This past Saturday morning found me basking in warm weather at Myrick Park in La Crosse Wisconsin; a bit of a jaunt from the Cities but well worth the trip, because it was the main day of the La Crosse Storytelling Festival. The event is in its fifth year, and based on this year's festival, hopefully many more are to follow.
The three featured tellers this year were well chosen and speak to the festival's growing success. Hans Mayer is a nationally-recognized kid's teller and musician from the La Crosse area; his easy smile, silly songs, and googly-eyed faces had the kids instantly howling with laughter.
Flame-haired Celia Farran showed her breadth of talent with a combination of traditional Irish folk tales and persona-driven humor (her Russian-accented, coke-bottle-spectacled nose flautist's rendition of the 1812 Overture a highlight of her performances).
Minneapolis' Kevin Kling has reached significant national success as a playwright and actor; he contributes stories frequently to NPR's All Things Considered. At the festival, many audience-members around me complained of jaws and bellies aching from laughter after his stories of boy scout taxidermy and being struck by lightning.
Several other guest tellers brought their talents to the festival. Debra Morningstar, a former social worker and a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, told traditional stories she used during her work dealing with alcoholism and abuse in Native American homes. Phyllis Blackstone had the audience in stitches with her hilarious account of checking into the psych ward during a depression meltdown. Sara Slayton, one of the event's organizers, spoke of her experiences as a two-time cancer survivor in a manner that moved smoothly between somber and lighthearted tones.
Early evening found the main tent host to stories of the Mississippi River's history from Ken and Terry Visger. Especially striking was Ken's haunting tale of the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard from the perspective of duck hunters trapped in the river bottoms during probably the worst snowstorm of the last century.
The crescendo of the festival, however, came in the evening, when the show turned 18+, beer (good beer!) and wine were made available, and the stories moved to adult themes of death, sin, and sex. Terry Visger told a dirty tale of mistaken de-testiculation in the Irish tradition, and retired English professor August Rubrecht (in the interest of full disclosure, my dad) re-imagined Geoffery Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" as told by a 50's radio preacher.
Mayer, Farran, and Kling rotated onto the stage round-robin style several times, each bringing a new story or song that, though seemingly incongruous, would work perfectly with the last. Mayer's melancholy songs of love and possibility moved abruptly into Farran's Tresslefoot Fairy persona singing "Dr. Bronner's Make Your Hoo Hoo Tingle," and then on to Kling speaking movingly of his experiences after his devastating 2001 motorcycle accident(link requires RealPlayer).