Storytelling for adults: Kathryn Hunt spends a night with the Ottawa Storytellers

Kathryn Hunt  is a displaced Maritimer who first arrived in Ottawa 15 years ago. A published poet and freelance writer, Kate blogs,performs and talks the city’s budding literary scene at every opportunity! She also enjoys cycling and rock-climbing in her spare time.

When was the last time someone told you a story? I don’t mean, exactly, the last time you were at a party and someone had you rolling with laughter over something that happened at work, although that’s close. I mean, when was the last time you sat down and let someone tell you a story – use their words to paint a picture for you, move you, take you to a faraway place or into someone else’s shoes?

Local Tourist Kathryn Hunt

For a lot of people, that last time might have been as far away as childhood. But storytelling for adults is an ancient tradition, and it has by no means disappeared into the mists of time. If it’s been a very long time since you heard a story told to you – not read, not acted, but told – then you might be surprised at how many people are carrying on the tradition, telling folk tales and myths, personal stories and history, ghost stories, tall tales, and even literary stories, in venues across the city.

One organization putting on storytelling events throughout the year is the Ottawa Storytellers. The OST puts on several series: the Shenkman Centre series, Stories and Tea at the Tea Party in the Market, a monthly Story Swap where new storytellers can try out their material,  a series at the Billings Estate, featured performers at Once Upon a Slam (similar to a poetry slam, where storytellers go head-to-head in front of audience judges with short, five-minute stories), and the Fourth Stage Series at the National Arts Centre.

I mention that last series in particular, because recently I got to be in the audience for a Fourth Stage show: the Irish storyteller Clare Muireann Murphy was in Canada touring her show On The Heels of the Hound, an exploration of ancient Irish myths. It’s a full-length concert, bringing together a half-dozen stories: creation myths, origin stories, and tales from the time when the island of Ireland was inhabited by gods and monsters.

Clare Muireann Murphy

The room was pretty full when I came sneaking in minutes before the show, set with chairs around small tables. The Fourth Stage is a great space for shows like this – the audience seating is wide and shallow, so that everyone is relatively close to the performer. And I was in luck: my friends knew I was going to be running in at the last minute, and saved me a seat with them, at the front.

Murphy came on stage singing, in a white dress with a green shawl and carrying a polished gnarled wooden staff. As the room quieted, she walked a circle on the stage and then turned to the audience and introduced the show: bringing the audience in and engaging with them right away, asking them to call out the things they already knew about Ireland. It was pretty clear she wasn’t just going to stand up there, separate from us, and tell the stories: we were going to be part of this adventure. And the tone she struck from then on confirmed that.

Representation of On the Heels of the Hound

While she could get lofty and vividly descriptive with her words, something about the updated, conversational, “this is all happening in a time and place we can recognize” tone she used kept the myths she was telling fresh: These stories are thousands of years old, but she kept them from feeling distant. You could relate to these people, which is one of the things I find so interesting about the Irish legends. The characters are very human, even when they’re gods. They have human failings and passions and fears and loves – and senses of humor – and Murphy brought that out. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so much compassion for Fionn mac Cumhail in his search for his lost wife, or for little, stubborn, innocent, pigheaded, terrifying Setanta. (He grows up to be the hero Cuchulainn, who Murphy described as “like Hercules, but psychotic and homicidal.”) But she could also elevate her language and presentation to the level of epic, and I’m not sure I breathed during the warrior poet Amairgin’s crossing of the nine waves to land in Ireland.

The National Arts Centre

The sound effects and different voices she could produce with just her voice were amazing, and she leaped from character to character, becoming a a warrior poet, a snorting, belching, repulsive giant, a crafty old Druidess, a deer, an arrogant king, a snarling dog, a little boy – often back and forth between lines of dialogue. She spoke straight to the audience – to particular people in the audience at times – involving us in the story as well. We became, through the show, the chant that healed King Nuada’s arm, the sound of the wind, servants put to sleep by magic, druids or warriors being chosen for a task, and by the end, the chorus of the song she’d been singing between stories. So in a way we became shapeshifters as much as she did, as did her staff and shawl, which became different objects through the stories as well.

I walked out feeling as though I’d just been in touch with a tradition that went back thousands of years, but that was also alive and well, and very current.

If you want to check out some storytelling near you: the next Ottawa Storytellers events will be Once Upon a Slam, featuring dub poet Klyde Broox, this Friday at the Mercury Lounge; the Story Swap (you can come just to listen, or bring a story to share) on April 7 at Library and Archives; or the Tea Party series, on April 12 (The Frozen Thames with Phil Nagy and Mary Wiggin.) The Fourth Stage series returns April 21, with Love Stories. Details are all at www.ottawastorytellers.ca.

Have any other tips on Ottawa’s storytelling scene? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below!