the living art of storytelling in Massachusetts

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Below: Stu Mendleson tells about a $35 dollar decision.

Storytellers unite in Cambridge

By Caitlin Gallagher/Correspondent
Wed Aug 20, 2008, 02:19 PM EDT

Cambridge -

Elsa Zuniga came to Toscanini’s on Monday evening not for the ice cream, but to hear stories – and to share one of her own.

Massmouth, an organization that focuses on the art of verbal storytelling, held its first public gathering, known as a “mouthoff,” at Toscanini’s in Central Square last week. Massmouth was formed in part to help supplement the work of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling. The group hopes to become a statewide organization, with events across Massachusetts.

Zuniga, 34, of Quincy, said that “many people understand ‘storytelling’ to mean ‘reading to children on a dirty kindergarten mat.’ Massmouth hopes to change that, and I hope to help.”

The event brought together rookie and veteran storytellers to share their stories with each other and with passers-by. Each storyteller was given five minutes to share a story that tied into the chosen theme for that particular meeting — money. A microphone and video camera were set up near the window of Toscanini’s, ensuring maximum curiosity from pedestrians along Main Street.

The nine stories presented at the “mouthoff” ranged from spontaneous poems to more practiced narratives. Hugh Morgan Hill, also known as Brother Blue, a noted Cambridge storyteller, kicked off the event with a performance that was a cross between a song, a story, and a poem — and included a harmonica. Brother Blue later explained that “storytelling is a sacred art — to God, for God, of God, from God.”

Other stories followed Hill’s. Norah Dooley, 55, a former long-time resident of Cambridge and one of the event’s organizers, recounted the time she lost $250 in cash in Central Square, only to have it returned to her by a Good Samaritan later that evening. Michael Ahern, 67, of Wellesley, hadn’t come to Toscanini’s to participate in the “mouthoff,” but decided on the spot to take a turn at the microphone, telling the group about his time in New York City’s Bowery district in the 1960s, and how his generosity with those who were “down on their luck” was at its peak when he too was struggling. Zuniga talked about regaining her father’s confidence after she misplaced her allowance money.

“Storytelling is about connecting,” said Zuniga. “When I'm telling, I look forward to the moment where the mechanics of telling melt away and the story and the listeners connect. Listening to and telling stories touches on something deep and innate.”

Dooley reiterated Zuniga’s sentiment that “stories are not just for children,” adding that they are “as essential to human thought as breath is to life.”

Annie Valentino-Upson was visiting Cambridge from Branford, Conn. and happened to be in Toscanini’s during the mouthoff. She said that, while people are in constant communication via e-mail and cell phone, there is “a different part of you that’s communicating” in live storytelling.

Massmouth will hold its next mouthoff on Monday, Sept. 8 from 7-9 p.m. at Toscanini’s. The theme will be “school.”

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And Andrea Lovett just looks beautiful in her photo, almost as if she's posing. "A model for joyful listening," said Elsa.

I love the face Elsa is making in one of the article photographs. I cannot see such an expression and not wonder what is being said. I was imitating Elsa during a conversation at Tony's corn party and Joy said "Oh, that is such an Elsa face." She is distinctive! :)

And Doria, too. That is a classic Doria expression, if there ever was one.

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Grand Prize for South Shore Grand Slam Story Slam generously donated by Nicolette Heavey and Stories In The Streets (A Maine Get Away)

Stories in the Streets in an outreach literacy program that focuses on families in at-risk areas and fosters community engagement in storytelling by: 1) Creating opportunities for public storytelling wherever families gather — a farmer’s market, laundromat, or food line; and, 2) Offering storytelling workshops that raise family engagement in literacy, cultural awareness and community understanding.  The program is currently active in Lawrence, Brockton and Randolph.


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