In an interview that happened to take place on his 60th birthday, Brian Bemel, the founder of the Ojai Storytellers Festival and Performances to Grow On, expressed his amazement that this weekend’s shows will mark the festival’s 10th year.
“It feels like just yesterday that we started,” he said. “When I tell people, they’re surprised it’s been around that long, but we really have become well-established in the storytelling world.”
When asked if he started the festival because he dislikes television and other forms of mass media, Bemel scoffed.
“TV can be great,” he said. “The problem is that there aren’t that many quality programs, and TV provides everything, so there’s nothing left for the viewer to do. Storytelling is kind of like IMAX for the mind. Because you create the images in your own mind, it’s a more magical experience.”
Bemel points out that the Ojai Storytellers Festival also is much more varied than visitors expect. “People who come for the first time are usually just blown away by it,” he said. “We feature nationally known storytellers who are just so gifted at reaching people. First-timers often come with a kind of a skeptical outlook and usually have a fabulous experience. We have a great return audience.”
This year’s festival features an unusually diverse lineup. Probably the most famous of the tellers is the bow-tied Donald Davis, who has been featured at the Smithsonian and in the New York Times.
On the other end of the spectrum is a teller new to this festival, Leland Faulkner, who grew up in Africa, Afghanistan and Iran.
“He’s a visual theater person,” Bemel said. “Stories are just part of his work. He’s a renowned shadowmaster; he can do almost anything you can imagine with origami.You have to see him to believe it.”
More humorous is Carmen Deedy, who, like Davis, appeared at the festival two years ago, and also tells stories about growing up in the South, specifically in Decatur, GA. As a little girl fresh off the boat from Cuba, she didn’t fit in at all.
“She learned how to tell stories to get out of trouble, when she was a kid,” said Bemel. “She’s very funny, very feisty.” Deedy is also a well-known author of books for children, with numerous titles to her credit, the most recent being Martina the
Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale.
The festival this year will pair a blues musician and scholar named Scott Ainslie, who first learned the blues from a grave digger named John Jackson and now can make a classic National steel guitar express seemingly any emotion imaginable. He will trade licks and stories with Glennis Redmond, a performance poet, in a program called “Black, White and the Blues.”
Another featured attraction is deaf storyteller Peter Cook, who will tell his stories with facial expressions and sign language. He will have an interpreter in the audience to add voice for the hearing.
The festival features the storytellers not only as individuals, but in workshops, and as tellers of a particular type of tale — another example of the diversity of the festival.
On May 1, from 8 to 10 p.m. in Libbey Bowl, all the storytellers will participate in Laughing Night, telling funny stories. Saturday night, May 2, will be Naughty Tales in the Tent, for adults 21 and older, featuring Carmen Deedy, Niall de Burca,
Scott Ainslie and Glennis Redmond. And on Sunday morning, at the Vesta restaurant in the Ojai Arcade, Scott Ainslie will play and sing and tell stories about the blues masters he loves in a show called Breakfast and the Blues.
“I think storytelling still resonates in everyone, despite all the bombardment of the mass media,” Bemel said. “Just about everybody has someone in their family who is loved for the way they tell stories — it’s kind of what makes us human.”
The Ojai Storytelling Festival will take place from Friday, May 1, to Sunday, May 3, in Ojai’s Libbey Park. For more information call 646-8907 or visit www.ojaistoryfest.org.