The Toronto Storytelling Festival launched last night for the 34th successive year.
For Dan Yashinsky, working at a boys’ summer camp in Bolton, Ontario in the 1970s, storytelling was a revelation.
“What I noticed was that these kids, who were very wild little boys, when they sat around the fire at night, turned into the world’s greatest listeners,” Yashinsky remembers. “And to me that was unbelievable magic.”
A literature student with a particular interest in the epics of Homer, Yashinsky saw a connection. “Okay, this is not the court of a Greek king, this is a campfire 30 miles from Toronto, but the same quality of listening is present,” he thought to himself. “So I started hanging out with people who knew a lot about storytelling.”
He began to mentor under librarian and storyteller Alice Kane and started telling stories himself in 1977. In April of 1979, he held the first of what would be many annual Toronto Storytelling Festivals. “To my utter surprise,” Yashinsky says, “a lot of people showed up.”
More than 30 years later, the festival is now run by Storytelling Toronto, an organization whose mission is to teach this ancient art form, and to promote the work of those who practice it. This year’s event—which launched last night and runs all weekend at different venues throughout the city—features the Yukon’s Ivan Coyote, Newfoundland’s Andy Jones, and Robert Seven Crows, of Mont-Laurier, Quebec, among many others.
Debra Baptiste was unfamiliar with the medium when she showed up at Storytelling Toronto as an arts administration student on an internship some 13 years ago.
“It’s been around for so long, but I find a lot of people don’t know about it,” says Baptiste, now the festival’s executive director. “I certainly didn’t.”
What she discovered was that, whether we think about it or not, we all have experience with storytelling.
“I’m sure, with your family, you can think about uncle so-and-so who always has a story about the family history,” Baptiste says. “And so I think everybody knows that [medium] intimately.”
Yashinsky believes that preserving histories, family and otherwise, is one of the ways in which storytelling is best used.
“If you remember the stories, they belong to you and they won’t be taken away from you,” he says. “We live in this very mediated world. Everything comes to us in one form or another, from the written word to the electronic word. In storytelling, you are much closer to the making and sustaining of culture.”
Whether for this reason or others, the ongoing success of the Toronto Storytelling Festival proves that most of us are still enthralled by a well-spun yarn.
“We’re in the thousand-channel universe,” Yashinsky says, “and yet you’ll still find a lot of adults happy to spend an evening sitting in a quiet room listening to someone speak, telling stories.”