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Keeping Oral Tradition Alive with Montreal’s Storytellers Guild

Performance is a phenomenon that makes an instrument of the human body, and we use our bodies to channel our works like melodies to audiences. As artists, writers, and enthusiasts, we can appreciate the significance of performance in the world of Fine Arts. Performance is a language we use to tell our stories; yet, the intimacy of it makes us feel vulnerable and raw. This is because performance forces us to show ourselves in intimate ways for an audience—a process that can be difficult for many. But, for those of us who feel unnerved by the stage, there are alternative platforms we can use that can allow us to avoid the spotlight while still feeling empowered by the act of performance.

These platforms are part of a growing movement of grassroots arts initiatives across North America that seek to counteract the anti-community culture rendered by digital communication. Within these spaces, communities partake in anything from poetry exchanges to jam sessions. It is through these channels that the act of performance becomes a means to unite people in ways that feel equal and reciprocal. The spaces are usually small enough to feel safe but engage with the art of performance in organic and unrestricted ways.

Here in Montreal, we are likewise seeing the emergence of these sorts of initiatives as they strive to enhance their communities in similar ways described above. The Montreal Storytellers Guild is one of many unique organizations trying to accomplish just this.

The Storytellers Guild operates around principles of oral tradition and their vision is to create open, community-based platforms to facilitate an exchange of stories. The organization began with Montreal citizens who were enthusiastic about the prospect of storytelling—of keeping oral tradition alive during times headed by more impersonal forms of communication. By uniting people in spaces of shared experiences, memory, and myth, the Guild aspires to reinvent community by way of creativity and the spoken-word.

The Montreal Storytellers Guild is the largest English storytelling group in Montreal, and they host story-swaps at the Westmount Library on every second Thursday of the month. These evenings are open to all interested in listening to stories, learning about the nuances of performance, or divulging their own favourite tales—both true and tall. But the Guild’s events extend far beyond their monthly storytelling swaps: the Guild has remained deeply involved with Montreal’s storytelling community for years while sponsoring a number of events and workshops at schools and colleges across the city.

The Guild also hosts storytelling concerts designed for children as well as larger shows facilitated by Guild members, which are often performed during local festivals, holidays, and other special occasions. Among their more notable events is World Storytelling Day which occurs each year on March 22. This year, the event is taking place in Pointe-Claire at Viva Vida Art Gallery.

Irvin Griffith, president of the Guild, nods to the educational value of storytelling—specifically for younger generations. He explains the importance of face-to-face communication, divulging the ways in which these exchanges allow us to refine our interpersonal skill-sets. In times super-abounded by technology, platforms like the Montreal Storytellers Guild become valuable outlets to explore such encounters. The Guild’s involvement with young community members tries to interrupt the mediated communication of cyberspace and it subtly teaches youth about speaking meaningfully and listening with care.

“It forces you to be present with the speaker”, Griffith says when discussing oral tradition. For him, the act of creating presence is a key component of storytelling. But today, “presence” is becoming more elusive. The concept is starting to seem like a scarcity—one for which many of us will travel across oceans trying to find. We slot “presence” into our calendars like vacations, searching far and wide until we discover it at dusk on a beach somewhere in Cuba. We delude ourselves into believing that presence is a delicacy—one that is bereft of our everyday lives. However, Griffith argues that we can capture presence through storytelling because oral tradition demands careful attention.

To truly appreciate a story, we must attune ourselves to the atmosphere the storyteller establishes; this is why Griffith says that good storytellers need to be capable of seizing our imaginations using the power of presence. To do this, a storyteller must learn her craft, which is why the Guild also offers workshops on how to tell good stories.

If you are curious about their workshops or any other storytelling event, you can find more information on the Guild’s website. Events are typically free-of-charge for non-members, but donations are both welcome and encouraged, and refreshments are made available for all those who show-up.

By Hania Peper


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