Monday, July 2, 2018

Of Dragons and Theaters: FEST Storytelling Conference, 2018.

It has been three years since I was elected to be a member of the Executive Committee of FEST - which means that this year's conference was also officially my last as an EC member. It has been wild and challenging work, and it could not have ended on a better note than the 2018 FEST conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
This year's conference was organized and hosted by Storytelling Variety, and had two main themes: Tradition (especially storytelling tradition in the Balkans), and Performance Art. More than 100 storytellers attended the conference from 24 different countries (including faraway places like the USA and Canada), representing 50 members organizations of FEST. Our Slovenian hosts did an excellent job making us feel welcome, and providing a varied lineup of lectures, workshops, and events.

The conference began on Thursday, with an all-day-long General Assembly. Unlike previous years, when the GA had been shoved into the last day of the conference, this year we decided to get the hard work out of the way first - and it was a good decision! We had a whole day to report, discuss, debate, and vote on important issues. While there were some heated debates occasionally, and sometimes we got very close to voting on whether we should vote on voting (democracy is a glorious mess), the day went by with useful work, and in the evening, we could all reward ourselves for getting the hardest part done.

On the evening of the first day, after dinner, we were treated to a storytelling performance titled I, Anarchist by Damir Avdić, a Bosnian musician, and Erik Valenčič, a Slovenian war reporter, who created this performance specifically for us. Erik told us stories about his time in South Sudan, and how he dealt with the surreality of a budding bureaucracy while drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Damir, rocking out on an electric guitar, told us stories about the time he lived in the USA, and how he encountered ironic situations of race and culture. My favorite story of the whole night was him telling us how he visited an anarchist bookshop in America - where he was told that he has to pay tax on the books he bought. The irony just snowballed from there, and we were all laughing our asses off at his delivery. It was definitely a memorable performance.

Friday was spent on the theme of traditions. In the morning, we went to the Puppet Theater building by the castle, and listened to some excellent lectures. Boštjan Narat, leader of the folk-music-based band Katalena, gave a talk on engaging with tradition in a creative way, pointing out that "kitsch stems from understanding the past as something dead." Špela Frlic, one of our Slovenian storytellers told us about contemporary storytelling in the Balkans, about festivals, conferences, and events that happen around Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia. She was also responsible for inviting a lot of storytellers from these countries to this year's conference, so that we had a chance to mingle and talk.
The third, and most amazing, lecture of the day was delivered by Serbian anthropologist Svetlana Slapšak, a woman full of knowledge, sarcasm, and feminism, on the topic of gender relations in storytelling traditions in the Balkans. She spoke to us for two hours about female tale-singers, female travelers and collectors, Serbian epics, Greek mythology, sexism in folklore research, and other fascinating topics. Among many things, she pointed out that female tale-singers and tellers have been unduly ignored by academic research. I could have listened to her for several hours more.

Friday afternoon we had several workshops on topics related to tradition - among them, my friend Danielle Bellone's workshop on "new trad" storytelling. As for me, I ran a Story Swap in one of the empty rooms for people who felt like telling and listening to stories from each other (since this year's conference was not attached to a festival). On Friday, we had ten participants, and they all got a chance to tell - that means then stories, songs, and lots of fun! From what I gathered from other people, all the workshops went splendidly as well.

Friday evening also contained a performance: We watched a show titled The Man Who Watched the World in Mladinsko Theater. It is a collection of shorter scenes based on powerful and touching personal stories that deal with problems in our world (such as pollution, sweat shops, sexism, refugee crises, etc.). The connecting concept of the show is that the apocalypse is not something that will suddenly happen in the future - but rather something that is happening little by little right now. It was a thought-provoking, extremely well done show. Our organizers reached their goal with it: On the way home, storytellers were having intense discussions about whether or not we had just seen storytelling, story theater, or something totally different. It was good to have something so thought-provoking incorporated into the conference program.

Saturday was all about storytelling as a performing art. Once again, we had a morning full of lectures. Ana Duša told us about various theater ventures that combined personal stories and storytelling with stage performance in order to make a point, or explore social problems. Our French guest Yves Marc delivered a great presentation, peppered with demonstrations, on how the body sends different messages through posture, pace, stance, and place on the stage. He encouraged us all to be more aware of the messages we send, or could send, with our bodies during storytelling. Hester Tammes told us about "storytelling theater" in the Netherlands - which is not, as we learned, the same as a theater using storytelling practices. Storytelling theater is based on unscripted storytelling, direction is used to forge it into one performance but not to limit the tellers, and it maintains the interaction with the audience. The last lecture was by Zala Dobovšek, who told us about the use of stage storytelling for various goals, such as therapy and community building.

During the lunch break, some of us went up to Ljubljana castle to wander around. It was absolutely worth it. The castle is really well renovated, full of exciting spaces and exhibits - and on top of all of that, they just opened an exhibit on Dragons! We got to take pictures inside a dragon egg, read about the history and folklore of dragons, solve alchemy riddles to open a secret safe, and find out about the origins of Ljubljana castle. The highlight of the exhibit was by far the interactive screen that, at a push of a button, told us 15 Slovenian folktales about dragons, and lit up their places of origin on a map. We spent a lot of time in front of that screen... (Incidentally, I just blogged about Slovenian folktales this week).

Saturday afternoon we had another round of workshops. I ran a second Story Swap, this time with even more people, and some really fun stories. At the end of the afternoon session, we all walked to Kodeljevo Castle to have a picnic dinner, some tasty wine, and then a concert of the band Katalena! At the first notes of music, storytellers jumped up and began dancing. We partied late into the night to Slovenian folk-rock music, and when the rain began to pour, we danced on until we were all soaked and exhausted. It was a perfect ending to a really great conference.

Next year, we are going to the Euregio! Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany hosting together. The theme will be Tricky Borders. Bring your own tricksters!


  1. Just wondering what the inside of a dragon egg is really like? :)

    Sounds like you had a superbusy, fruitful and fun time.

  2. So sorry to have missed FEST this year. Thanks for your report!