SISF 2019: Q&A with Deborah Dunleavy

Tell us an interesting feature of traditional storytelling in your country.

Canada is a relatively young country. Since the first visit by the vikings, newcomers have steadily landed on the shores of our ancestral peoples, and with these early global transitions came the old customs and the old stories. But the exponential evolutionary process has erased many of those stories. Perhaps the traditional story bearers in Canada are the ones who teach the spiritual and religious stories – pastor, priest, rabbi, imam and shaman. But even then, most come to storytelling through an academic or intellectual pursuit. For many, traditional storytelling still lives in our homes. It happens around the kitchen table or sitting by a bonfire. Newfoundland is well known for its Kitchen Parties where folks gather to sing songs, swap stories, and tell tall tales. And there are the mothers and fathers, and the grandmothers and grandfathers who spin yarns for the toddlers when it is bed time. I grew up in a family full of stories and for that I am thankful. My father amazed me with the story of Aladdin who flew on a magic carpet all the way to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

How did you become a storyteller?

For many years I performed music and theatre for children. I was using stories but never thought of myself as a storyteller until 20 years ago when I moved back to my home town. I attended a storytelling session led by the amazing Helen Carmichael Porter, who has since passed on. I knew Helen through my stint as a Dramatic Arts Educator. Helen encouraged me to start a storytelling group in our small city. That was the spark that ignited my passion for storytelling. After a year of testing the waters with stories, I was hooked.

What is magical about storytelling?

So many things are magical about storytelling. A spoken story invites the listener to be transported to another time and place, and to imagine all the untold details such as the colour of a young girl’s hair. Stories are allegories to our own lives. They offer a metaphorical mirror into our own understanding of our place in this sometimes complicated world. And they dance with our emotions by evoking laughter and sometimes tears. Stories entertain but they can also give us that “ah-ha” moment of knowing. I guess one could say that a story told in an honest and heartfelt manner is as powerful as a magic wand.

Do you have a favourite story?

Sometimes. It changes depending on my audience. I have two favourite Canadian stories, or three or four. See what I mean. The first one that I had a story love affair with comes from Newfoundland: “The Ghost of Casey Lane”. It found me when I was doing research in our National Archives in Ottawa. It is a gripping account of a young man who dies at sea and his true love joins him. With children I love to share the story of the turtle who wants to fly. It has a little bit from Africa and a little bit from Indonesia and whole lot from my imagination.

What was the last story that you told?

The last epic storytelling work that I created and still tell is “Isobel Gunn”. Perhaps the question could be what is the latest story you have learned to tell and why? This past winter I was asked to tell stories to quilters. I enjoyed looking for stories that suited their passion and the one that lingers in my mind is a Jewish story. An old man is expelled from his home by his son and he then becomes a beggar. One day the old man returns to the family house and his grandson invites him inside and gives him half of an old quilt/blanket, saving the other half for his own father for when he has to go out into the world and beg.

Is storytelling becoming a lost art?

Storytelling is being reborn, reinvented and rejuvenated. It is, I believe, a contemporary art born out of tradition. Rarely are there traditional storytellers who are not exposed to modern influences such as social media. The traditional storyteller is one who carries the ancient lore and wisdom that have been passed on from generation to generation. We, as storytellers, tell stories that may have been borne out of such traditions, but the great majority of us are re-creators of a traditional art form. Is it lost? No. Just rediscovered.

What is the biggest challenge storytellers face?

Criticism from select groups declaring the traditional right to own and tell their own stories is the biggest challenge for me and is quite controversial. I believe that stories are meant to be fluid, to move from one teller to another, to shift from one culture to another. Respect is essential when telling spiritual stories. At the same time a storyteller worth her weight in a chest of gold coins would not tell another teller’s story without permission. But we are all adapters and word shapers who need to understand the universal truths to the stories we tell. I suppose the biggest challenge is to remain authentic to the source and purpose of the story.

This year’s Festival theme is Beyond Words. What does Beyond Words mean for you?

If a story has the power to move the listeners to an understanding or awakening that resonates personally for them, we, the storytellers, are conduits for taking the story beyond words. It is an awakening of our subconscious. A well told story can lead to the release emotions – joy, sorrow, anger and empathy, to name a few.

Beyond words, to me personally, implies the desire to integrate the spoken art with other creative elements such as dance, music, visual interpretation and so forth. It is not meant to lessen the importance of oral storytelling, but rather to explore esoteric ways of expanding beyond the words alone.

Can you tell us about a time when you have been storytelling that connected you with another teller or listener beyond words?

Was it the time a five year old asked me if I was Mother Goose? Was it the young boy moved to tears by one of my stories because his father had just left the family? Was it the elders who wanted to share their memories with me following a performance of stories I had collected from their community? In cases such as these, and there are many more, I give thanks for the power of the story to ignite curiosity, to be a catalyst for releasing emotions, and to be a stepping stone for others to want to share more stories.

How do you imagine being part of the SISF 2019 will be?

Thrilling! I look forward to sharing “Isobel Gunn”, a true Scottish-Canadian story and hearing the feedback afterward. I see myself being delighted by the stories told by the other featured guests. And I imagine the conversations between tellers will be truly inspiring. The mere thought of it puts a smile on my face.

Indigenous culture/language is a focus for SISF 2019: How important is heritage and culture for you? 

My heritage as a Canadian is much like a well worn patchwork quilt. It is borne out of a Scottish family tartan with traces going back to the ruins of Whithorn. It is the echo of the dark people of the mountain telling tales in the time of Queen Maeve.  And it is the dreamtime of my great grandmother’s indigenous ancestors. I am drawn to historical storytelling and have created a number of storytelling programs that reflect this interest, including “Isobel Gunn” and “Battlefield Petticoats – Women in the War of 1812”. I am called to tell First Nation stories and always when permission is granted and respect for the cultures is shared honestly and openly. And I tell stories from around the world that hold meaning to my heart as a teller and to listeners from diverse cultures that make up the cultural mosaic we call Canada. We have so much to learn from the myriad of cultures around our world.

As part of #SISFBeyondWords, our Global Lab explores the principles and goals of The Earth Charter Initiative and how storytelling can positively impact on this. What do you feel is the role of storytellers in the 21st century?

Stories are the doorway to understanding our place in this vastly complicated world. In the beginning of time we sat by the fire and listened to the elders tell us about stars, animals, plants, weather and all of the mysteries that exist in and beyond our tiny planet. These creation stories are gentle reminders of our need to love this fragile home we call earth.

We storytellers are as diverse as there are stars in the heavens but we can choose to awaken the consciousness of our listener. We can inspire them to come into a fullness of knowing by telling the ancient stories that celebrate our planet. In an age of expected instantaneous gratification we bards of the spoken word have an obligation to give our listeners motivation, to help them take notice of the flowing waters, the changing weather patterns, and the need to end the disease of disposability. One of my favourite earth stories tells of a time when trees could speak to humans. I invite the listeners to say with me the words of the trees: “You care for us and we will care for you; you care for us and we will care for you”.

Scotland and Canada: Isobel Gunn 
Sunday 20 October at 6.30pm (1hr)

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Open Hearth
Sunday 20 October at 8pm (2hrs)

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CANADA inspires 
Sunday 27 October at 2pm (2hrs 30)

Book Tickets