inspired to start telling stories yourself?

DF: After we adopted our second child, I discovered that he was a TV brain. I had been reading stories to his younger sister but he wasn’t interested. I had to find a way to get him to sit and listen instead of watching TV. So I not only read in a more dramatic way but soon began to tell stories instead of just reading to them. When I was asked to tell stories at a church function, I was hooked. The first professional teller who had a big impact on me was Jackie Torrence.

You spent some time in Georgia’s Sea Islands collecting stories. How did that come about?

DF: I was interested in the Gullah culture and wanted to collect some of their folktales. Problem was, on Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock community which I visited, the primary storyteller was long in the tooth and couldn’t remember much. So I interviewed and spent time with many of the remaining inhabitants left in that small community whose families had been there for generations since slavery. As a consequence, I developed a show around their various personal stories.

Do stories generally come to you, or do you search them out?

DF: Some stories come to me through personal experiences or through friends, but I do research on historical stories and folktales.

Your scheduled workshop at the PowellsWood Festival this year is titled, “Bringing Stories to Life.” Why is it important for everyday people to learn how to “tell their story,” as opposed to simply passing along facts about who they are?

DF: It is first and foremost important that we talk with one another. Passing along facts is better than nothing, but when we share stories we get a much clearer and meaningful idea of each other. We also are able to relate in a more emotional way to the other person through their stories. In addition, stories are just more interesting.

So is it about more than just leaving a legacy of sorts? Is it also about the “how” of living out our own stories, day by day?

DF: Sometimes we think there isn’t anything interesting about us that we can share, but we all are interesting in different ways, and we all have stories to share.

I hope your experience at PowellsWood this year gives you more stories to tell!

DF: I hope so too, and thank you very much.

For complete Festival schedule information, visit

PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden
430 South Dash Point Road

Price $15 and up; children’s and family rates available

Online Ticketing at

by Greg Wright

The PowellsWood Storytelling Festival “is like a little pearl,” enthuses storyteller Syd Lieberman.

The two-day festival, which runs July 18-19 this year at PowellsWood in Federal Way, is decidedly unique.

The first day of the festival, storytellers engage registered guests with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories. Full-pass participants even get a chance at “Tea with the Tellers” on PowellsWood’s fabled Garden Room Terrace.


Donald Davis anchors the lineup of “tellers” at the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival July 18 and 19

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time, with special secret spots in the 3-acre garden set up with tents featuring storytelling tracks for adults, families, and children. This year’s tellers include Donald Davis, Diane Ferlatte, Angela Lloyd, Barbara McBride-Smith, and Ed Stivender.

“I haven’t been to anything like this,” says Lieberman. That’s quite a testimony from the man who’s a regular feature at internationally-renowned festivals like Timpanogos and the National Festival in Jonesborough. “It’s this little special thing in the woods that you come upon and you find,” he continues. “It’s wonderful that way. ‘Wow! I’m telling in this beautiful setting!’”

It’s magical by design, a “fairy tale come true,” to use the words of the Federal Way Mirror.

“Our belief is that people come away from the Festival happier, more joyful,” says garden founder and Festival organizer Monte Powell. “And maybe revitalized—from being here at the Festival, and also from doing the Festival in a beautiful, green environment.”

And make no mistake. The garden setting offers a one-of-a-kind experience. “Telling a story in a garden like this definitely makes a difference,” attests Indian storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, who also appeared at last year’s festival.

“I’ve told stories in the classroom,” she notes. “I’ve told stories in the auditorium. I’ve told stories by the sea. But this is very different, the reason being that it’s very identical: the gardener and the storyteller. Both of them do it with a lot of soul. And stories are not from head to head. It’s from heart to heart. So every story has soul. It has life.”

Festival anchor and master teller Donald Davis has the heart of it.

“I love trees,” says Davis. “They are listeners.”

Visit the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival this year and listen. Listen with the trees.

Listen, and grow.

PowellsWood is located at 430 South Dash Point Road in Federal Way. For complete schedule and parking information, visit Price $15 and up; children’s and family rates available. Online Ticketing at

PWSF-Logo-300x400July 18-19, 2014

PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden plays host to this annual 2-day festival of the art of storytelling.

The first day, internationally-renowned storytellers engage registered guests with workshops designed to turn everyday people into tellers of their own stories. Full-pass participants even get a chance at “Tea With the Tellers” on PowellsWood’s fabled Garden Room Terrace.

The second day, it’s all telling, all the time, with special secret spots in the 3-acre garden set up with tents featuring storytelling tracks for adults, families, and children.

For complete schedule information, visit

Phone (253) 529-1620
Price $5 – $125

Mothers Day 2014 Poster AltA great garden brings people together; visit PowellsWood Garden this Mother’s Day weekend, May 10-11, 2014 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with your mother or child and share the magic of this remarkable garden.

Entrance is $5.00 for adults and children under 12 are free.

