Vancouver International Storytelling Festival tells tales for all ages

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      Ever since humans have been capable of speech they’ve woven tales about wonders, visions, adventures, and dreams. The storyteller’s art appealed to all ages. However, a few generations ago it started to be equated with the peddling of cosy yarns to preteens. Naomi Steinberg sees things differently.

      “Part of what’s driving me is to debunk the myth that it’s mainly for younger children,” says the new artistic director of the Vancouver International Storytelling Festival, interviewed at a Commercial Drive café. “We aim to be as inclusive and to present a wide range of what’s out there in terms of styles and content. We have traditional folk and fairy stories of course, but we’re trying to push the envelope as well.”

      Programming aside, the most obvious changes to the 18th edition of the festival involve time and place. The Winter Olympics necessitated a shift from the usual February date to one in early summer, and Steinberg took the opportunity to relocate the VISF to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, where it will take place from Friday to Sunday (June 11 to 13).

      Steinberg was delighted to discover that the new venue has its own wondrous tale. “The buildings were constructed by hand, without the use of any power tools,” she says, “which fits beautifully with our efforts to have a more environmentally sensitive festival in the very widest sense.”

      On Saturday afternoon, the Garden itself provides the setting for site-specific storytelling by Victoria-based Wang Su Ma, whom Steinberg describes as “really spunky in a kind of a kung fu way. I asked her to create a piece to bring people into the magic of the place.” Ma’s performance of A Debt of Tears is rooted in a classic Chinese novel concerning two lovers bound by a spell that was set in motion by the goddess Nu Wa.

      In the adjacent Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park on Sunday afternoon, a red thread will lead strollers to a bamboo grove where participants in the Story Box project, mainly Downtown Eastside residents, will tell their own stories. And to further develop the local connection, longtime Chinatown resident Larry Wong will offer walking tours of his neighbourhood on Saturday.

      Not all the performances are rooted in history and tradition, however. In keeping with Steinberg’s desire to push the envelope, Saturday night will feature local burlesque artist Little Woo’s?innovative shadow-box puppet theatre piece Heart of the Swamp. Woo will be sharing the stage with three other women with radically different backgrounds and approaches to their craft: Celtic storyteller Mary Gavan, women’s activist Erin Graham, and Haida teller, singer, and drummer Kwii ge ii wans (Roberta Kennedy).

      “We’re giving our festival the theme We, Our Stories, and naturally we’ve a number of people telling personal stories, like Mary [Gavan], who works in palliative care and is doing a piece about a sailor who’s dying,” says Steinberg. “But really all the stories—the well-worn and traditional as well as those plucked out of the air by spoken-word artists—can be ours if we open ourselves up to them. Stories and storytelling are a vital part of all of us.”

      For a full festival schedule and lineup, go to