The oral tradition

Gullah storyteller Veronica Gaillard captivated a crowd of children and parents at the 2013 Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

For Veronica Gaillard, storytelling is a way to educate and to instill pride in those unfamiliar with their heritage.

For Anita Singleton-Prather, storytelling is a way to share history and express pain in a way that is likely to engender understanding and even sympathy.

For Bill Lepp, storytelling is a way to connect with an audience, to entertain, yes, but to do so fueled by a visceral response from one’s listeners.

These three professional storytellers, along with several others, will be featured at the third annual Charleston Tells Storytelling Festival, which runs March 13 and 14 at Wragg Square (Meeting and Charlotte streets).

Charleston Tells so far has been a big success, according to its organizers at the Charleston County Public Library. The event has drawn dozens of acclaimed storytellers from across the country and more than 1,500 patrons each year so far. Library officials hope the festival will become a Lowcountry cultural mainstay.

“We looked at different models, did lots of research, then figured out what would work for Charleston and what our driving interest in doing this was,” said Cynthia Bledsoe, the library deputy director and festival director. That driving interest was to make storytelling a community endeavor that acknowledged history and the cultural value of the spoken word, Bledsoe said.

It was a natural development for Bledsoe, whose experience (she co-founded the Storytelling Guild in Nashville, Tenn.) prepared her for Charleston Tells.

“It really was sort of a coming together of different groups and facets,” she said. “We had some community members interested in doing this, some storytellers who dreamed about doing this and I had personal interest.”

The festival kicks off March 13 with an evening presentation in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church, located at the far end of Wragg Square. It includes storytellers Corinne Stavish, Michael Reno Harrell, Charlotte Blake Alston and Bill Lepp.

The festival continues throughout the day and evening March 14 with presentations in the sanctuary and in two tents. It concludes with a session of ghost stories, 8:15-9:45 p.m. in the big tent, featuring four storytellers, including Adam Booth, who appears earlier in the day as well.

Digital storytelling will be in the mix. The finished results of a recent contest/workshop co-organized by the Center for Digital Storytelling will be shown in the small tent, and participants will be on hand to discuss their work.

“The thrust is to get people to realize they don’t have to be a professional (in order to tell stories publicly),” Bledsoe said. “All of our lives are made up of stories. ... Find your own story and start telling it.”

Gaillard, a Charleston native and former teacher’s assistant in the public schools, became interested in storytelling after appearing in a Gullah version of the play “Porgy and Bess” in 1990. She had grown up speaking Gullah, but the process of translating the play and delving deeply into the language triggered a profound curiosity, she said.

“I wanted to know more about my ancestors,” Gaillard said.

She went back to school and wrote about Gullah language and culture, and she listened intently to relatives in Mount Pleasant, including an uncle who once closed a gash on her forehead with a spider’s web mixed with tobacco.

Some years ago, “a lot of young people ... didn’t want people to know about their Gullah background,” Gaillard said. “I wanted them to be proud of who they were and where they came from.”

She turned to storytelling to trace a line from coastal South Carolina today back to the western Africa from which her ancestors came.

“My stories have lessons,” she said. “I tell about street vendors, and each one tells a story.”

She describes the Charleston market, imitates the calls of vendors, talks about the praise houses, uses call and response and celebrates Gullah heritage. “It’s entertaining, you would laugh, but I also try to educate.”

Gaillard will perform at 11:15 a.m. and again at 12:15 p.m. March 14.

Lepp is traveling from his home near Charleston, W.Va., to participate in the festival for the first time.

He started telling stories while in college, then got more serious about it around 1990 when he participated in the West Virginia Liar’s Contest. “At that time, I didn’t know you could be a professional storyteller, I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he said. Then he made it his primary endeavor a few years later.

The former United Methodist pastor and museum educator has become one of the most recognized storytellers active today, with 15 audio collections and several books to his name.

“Most of my stories are humorous; they’re supposed to be, anyway,” he said. “Usually, they have a tall tale to them, some exaggerated facet.” They are a little like humorous monologues or long-form stand-up comedy routines. “I might go for half an hour. Overall, they’re funny, but you’re not necessarily laughing constantly.”

And like most professional storytellers, Lepp tunes his presentations for adult ears.

“Everything I tell is family-friendly, but most of what I do is aimed at adults,” he said. “It’s adult entertainment for sure.”

For Charleston Tells, he will present three new stories he’s been honing for some months, he said. He started one of them two years ago.

“I write just about everything I tell,” he said. “It can be a long process. A lot of my stories take at least a couple of years to put together.” An idea will come to him and he will ruminate on it for a while. Then he’ll put pen to paper, sit at the computer and type, and change and refine and polish. Finally he tells it out loud and refines some more.

Ultimately, he will stand before an audience and share his tale, drawing energy from the response he receives. In this way, he becomes part of a long tradition.

“It’s probably the oldest form of entertainment that there is,” Lepp said.

He will be part of the opening performance March 13 and perform again March 14 at 11:15 a.m., 2 p.m., 3:15 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Singleton-Prather, a Beaufort storyteller, first told a story publicly in 1989 at a community fundraiser during Black History Month. It was a way to introduce young people to ethnic art forms, she said. “It was supposed to be a one-time thing.”

It became a career.

She invented a character, Aunt Pearlie Sue, who she inhabits whenever sharing her tales, which she does regularly these days. She will perform at Charleston Tells at 3:15 p.m., 4:20 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. March 14.

Storytelling was an obvious evolution for Singleton-Prather. She was a youth minister whose family was involved in the civil rights and black power movements, so cultural awareness was a priority in her home, she said.

In high school, she played piano and started to perform in plays. Later, she became a teacher. Storytelling, therefore, is an extension of what she’s been doing all along, she said.

“It’s definitely a way to share culture,” Singleton-Prather said. Learning history can be boring for some people, “but when you bring it alive through stories, it helps to get (them) to be more involved on an active, instead of passive, level.”

And it allows the storyteller to broach painful subjects such as slavery, oppression and torture in ways that become palatable because they are part of a compelling narrative, she said.

“A lot of older people wouldn’t talk about their experiences,” she said, referring to the era of legal segregation and the difficult fight for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s. So storytelling is one way to convey a sense of history, but one must be honest about it, include uncomfortable truths, like the complicity of black Africans in the slave trade, Singleton-Prather said.

“If you’re going to tell the story, then you have to tell the whole story, because when you tell just a piece of the story, it becomes a whole lie,” she said. “Greed doesn’t have a color, evil doesn’t have a color. It just is what it is.”

Storytelling, therefore, is a way to bring people together so they might express buried emotions and bitterness and begin to heal.

“Storytellers can say what others cannot,” she said.

And they bear a great responsibility, rooted in an oral tradition that dates to the beginning of the human experience, said Jamie Thomas, public relations and marketing manager for the public library.

“We wouldn’t know a lot of the history of this community if it wasn’t for somebody telling the story to the next generation and the next generation and the next generation,” Thomas said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at aparkerwriter.