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Michigan storytellers gather to spin some yarn

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

With programs like The Moth, Snap Judgment and This American Life dominating public radio, it would seem storytelling is more popular and vital than ever.

Maybe that’s not such a good thing, though.

Professional storyteller La’Ron Williams says that while the act of telling stories is in our very nature, he worries the recent commodification of storytelling as an art form might signal a radical departure from its true purpose.

"I think that like a lot of things that start out with an innocent desire for human connectedness, storytelling has grown into a marketable commodity, and I worry that some of its origins are being displaced or pushed to the side,” Williams, 64, says. "And I don’t think people are aware of it.”

Williams, a Flint native, is one of several local storytellers who will spin yarns and share the secrets of the craft at Saturday’s 35th Annual Michigan Storytellers Festival on the grounds of the Flint Public Library.

Williams will be joined by fellow fablers and raconteurs Judy Sima, Gwen Lewis, Joseph Remenar and Alfreda Harris. Remenar and Sima will tell true stories from their own pasts and family histories, while the others will adopt various techniques -- from impersonating famous historical figures to reworking classic tales -- to entertain and enlighten an all ages audience.

Williams studied drama at Eastern Michigan University because the school didn’t offer an architecture program. Disenchanted with his college experience, he drifted from job to job until he landed a fateful gig as a preschool teacher.

“I used to read a lot of stories to my kids while I was a teacher, and because of my drama background I used to act the stories out, and wear costumes and do funny voices,” he recalls. “Eventually I had told so many, and some of them so often, that I realized I didn’t need a book to tell the stories. I had this little storehouse of stories inside of me.”

Several years later Williams was invited to tell one of those stories at a benefit performance at The Ark in Ann Arbor. It went over so well that a promoter approached him after the show and struck a deal with Williams on the spot. Ever since he’s been delighting audiences young and old with his singular style, which blends traditional tales with modern issues.

“My stories focus are woven around certain ideas, peaceful conflict resolution, collective problem solving, building community, and non-violence,” Williams says.

At the Michigan Storytellers Festival Williams will teach a workshop focusing on a well-worn fable, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and update it for modern audiences.

“I’m going to do a critique of the story and how it promotes the idea that the biggest and the strongest wins through an act of violence,” he says. “Most people don’t even think about that story being about the efficacy of violence, but that’s what it is. So by offering an alternative version, the kids receive the anti-violence message without necessarily thinking about the important lesson their receiving.”

Williams believes the concept of uniting communities and offering important lessons might be lost in the recent upsurge in the popularity of storytelling.

“I think the recognition of the importance of storytelling that took place over the last 30 years was the result of people feeling less connected to each other and to their daily lives,” he says.

“My concern, and part of the reason I continue as a storyteller, is it gets us out of our homes and away from our computers and smartphones. It gets us sitting in a room together and reading each others’ emotions and coming to appreciate the feelings other people have.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Michigan Storytellers Festival

9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday

Flint Public Library

1026 E. Kearsley, Flint

Free

(810) 232-7111

www.fpl.info