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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Finally, Face to Face: The San Diego Storytelling Festival

There is nothing like meeting face to face after knowing someone on Zoom for three years. This is what I experienced four-fold at the San Diego Storytelling Festival. It was at the Coronado Library that I finally got to meet Marilyn McPhie, Auntie Li-Anne Rowswell Mufson, Angela Lloyd, and David Schmidt. What a treat!

Marilyn invited me to the festival last January, and she helped finagle three slots for me to perform, which was a big step for me. One of the slots was a one-hour workshop, so I knew I would have to pace myself. I told two new stories, and one “go-to” oldie. For the opening concert, I told my new story entitled “One-eyed Larry,” about a bullfrog that had been in my son’s first grade classroom. The story was meant to highlight how challenging it is to get information (not data!) from your children when they are small. It featured messages from six-year old Byron about a fellow first grader with a mustache, and, of course, One–eyed Larry. Byron had been speaking as if One-eyed Larry were a fellow student who bit others, but I was finally able to determine it was a bullfrog the class had taken on as a science project.

During my workshop, I told a story I had never told before. In fact, I hadn’t really even practiced it in any sort of formal way. Having a whole hour gave me the room to informally chat my way through the story, stopping for questions, discussion, and an activity or two. The workshop was about turning “travel into story,” so, of course, the story was about a trip I had taken with six high school students to Beijing. I added several prompts to engage the audience: tell about a time you forgot to bring something on a trip (or lost something); tell about a time you weren’t able to express yourself clearly in a country that doesn’t use English; tell about a souvenir you brought back from a trip you took. I framed the workshop in a very simple context: every story has a beginning, middle, and end; every trip, a departure, a journey, and a return. We made references to Joseph Campbell’s “Journey of the Hero” through the discussion as well.

Throughout the day, I was constantly reassured by the engaged, supportive presence of Angela Lloyd. She gasped audibly during my telling about the “thing in the water,” she hooted and cheered when the frog jumped across the entire classroom, and she belly-laughed her way through the workshop, inspiring everyone else in the audience to receive me warmly. I have always believed that great storytellers are great listeners; Angela proves this over and over again.

Auntie Li-Anne was even more poised and gracious in person than she is on Zoom, which is hard to believe. She is so humble and kind, and yet you can sense the strength and confidence in her hugs, and in her gentle smiles. I felt immediately at home with both Auntie Li-Anne and with Marilyn McPhie. I wasn’t really meeting them for the first time, of course, and I couldn’t help but have that wonderfully haunting feeling that I have known them and worked with them both for years (and not just a few virtual events). I wish I could get down South more often!

My kindred spirit David Schmidt picked me up Saturday morning at my hotel and drove me to the Library. We both love scary stories, but I think more than that, I think we both know that scary is a doorway into other, more nuanced emotions… David’s story at the closing was a great example of this. He told the audience about a nearby building that was said to be haunted. David presented the story with his guitar, which he used in the most interesting way! Part of the story involved Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” cutting in and out when he stood at the top of the stairway in the house. And David recreated that in the most eerie, beautiful way. True to David’s form, he provided rich reflection (again powerful terror leading to complex emotions and thought). Why the top of the stairs? That’s where the women who had lived in this brothel had to meet their clients… David helped us imagine the heart stopping moments that repeated over and over again for these young women who had no idea what kind of man she would be meeting there and then escorting into her room… A very haunting, gut-wrenching account.

James Dieckmann served graciously and eloquently as the host to the opening and closing concerts. The day included so much more, however, than these two concerts and my workshop. There were other workshops and themed concerts as well. I was able to attend a workshop on puppetry by the artist behind Twisted Heart Puppeteer, Tania Yager. She gave an engaging and revealing presentation on what it takes to begin performing puppets for audiences, and this ranged from putting a simple screen in a mirror frame to larger, moveable theaters she had set up for display. She spoke casually and modestly about her work, but you could see the electricity in her hands whether she was manipulating one of her puppets or cutting something from thick paper. She recently performed for a music video for the rock band, The Nightmares. The music video for the song, “Cursed,” can be found at the preceding link. It is a great illustration of her talents and vision.

In addition to this workshop there were panels on weaving baskets, veterans’ stories, and East Indian folklore. Other artists who performed included the following: O.J. Mozon, Marianne Christensen, Linda King Pruitt, James Nelson-Lucas, and many, many others.

I had to leave before the final concert was over. I wish I could have stayed and had a drink with everyone. What a wonderful community of storytellers they have down in San Diego! I have been on the board of SAC for several years now, but this was the first time I really felt that I belonged to a community that included both the North and the South of this enormous state. What a reassuring experience it was to be floored by so many voices and faces that were entirely new to me, but what a tremendous joy it was to find at the heart of this Southern California community the same kindness, attentiveness, brilliance, and sensitivity that I have always enjoyed up here in the Bay Area.

San Diego Storytelling Festival, March 18, 2023


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