Together explore the updated grounds and garden features via a new self-guided tour. Relax and visit in the Garden Room where tea, scones, lemonade, and cookies will be available for purchase from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Musical entertainment will be available both days as well!

by Greg Wright

Monte Powell’s garden in Federal Way plays host to a regional festival with international flavor… the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Curated by Des Moines resident Margaret Read MacDonald, a Huntington Park retiree from the King County Library System, the festival drew hundreds of visitors in its first year, and is back for its second installment July 26-27.

Eth-Noh-Tec at the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Photograph copyright Christopher Nelson.

Last year, the Festival drew the attention of CBS producers, who came to Federal Way to observe and speak with featured “teller” Donald Davis, an artist of international reputation–like MacDonald herself. (See the CBS video embedded below.)

The festival covers some seventeen total hours of storytelling from ten different storytellers covering remarkable variety of styles for different audiences. Federal Way Mirror journalist Andy Hobbs describes the festival as a fairy tale come true, an opportunity for the community “to sample culture and nature, right here at home.”

The term most used by adults and children alike is… magical!

YouTube Preview Image

Learn more about the Festival at

PowellsWoodReopeningby Greg Wright

Summer is a great season to visit newly renovated PowellsWood Garden, 430 S. Dash Point Road. The garden will re-open its doors to the public, with a celebration on June 22nd and 23rd 2013. Festivities include exploration of the garden’s summer color, bluegrass and harp concerts, a raffle, and refreshments.

Located on the upper end of the 40–acre Redondo greenbelt, PowellsWood Garden is a unique urban oasis, in which themed garden rooms are designed to inspire both homeowners and professional gardeners alike. Portland area designer Rick Serazin’s renovations have added additional structure, new vistas, more four-season color, and take advantage of the new plant varieties available to Pacific Northwest gardeners due to a changing climate.

Each visitor to the garden during the Re-opening Celebration will be entered into a raffle for 2 free passes to the 2nd annual PowellsWood Storytelling Festival Saturday July 27th 2013. The festival is co-sponsored by the Seattle Storytellers Guild, and we reported on that a few weeks ago.

The re-opening marks a return to the garden’s regular open hours of 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday through October. Details about the Grand Reopening event can be found on the PowellsWood website.

PWSF-Logo-300x400by Greg Wright

Storytelling has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Puget Sound’s newest annual festival, hosted at PowellsWood Garden on the upper edge of the Redondo greenbelt, is expanding this year to include a global-village emphasis. Tamil storyteller Jeeva Raghunath, based in Chennai, India, will be headlining the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, now in its second year.

The festival runs July 26 and 27th and features a day of workshops in addition to a full day of storytelling.

One of the garden’s four storytelling venues, the spectacular and newly redesigned Perennial Borders, will feature a daylong program with an international focus titled, “Lively World Folktales for All Ages.” Jeeva-Portrait-199x300Raghunath (right) will be contributing along with Heather Forest and internationally-renowned local teller Margaret Read MacDonald. Festival newcomer Syd Lieberman will also co-host a session in the Spring Garden titled, “Traditions: Tamil, Jewish, Borneo.”

In addition, Donald Davis will share evocative tales from his North Carolina childhood, and Heather Forest will delight with her singing fables and with stories of her life as a gardener.

Now in its second year, the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival was inspired by PowellsWood owner Monte Powell’s annual visits to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. When Powell discovered that MacDonald had moved almost literally into his own backyard, creative sparks flew—and the Festival was born.

The Festival’s first edition in 2012 was a wild success, featured in a national network broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning. The Festival was anchored by Jonesborough regular Donald David, who is back again for the 2013 edition.

Raghunath is particularly excited to be participating in a Pacific Rim festival. She has represented India at 17 international storytelling festivals around the globe, training over 25,000 children and adults in the art of “telling.” Having conducted over 500 performances, Raghunath has also translated 45 books into Tamil from English. Her storytelling style leaves audiences spell-bound. She believes that she herself is the best prop for her storytelling.

Tickets to the event range from $10 full-day passes for the Saturday storytelling sessions to two-day passes priced at $120, which also include Friday workshops with Donald Davis and Syd Lieberman. Children’s and family rates are also available.

Learn more about the Festival at… and check out the CBS News report (below) that featured the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival.

by Greg Wright

Earlier this summer, Monte Powell’s garden in Federal Way played host to a new regional storytelling festival… the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Curated by Des Moines resident Margaret Read MacDonald, a Huntington Park retiree from the King County Library System, the festival drew hundreds of visitors in its first year.

Eth-Noh-Tec at the 2012 PowellsWood Storytelling Festival. Photograph copyright Christopher Nelson.

It also drew the attention of CBS producers, who came to Federal Way to observe and speak with featured “teller” Donald Davis, an artist of international reputation–like MacDonald herself. The segment aired last week on CBS (see below) and is described as follows:

Whether it’s Mother Goose, the tales of the Brothers Grimm, even the parables of Christ, you might say the human mind is hard-wired to respond to stories. In fact storytelling may be the oldest art form.

Correspondent Serena Altschul explores our oral tradition at those Woodstocks of words, storytelling festivals – there are dozens of such fests to be found around the country. We visited one of the newest, the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, just outside of Seattle.

