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Claremont group makes sure art of storytelling lives on

“I’m going to share with you the Legend of the Dragon,” began Ontario resident John St. Clair in front of a small, semi-circled audience in the Claremont Forum Tuesday night. The words opened a story swap Mr. St. Clair and others have held religiously at the Forum every month for nearly a decade. The meetings bring to life the words scrawled across the pages of the books brimming the shelves of the little Packing House bookshop and arts center. 

Keeping those words alive continues to be their driving purpose.

The power of the written word and the ancient art of storytelling is living on through the voices of the Inland Valley Storytellers, a community group formed with the sole purpose of listening and sharing stories from personal experience to folklore.

“There is a real nourishment that comes from stories,” said Chris St. Clair, one of the original members of the group. “It satisfies the need for connecting with other human beings.”

Folk tradition has long been passed down as a means of entertainment and cultural preservation, says Ms. St. Clair, nurtured locally through the auspices of the late Dorothy Chase of the Folk Music Center, a teacher of storytelling arts into the 1990s. The tradition continued on with the formation of the Inland Valley Storytellers in 2003, eager to carry forward what Ms. Chase had begun.

For Ms. St. Clair, involvement with the local storytelling scene is a welcome reminder of years gone past. The Ontario woman harbors cherished memories of her parents, both storytellers themselves, sharing their tales with the family.

“There was joy in the telling of the stories and it was so satisfying,” she recalled.

Finding the Storytellers “felt like finding home,” she said, encouraging her husband to join with her. Though Mr. St. Clair lacked his wife’s storytelling roots, he became equally hooked.

“I had always enjoyed listening to stories, but found I loved telling the stories as well,” said Mr. St. Clair, now the leader of the storytelling club.

As does fellow member Barbara Rugeley, who’s favorite stories to share include those passed down to her by her grandmother, like The Three Little Pigs and Billy Goats Gruff.

Each member, like the tales they share each month, has their own story to tell of what led them to storytelling. The rush of the art is what captivated group member Ron Chick of Riverside, who shared a Danish tale about the 3 suitors at Tuesday’s story swap.   

“There is such immediacy with storytelling,” said Mr. Chick, who first joined the group 4 years ago after receiving a flier at a storytelling festival in Ojai. He has only missed 2 or 3 meetings since. “We feel the audience’s responses, we connect with the people we are speaking to and that’s the most exciting thing I do in my life.”

Storytelling provided a welcome learning tool for Mr. Chick, who had a difficult time in school. In junior college, still struggling to catch up to the level of his peers, he took a course in children’s literature and was given a choice of assignments. He could write out descriptive cards for a library catalogue on a whole bunch of children’s books, follow one theme of children’s books across several different authors or choose a folk or fairy tale and tell it to a group.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Mr. Chick said of Storytellers. “I memorized [my story] and I butchered it badly...honestly, I sounded like a recording. But I was hooked.”

He has been dedicated to the craft ever since, using his involvement in groups like Inland Valley Storytellers to help hone his craft. In the informal meeting group, mistakes and pauses in a story are not frowned upon. It’s an avenue for learning, they say.

“Last month I told a story for the very first time that I had to stop and start. If you did that in a setting that wasn’t like this one, people would never hear the next phrase. That would be the end of it, you would have lost them all together,” said Mr. Chick. “Here you have the ability to learn.”

You also have the ability to simply listen, which is precisely what Charlie Young of Riverside has been doing for the last 4 years.

“I’m not a storyteller, but I enjoy listening to the different stories and community involvement,” Mr. Young said.

In fact, most of the group is like Mr. Young. About half of the group’s membership doesn’t tell stories, noted Mr. St. Clair.

“And that’s great because every storyteller needs a story listener,” he added.

The group continues to meet every month as the storytellers prep for the group’s annual Tellabration, or storytelling fundraiser, on Saturday, November 17, at the Folk Music Center. Beyond helping them to get ready for the event and providing them with necessary means to shape their storytelling skills, it helps them foster a sense of togetherness sometimes lost in today’s media-heavy society.

“People need to remember how to talk to each other and communicate,” Ms. St. Clair said. “Stories are a digestible way of learning something new and relating to other people.”

Inland Valley Storytellers meets every second Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Claremont Forum. Storytellers and story listeners alike are welcome. For more information visit www.inlandstorytellers.org or visit their group page on Facebook.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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