The Ark's 35th annual Storytelling Festival spotlights traditional tales

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

From bedtime tales, to books and movies, to sharing personal experiences with friends, storytelling is a significant part of daily life. But this year’s 35th annual Storytelling Festival at the Ark in Ann Arbor aims to expose people to more types of storytelling with a “sampler” program that showcases oral storytelling from a variety of categories. 

The Ark's marketing director Barb Chaffer Authier said many people are familiar with NPR-type storytelling through "The Moth" or "This American Life," and while personal stories are part of the festival, the larger focus is on more traditional storytelling. 

“The art of storytelling is really a folk art in lots of different kinds of cultures and communities,” she said. “What our festival tries to do is highlight stories that come out of more cultural traditions.”

Bill Harley, left, Bil Lepp and Don White perform at the 2017 Storytelling Festival at the Ark.

The categories include tall tales, folk tales, personal experiences and spoken stories from literature, as well as a story sung in folk music tradition. The festival will feature six regional storytellers, including Steve Daut, Lorelle Otis, Jane Fink and Rich Swanson from the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild, as well as Barbara Schutzgruber from the Lansing Storytellers and Larry Castleberry from the Detroit Association of Black Storytellers.

Daut, the event’s longtime curator and emcee, said he does not tend to have themes in his programs, but previous festivals have featured more cohesive stories that complement each other. This year, however, the priority was diversity in style.

He said guests can expect a couple of personal stories, one a heartwarming experience about food and family and the other a comedic recollection of “cleaning up a little bit of a mess.” He said patrons will also hear a song, a folk tale told from a different point of view and a telling of a James Thurber story, though it would not be a reading.

“It will be a fun program,” Daut said. “Tellers will introduce their own stories, and there will be some surprises.”

The elements of surprise and spontaneity and the possibility for the unexpected are what makes live storytelling magical, said Laura Lee Hayes, a board member for the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild and part of the festival’s support crew. Like other forms of live performance, she said, tellers feed off the energy of the audience.

“Even if you write a story and then you tell a story, it’s not like memorizing, it’s not like reading,” she said. “It’s learning something so deeply that it’s part of you, and when you’re interacting with the audience, you’re taking cues from them.”

Hayes said storytelling is more than just entertainment. It has been an integral part of the human existence from the beginning.

Steve Daut

“This is a way that vital information is passed down from generation to generation, and not just information, but the stories that bring life into the feelings and experiences of people,” she said. “It’s a way to grow closer to people and to experience otherness.”

The event marks the festival’s first return to live performance since 2020, after a virtual-only presentation last year. The program, however, will still be livestreamed on the Ark’s Facebook and YouTube pages for those unable to attend or not yet comfortable returning to live events. 

Patrons of the Ark must show proof of vaccination with photo ID to enter the club and wear a mask during the performance. 

For those who haven’t listened to live storytelling before, the festival is a great opportunity to experience it outside of kids’ stories and fairytales, said Authier. 

“It’s really a cool way to discover different cultures and different histories,” she said. “It’s a very warm and engaging event.”

The audience watches a performance at the Ark in Ann Arbor.

'35th annual Storytelling Festival'

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26 at The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor

In-person tickets are $20 and are available online, at the door or by calling (734) 763–8587. The livestream performance will be available on the Ark’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Visit www.theark.org