An Ottawa Story Tellers and 2 Women Productions Co-Production
NAC Fourth Stage, Ottawa June 16, 2012
By Dr. Brenda Beck
I attended a fabulous story telling event in Ottawa on Saturday. It was an all-day telling of Homer’s The Odyssey by a group called the Ottawa StoryTellers. There were no costumes and none of the 18 or so performers were assigned individual character roles. The group’s members took turns telling the story, with each of the legend’s 24 books being spoken out loud by one individual. There were no prompters, no scripts and no cheat notes. This might sound boring but the result was an outstanding performance!
I drove four hours from a village near Toronto to hear this, dragging my sceptical husband along. We were not sure what to expect. I was curious because of my interest in ancient bardic storytelling techniques, which I am familiar with from my years of living in a village in South India prior to the advent of electricity there. In those times–fifty years ago–a single story teller could captivate his audience for 18 nights, with simple pauses during the daytime for normal work activities and other practical or pressing masters.
Well, this Ottawa event was the closest thing to this genuine and very ancient tradition of professional oral story telling I have ever seen or heard outside of India. Even my husband, not a literary man by background, sat on the edge of his chair. We only had the opportunity to hear the second half of the performance (4:30 PM to 10:30 PM) because we had to drove so far to get there, but it was worth every litre of gasoline we burned en route! The performance; which in its full version ran 12 hours for those who arrived at 10:30 AM kick off; had to be broken here and there for brief stand-up breaks and food finding expeditions. But the spell cast by these story tellers was so strong that each of these interruptions came as a shock. Soon enough the lights would re-dim and the sound of a small tin whistle would call everyone back to their seats for the next hour or so of pure enchantment.
The stage set was elementary but evocative. One old folding dark wood screen stood behind the tellers. It was draped with a single bright red cloth and accented by a solitary pair of upright, wicked-looking crossed spears. The lighting was low and yellow-orange in hue, just the feeling that old fashioned lamps or torches would provide. The stage was small, rounded and low, with the listeners crowded around it so closely that they could almost touch the performers. All present sat at small round tables, in a non-linear higglety piggelty sort of way. The theatre (the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre) was jam-packed. Everyone was excited. The buzz was palpable. What a treat! And the entire event ended with an innovative song composed by Tom Lips, one of the players. It was set to the tune “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitor?” but with the words altered to say “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitors?” Everyone loved this play on the old Odyssey theme of the hero’s wife courted by mean-spirited nobles while her Lord is away at sea. The audience belted out the words together, ending with a clever chorus substituting for the traditional song line “Early In the Morning.” Instead we all sang Homer’s lovely and poetic epithet “At Rosy Fingered Dawn.”
All in all, this was a marvellous experience, and one that took me back to the real foundations of human storytelling–the most ancient form of entertainment known; the human verbal arts; a universal tradition that surely reaches back into the past many, many thousands of years!