Celebrating France's stories

17th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

With the inconstant moon as this year's theme, March 20 is World Storytelling Day. The event will be amply recognised across France where the interest in storytelling, and the number of professional storytellers, is on the rise. Annette Gartland reports.

In summer, in the mountains of southern France, storytellers accompany visitors on night-time walks, enthralling them with enchanting tales in magical surroundings.

*sidebar1*Storytelling is an age-old tradition in France with hundreds of professional storytellers, and thousands of amateurs, still captivating audiences around the country.

"In this era of Playstations and Gameboys, it is important to give space to storytelling," said Caroline Castelli, spokeswoman in France for World Storytelling Day, which this year falls on the spring equinox, March 20.

The aim of World Storytelling Day is to encourage as many people as possible to tell and listen to stories in as many languages and in as many places as possible, with events going on all week, including storytelling walks through Paris.

Stories under the moon and stars

"People don't realise that they can go to the local library and hear a storyteller, that storytelling is for adults as well as children," said Castelli, adding that this year's theme is the moon.

"Storytelling is about juggling with space and time," said Raphael Faure from the Ardèche, who founded the Théâtre des Chemins, a performance company that blends storytelling, music and dance.

"I take people into a fantastic, imaginary world where the stories and the environment become one and the same. Our theatre is nature itself," said Faure.

The logo for this year's World Storytelling Day, March 20

The summer mountain walks take place during the annual countryside festival in the Cévennes national park.

Storytellers entertain people as they make their way to a picnic spot, then put on a show under the stars. "We organise the walks so that they happen on or around the night of a full moon," said festival spokeswoman Sylvette Huguet.

Sophie Lemonnier, from the group Paroles de Sources, based in the Lozère, sees storytelling not just as creative self-expression, but also as self-exploration. "You find out a lot about yourself," she said.

"There are no borders in storytelling," she added. "This year, I heard a Tuareg story that was just like one I used to hear in France as a child."

*quote1*The Cévennes is also the venue for Contes et Rencontres (Stories and Encounters), a February festival that harks back to a time before television, when locals would travel to a neighbouring hamlet and spend the evening storytelling, and peeling chestnuts.

Today, the storytellers — and the audiences — come from all over the world.

Another popular event is the July all-nighter in the village of Thoiras. Three hundred people board the Cévennes steam train and chug up into the mountains for a storytelling session out in the wilds.

For those with the stamina, there is a night-time trek, followed by a Cévennes-style breakfast.

France's professional raconteurs

An official study in 2000 found that there were 300 professional storytellers in France, and some 4,000 amateurs.

The moon serves as the theme for this year's World Storytelling Day

There were more than 25,000 storytelling events a year, watched by some two million spectators, more than 80 storytelling festivals, and about 3,500 people doing storytelling courses.

"Now there must be 500-600 professionals, and 4,000-5,000 amateurs," said Henri Touati, who did the research.

"There has been a real burst of interest over the past four or five years, especially among the 20- to 30-year-olds," said François Vermel from the Aude, who has been storytelling for more than 20 years.

"To make a living, most professional storytellers are obliged to leave the fireside and perform in theatres."

Some storytellers use music and lights, and other theatrical effects, but others, like Alain Houzet, prefer to keep things simple.

*quote2*Houzet, who has given up his business in Saint Jean du Gard to go back to storytelling, says the important thing is to get the emotions across, to draw the audience in, to intrigue them.

"You need to bring the characters to life. Each person has a different way of telling the same story. A tale that is funny for one storyteller will be sad for another," he said.

"Stories travel. They take on a life of their own. A tale that started off in Africa can be transformed into a story from the Cévennes. Stories stay in people's memories."

France's fifth national storytelling day, organised by the association Ancef, is on June 10th. "It's an occasion for us to celebrate storytelling, and help it reach a wider audience," said Ancef president Ralph Nataf.

Storytelling, said American storyteller and author Allison Cox, is a healing art. "It is a time-tested craft that can tackle the challenges confronting our culture".

Nataf would agree. "Contemporary issues like racism and exclusion are dealt with in some of the world's oldest stories," he said.

March 2006

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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