I’ve long been a fan of storytelling. As a child I loved hearing my dad read from storybooks or recite The Highwayman by heart. He’d narrate that poem slowly, knocking on the table and adjusting the volume of his voice to scare us at just the right moments.
I first met my friend John David “Hobbes” Hickey in 2000 or 2001. He’s been honing his storytelling craft for years and working hard to build up the craft in English-speaking Montreal. While Montreal has a rich and vibrant French storytelling scene, things have been quieter and perhaps more fractured on the Anglo side of things. While French tellers have weekly storytelling nights, seasoned English-speaking tellers may perform in pubs or festivals. Folks involved in Montreal’s spoken word scene may not know people who are telling traditional tales. Different cultural communities have storytelling traditions but the tellers may not know other tellers are hosting events.
Last night the new kid on the Montreal storytelling scene, Oopey Mason’s Grown-Up Story Time Montreal (GUSTMTL) held its first event. An article in last week’s Montreal Mirror describes GUSTMTL as follows: “Unlike the usual, boring story-reading session, Mason is reinventing storytelling by taking texts away from the writers and letting performers interpret their work.” The idea seems to be that stories will come alive better in the hands of improv artists.
I get the impression Mason and Mirror freelancer Stephanie Mercier Voyer have never seen the storytelling slams I’ve enjoyed around Montreal lately. Tellers at slams usually create their own stories or interpret traditional tales – they’re not reading them and they’re good enough performers to keep things interesting. The slams give new tellers a chance to test out the craft. The stories may not be perfect, the teller may go off on tangents or include too much detail but that’s how learning happens and a storytelling community gets built.
Over the years I’ve watched Hobbes spin folktales, fables and legends at children’s events, the Fringe Festival and at events he’s hosted at cafes. He has put out CDs and regularly finds ways to build up ties with storytellers from all over Montreal. He’s reached out to French-speaking and English-speaking tellers, musicians, the Montreal Storyteller’s Guild and spoken word artists. Last fall Hobbes launched Contes SLAMtastique, a monthly family-oriented storytelling slam event at Cafe Shaika. He also teamed up with Cameryn Moore last month to host a Smut Slam at Mainline Theatre featuring erotic storytelling.
Storytelling slams differ from events where hired tellers perform. Tellers at slams have only five minutes to tell a story. If they go over the five minutes, they lose points. They are not allowed to use notes or read, it has to be from memory. The story can be spoken word, a folk tale or children’s story, a poem, a recent experience. Five judges, friends of the tellers or audience members, score the stories.
I’ve heard all sorts of stories at the slams. There have been traditional Irish, Quebec, Norwegian and African folktales, stories of romance gone wrong, a “borrowed” cottage, Rudyard Kipling, the list goes on. Even traditional stories are embellished and interpreted as the teller sees fit.
The beauty of it is when you see people head for the microphone you can’t guess what stories thcy’re carrying around in their heads. It takes talent to tell a story clearly in only five minutes. Engaging an audience and connecting with them in such a short time is an art.
The Smut Slam’s theme was “Best Laid Plans.” For me it was especially intriguing to discover the most conservative-looking people were the ones with the wildest stories. Still, the best stories at that slam weren’t about threesomes (or foursomes), bad sex or a guy’s awkward stint working as a New York City stripper. The winning story, about a budding relationship and a clever scavenger hunt, had a sweet innocence about it. Great stories ring true (except tall tales and the best stories resonate with audiences). There’s nothing boring about that.