You can't have storytelling without laughter. This important point was debated with heat and vigor amongst the contestants of the Liars Competition in the BIG Story Fest at ARTworks earlier this month. There was a senior division and a junior division, evenly divided. All the junior competitors were sixth-graders from Beaufort Middle School's storytelling troupe The Dreamers.
The final round was emceed by Bil Lepp, a five-time champion liar and sought-after teller in national festivals. In between the 10 finalists, he serialized his Strike Anywhere Matches tale, which fused the 11 stories into a high-pressure fire hose of hilarity.
Throughout Lepp's performances, he took the time to address kids in the audience directly, because he understands the influence of good humor, positive reinforcement and modeling behavior. In the "aliens have arrived" portion of his Matches tale, he paused and asked, "Kids, what color do you get when you put blue Jello in a red balloon?" further explaining that "you can get away with making a Jello balloon by calling it art or science."
One sixth-grader told a mouse-filled tale, punning refrigerator into "ratgerator." Lepp commented "Good one," with authentic appreciation for a young one's stab at art-making and the process of learning. After the junior storytellers told their tales of Space Mountain, the Vanishing Hitchhiker, and an original prologue to the Billy Goats Gruff, Lepp warned the adults about to take the stage: "They were cute, and you're not going to be."
He was right, but the adult tellers did regale us with tales of true love in Savannah, monkeys on shrimp boats and roadrunners versus tractor trailers.
The audience was inspired, because there's one way storytelling is like yawning -- it spreads. One of the categories on the judges' score sheets was how well the audience related to the story, and they certainly did with gasps and guffaws and elbow jabs of "did-you-hear-that?!" Plus, tidal waves of applause. Lepp encouraged parents to tell stories at home, and people asked about the storytelling troupes, a new initiative at ARTworks.
Anne Schuster said she's interested in being a trouper because "I like to talk, I like to make people laugh. I live in Sun City by way of the Bronx. I don't talk funny, people listen funny."
Patti Irvine is interested in joining a troupe because she's been writing her memoir and telling growing-up tales to her four grandchildren. She's also an anesthesiologist. "I have a captive audience," she cracked. Her hope for being in a storytelling troupe is to see how far other tellers stretch their stories, "where the energy of the story goes." This year was her first BIG Story Fest. "It's awesome. I want this to explode. I want people to come here to Beaufort for this," she said.
You can't have a competition without judges, of which I was one. ARTworks provided a simple score sheet, and asked us to provide feedback on the middle-schoolers' performances, because responding positively to children's work is vital to their education (and their parents, and their teachers too). This fair approach worked well. Here's how sixth-grader Hailey Seckinger responded: "I was a little bit nervous about being judged. But when I made the top five. I worked my tail off."
And that is exactly the desired, happy outcome, no debate necessary.
The results of the BIG Liars Competition are posted at www.artworksinbeaufort.org.
Lisa Annelouise is a judgmental person: She's judged 10 years of the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open, a few other competitions, and the upcoming Beaufort High School visual art show that will be exhibited in May.