Monday, July 25, 2022

Storytelling Cities: 8 storytellers, 6 countries, 3 weeks, 1 show

This spring I participated in an incredible European storytelling project.

I traveled to Sigüenza, Spain, on May 26th to take part in a project organized by Spain, Italy, France, and Slovakia. These four countries have created a collaboration named the European Network of Storytelling Sites and Towns (ENST). Since Spain was represented by the same organization that also organizes the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, part of the network's inauguration was a project within a project: getting storytellers together from all the countries and creating a multicultural, multilingual stage performance for the Maratón.

Each country delegated tellers. I was invited along by Bohdan Ulasin from Slovakia, whom I met in Guadalajra at the Misterios de Europa conference ten years ago. The lineup of our colorful team was as follows: Pepito Matéo (France), Clara Zénoun (France), Julien Tauber (France), António Fontinha (Portugal), Bohdan Ulasin (Slovakia), Roberto Anglisani (Italy), Susana Tornero (Spain), and yours truly (Hungary). Seven of us participated in the performance, and Pepito took on the role of director.

We had two weeks to put the entire show together. As soon as I stumbled into the hotel on May 26th, we immediately headed to the theater to start rehearsing. We worked hard all day almost every day, until June 8th, when we had our premiere in Sigüenza. The next day, we packed up, and headed to Guadalajara for the Maratón, to prepare for the big show.

The performance we created was whimsically titled "Il était una vez jeden utopická viaggio a történeteken keresztül em seis línguas" - and this title reflects the actual creative process. All of us selected short tales ahead of time, translated them to all the other participating languages, and selected the ones we wanted to include in the show. Pepito created an outline that we got to fill with stories, songs, rhymes, and playful interactions as we went along.

Our common language was Spanish. It took me a few days to switch my brain over to it (in my everyday life I only have the chance to read and watch TV in Spanish), but once it happened, I loved the opportunity to speak it, and listen to the others. Our little team had a whole lot of languages in common: multiple people understood French, Italian, and even English, although we barely ever spoke the latter. After a few days, we were all speaking some strange pan-Mediterranean mixed language, and my brain gave up trying to understand what language a word was spoken in, as long as I understood the meaning. Susana, as the only native speaker on the team, was super helpful and patient with our efforts to speak better and tell better in Spanish.

It was a joyful, playful experience to be a part of such a multilingual, friendly group of people. We shared meals every day, and our conversations often turned to "how do you say this in your language...?". We went around the table, comparing phrases, proverbs, riddles, and animal sounds, celebrating our differences and similarities. I learned a whole lot of fun new things - such as Antonio's comment on how these were "cherry conversations." Just like you can't eat just one cherry (he explained, as we were all feasting on ripe cherries from the market), you also can't just have one response in these conversation. One example inspires the next.

(Our theater stage in Sigüenza - first a medieval church,
and then a grain storage building)

We had rehearsal from 10 in the morning till 2pm every day, had lunch, and then started again at 4pm. We usually finished work around 8 in the evening (and headed to the town square for drinks and conversation). We played drama games and warm-up exercises in the mornings, and then launched into working on the performance. In two weeks, we created a 90 minute long storytelling show. The first half of it featured individual tales. We opened with a song, and proverbs in many languages, before we started on the storytelling. I told the old Hungarian legend Golden Bridge, Silver Bridge; Julien told the legend of The City of Ys. Roberto brought us a story by Gianni Rodari about roads not taken, Susana a Catalan version of the Musicians of Bremen, and Bohdan the story of legendary Slovak highwayman Janosik. Clara told the Armenian tale of Queen Anait, and Antonio brought us a lovely Portuguese version of The boy who could speak the language of animals. After the individual tales, we told some stories together, mixing multiple languages. We did Stone Soup (with each ingredient in a different language), Sennin (a literary tale by Akutagawa Ryunosuke), and the legend of the Journey of Malei from the Zhuang people. We closed the show with folk songs in all our various languages.

It took very intensive work to craft the show and create a flowing performance. It is not easy at all for storytellers to work together in this many languages, with this many different styles. We negotiated and compromised, and found creative solutions to fitting all the pieces together. Sometimes we grew tired, and sometimes we ran into communication barriers, but in the end, we all enjoyed the experience way too much to get hung up on the technicalities. It was something that allowed me (us) to experiment with different styles and techniques of telling. For example, I have never told a story before to empty chairs this many times... but after the initial discomfort of speaking into the void, I was beginning to see the upside of repeated rehearsals. The good news is: this project is a great experiment, and it is not over yet! We will take the show on the road to France, Slovakia, and Italy, changing things around every time to fit the new languages and new audiences.

We premiered the show in Sigüenza, in front of a very appreciative local audience - many of whom we got to know over the course of the two weeks spent in that lovely city. Among them were Fernando and Mirta, our gracious and lovely hosts from La Casona de Lucía - honestly the best little hotel I have ever stayed in, with definitely the best food. But they were not the only ones we got to spend time with while in Sigüenza: we also told some stories in other places!

One of those places was a center for refugees hosted by an organization named Accem. It was a lovely experience. We told some tales, and the people living there also told us some of the stories from their countries (such as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso). Then we had dinner together, someone put on music, and the whole evening turned into one big party, where we all danced and laughed together. Many of the children and adults from out audience later came to the premiere too - and whenever we met on the streets of Sigüenza, we always exchanged happy smiles.

We also got to visit the two high schools the town has, and tell stories at both. The kids were friendly and curious; suspicious at first the way all teenagers are, but they warmed up to be a great audience. I told to them in English so that they could hear a tale in another language too, and they followed along enthusiastically. After the tales we had conversations with them about storytelling as an art form and the importance of stories. I still love telling to teenagers. Such a great audience, wherever you go.

These two weeks in Sigüenza flew by, but they will stay with me forever. The town itself is beautiful, all pink stones and medieval buildings, and the people who life there were friendly and welcoming. And I cherish the experience of working with this international group of storytellers: the conversations over wine, the tales we exchanged, the laughs we shared. In a time when differences and conflicts get so much attention, it was good to be among people who seek connection through stories.

Thank you, all! See you on the road!

P.S.: The performance, and the rehearsal process, were documented by a professional film crew. Hopefully, there will be a video to share soon!

(I will write about the Maratón in a separate post, to keep from going on too long.)


  1. This was such a lovely post to read today. I felt as if I was a part of your entire experience. This:
    "and my brain gave up trying to understand what language a word was spoken in, as long as I understood the meaning." made me smile. How wonderfully paradoxical and unique I thought-- a storyteller's love for words complimenting her love for connections. I'm picking the phrase "cherry conversations" and planting it in my vocabulary:) Love it.
    In fact, after reading your post I feel like I'd like to try something similar too.
    You've planted the seed of an idea. Thank you:)

    1. Happy to hear that! :) :) Thank you! Do share the idea when it happens!