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From fables to fact, relish in storytelling at Tellabration

Storytelling may just be world’s oldest profession. Sure, it’s been said there is another, but think of it this way: somebody had to tell someone else about the existence of that other, more carnal pursuit, and that person there was a storyteller.

That’s my story anyway.

Modern fans of this most ancient form are encouraged to drop by the Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave., Claremont, at 7 p.m. tomorrow when Inland Valley Storytellers presents its 17th annual Tellabration event.

Tellabration is a worldwide celebration of storytelling held every year the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. It was launched in 1988 by the Connecticut Storytelling Center. It extended to several states the following year, expanded nationwide in 1990, then international in 1995. By the turn of the century there were 333 events worldwide.

Storytellers at tomorrow’s show include IVS members Angela Lloyd, John St. Clair, Nick Smith, Ron Chick, Glenn Grant, Stephanie Townes, Ron Evans and Adrien Lowery. Admission is $10.

That Tellabration is taking place at the Folk makes good sense. In the 1990s Folk Music Center co-founder the late Dorothy Chase ran a storytelling group out of the venerable Claremont store. When Ms. Chase’s health began to decline, the group dissolved.

In November 2003 The Inland Valley Storytellers formed and produced the first local Tellabration event. Those first shows were held at the former Claremont Forum location in the old COURIER building.

Storyteller John St. Clair, 70, grew up in Ontario, and taught for 35 years in the Ontario-Montclair School District, retiring in 2010. He spent 17 years with kindergarteners and then 18 at Vina Danks Middle School.

“The reason I switched to older kids is I got hooked by Apple Computers who gave out free computers in 1984,” Mr. St. Clair said. He eventually began teaching computer science, then  animation and web design.

He was truly an early adopter, taking his first introductory computer class in the summer of 1966. “Back then they took up a whole room and all those punch cards,” Mr. St. Clair said.

He came to IVS through his wife, who was part of Ms. Chase’s group in the 1990s.

“I would sometimes go with her to events,” Mr. St. Clair said. “But when in 2003 this new group started, I came and I told a story and it was fun.

“It’s funny, when I first performed I memorized a children’s story,” Mr. St. Clair said. “I love children’s literature. Since then I’ve gotten into folk tales. They were the vessel of the values of the culture. Most folk tales have a message in them. Those are the kind of stories I like to tell.”

At tomorrow’s Tellabration, guests will hear folk tales, personal narratives, historical pieces on the Civil War and early aviation, among others.

Getting people interested in storytelling is, of course, the aim of IVS. Once they’re hooked, the opportunities are endless, Mr. St. Clair said. “There are storytelling festivals all over the country,” he said. “And of course there’s the National Storytelling Festival, in Jonesboro, Tennessee, right next to the Appalachian Mountains.”

There are also a lot of opportunities for storytellers to get booked at folk music festivals around the country, and indeed around the world, including of course the Claremont Folk Festival, which has long included storytelling in its programming.

“In fact, one of our storytellers who’ll be at the Folk Music Center, Angela Lloyd, plays a washboard, and she has signatures all over it, including people like [folk music legend] Pete Seeger,” Mr. St. Clair said. “She’s promised to will it to the Smithsonian.”

Storytelling was a staple of terrestrial radio for decades on up to the mainstream popularization of television in the early 1950s. The medium faded into obscurity, relegated to old time radio shows on low-wattage college stations.

But with the rise of podcasts, satellite and internet radio, storytelling on the airwaves is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

Of the many modern radio shows that feature storytelling, Mr. St. Clair’s favorite is Ira Glass’ long running This American Life program, out of WBEZ in Chicago. He recently binge listened a block of TAL episodes. “I did a cross country trip with my son and they were very interesting stories,” he said.

Though heartened by the increasing interest in storytelling brought about by the rise in popularity of This American Life, The Moth, StoryCorps and the like, Mr. St. Clair has mixed feelings about a few new wrinkles in the form, specifically, “story slam” events, where winners are chosen.

“We don’t do that,” Mr. St. Clair said. “It’s a different experience with us. We’re non-judgmental. We’re not out to pick a winner. All of our storytellers tell at their own level, and it’s a very supportive group.”

Studies have long shown that keeping one’s brain active, whether through writing, doing crossword puzzles or reading, can be helpful in staying sharp as we age. According to Mr. St. Clair, we can add storytelling to that list.

“It definitely keeps my mind active,” he said of his hobby. “I have all kinds of books of folk tales from all over the world, and it certainly is a mental exercise to memorize that. And to keep telling those stories, I think it does keep my mind active.”

Along with keeping his cognitive muscles limber, he’s also quite physically active. He was busy hiking in the Grand Canyon just this past week.

The Inland Valley Storytellers have held free and open to the public 7:30 p.m. meetings on the second Tuesday of each month at the Forum Bookstore—now located in the Packing House, 586 W. First St., Claremont—since November 2003.

“We get together to share stories informally,” Mr. St. Clair said. “We use that time to work on new stories and tell old stories because if we don’t tell ‘em we forget ‘em.

“Storytellers need story listeners.”

For information, including summaries of past meetings, go to inlandstorytellers.org, email to john@inlandstorytellers.org, or call (909) 983-8501. 

Tellabration 2019 takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 23 at the Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave., Claremont. Tickets are $10 and are available at the store or at the door.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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