Plans are naturally already in the works for the 2013 edition of the Festival, though dates and schedules have not officially been announced yet. We’ll naturally bring you news as it breaks. This is one of those events to plan your entire summer around!

Learn more about the Festival at

by Greg Wright

Over 340 guests showed up at PowellsWood Garden on Dash Point Road July 14 to sample some seventeen total hours of storytelling from ten different storytellers, and everyone seemed delighted with the variety of remarkable storytelling they experienced. Something for all ages, and every taste.

Debra Harris-Branham holds day campers spellbound

Debra Harris-Branham holds day campers spellbound

Federal Way Mirror journalist Andy Hobbs described the festival as a fairy tale come true, “an opportunity for Federal Way to sample culture and nature, right here at home. PowellsWood gave people across the region a good reason to visit and play. Most importantly, the festival nourished the community’s lifeblood.”

On Friday, July 13, around 450 daycamp children and leaders also tromped into the gardens to sit in the shade of an awning (one hundred at a time) and listen to three tellers wow them with tales.

The term most used by adults and children alike was… magical!

YouTube Preview Image

The organizers expect this to become an annual event. Follow the website for updates.

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

Award-winning South King Media photojournalist Michael Brunk will have a selection of his photographs featured at The Scotch and Vine in Des Moines throughout June. The photos are being hung in the restaurant’s reception area on Monday, June 11, as part of the Vine’s first anniversary celebrations. It’s Happy Hour all day that day, and opening time is 4 pm.

Michael is a member of Tyee Photography Alliance, which has reached agreement with The Scotch and Vine to supply the venue with an ongoing selection of photographic art from its constituent members. Michael’s photos have appeared in a variety of online and print outlets, including The Seattle P-I, the City of Burien, City of Des Moines Arts Commission, and Experience Washington, as well as numerous online publications.

Michael is, of course, also a principal founding partner in South King Media, and a key player in B-Town Blog’s successive “Best Hyperlocal Website” awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Michael’s work will also be shown at Seattle’s Art/Not Terminal Gallery in downtown Seattle throughout July as part of a group showing of Tyee Photography Alliance works titled “Landscapes and Plannedscapes: Reactions to the Urban Environment.” The Scotch and Vine will be catering the opening night reception on July 7.

Find out more about Michael’s photography at NW Lens.

For thousands of years, the role of the storyteller has been to educate, entertain, and enchant listeners, young and old. Storytelling celebrates the wisdom and diversity of human experience, often using music, movement, and drama to engage listeners.

This most ancient of the human arts captures and heals the human heart. Storytelling is a powerful art form that includes folktales, myths, legends, tall tales, religious stories, and personal stories.

This new festival, The PowellsWood Storytelling Festival, is made possible through the generous support of Diane and Monte Powell, owners of PowellsWood Garden, and the efforts of Des Moines resident Dr. Margaret Read MacDonald. The festival is co-sponsored by the Seattle Storytellers Guild.

The stellar list of national and local tellers for this event includes Eth-Noh-Tec, Donald Davis, Alton Chung, Joe Hayes, Debra Harris-Branham, Norm Brecke, Whitman Story Sampler, and Pat Peterson.

Friday, July 13 – Advanced Registration Required:

  • Storytelling workshops for adults
  • Storytelling for daycamp and daycare groups

Saturday, July 14 – Tickets Available in Advance and At the Door:

  • Storytellers: Hear master storytellers tell their tales – Adult and Family venues

For registration, ticketing, and other detailed info, visit the PowellsWood Storytelling Festival website. Click here!

Award-winning South King Media photojournalist Michael Brunk will be a featured presenter this year with Federal Way’s citywide Buds & Blooms festival on Mother’s Day weekend, May 12-13.

Buds & Blooms took a hiatus for 2011 but is back this year, bigger and stronger and more vibrant than ever. Events will be held once again at PowellsWood, on the upper edge of Des Moines’ Redondo district, as well as at the Rhododendron Species Garden, the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, the Commons, and more.

Michael Brunk’s presentation will be at 3 PM on May 12 at PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden, which will also be hosting teas, other lectures, musical groups, tours, and (of course!) a veritable sea of vibrant floral color.

Saturday 3:00 pm, PowellsWood – Nature Photography: Right Place, Right Time
What’s the weather going to do? Where’s the sun in the sky and which direction is the light in the scene you want to shoot? Join Michael Brunk as he offers tips to capture just the shot you want… and offers us insights into how he captured some of his own favorites. His photos have appeared in a variety of online and print outlets, including The Seattle P-I, the City of Burien, City of Des Moines Arts Commission, and Experience Washington, as well as numerous online publications. Michael is a member of the Tyee Photography Alliance. A selection of Michael’s work will also be shown at Seattle’s Art/Not Terminal Gallery in downtown Seattle throughout July.

Click here for details about the schedule of programs at PowellsWood.

Click here for the full schedule of Buds & Blooms programs.

Click here to purchase tickets for the Buds & Blooms Garden Tour in advance. Tour tickets ($20.00) may also be purchased at the gate. Students $10.00, children 12 and under free. Tour hours are 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.