Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Important questions, great discussions: FEST 2024, Glasgow

This year's FEST (Federation for European Storytelling) conference took place in Glasgow, organized by representatives from four nations: Scottish, Irish, English, and Welsh. They created a great program in collaboration, running parallel to The Village Storytelling Festival with all its marvelous events.

Fun fact: this was my 10th FEST conference! I attended in 2009 for the first time. Even more fun than that, we had a whole lot of Hungarian attendees this year. I traveled with my long time friend Kata Orosz (who is a volunteer storyteller from Világszép). In addition, Meseszó was represented by Klitsie-Szabad Boglárka, Hungarian Heritage House by Sándor Ildikó, Holnemvolt (Onceuponatime) Festival by Szabó Enikő, and Világszárnya by Hajós Erika, Zámborszky Eszter, and Bedőházi Beáta. Three of us (Bogi, Enikő and I) even presented workshops. Although I didn't get to see the other two, I heard they were really popular.

I arrived in Glasgow Tuesday evening, missing the first evening's welcome events, but welcomed by friendly storytellers in the lobby of the hotel anyway. It always feels like coming home when I arrive to FEST, seeing friends from all over Europe. 

The conference program itself began Wednesday morning, with welcome speeches and keynote presentations. The organizers introduced themselves and welcomed us officially, then handed the stage over to the keynote speakers. Steve Byrne talked about intangible cultural heritage in Scotland, and the work it took to record and register traditions as such (my favorite quote: "Cultural heritage is not just what we used to have."). DrStephe Harrop talked enthusiastically about creating storytelling spaces in Glasgow, and the work of women storytellers in this process. We also received a warm and friendly welcome presentation from Amadu Wurie Khan, who talked about identity as a "new Scot", as well as finding a place among cultural similarities and differences between Scotland and his native Sierra Leone. At this point, the conference program was running a bit late, but no one minded much - we heard a lot of fascinating things in one morning. During the breaks we were treated to coffee, tea, and pastries in the cafeteria; we even received reusable coffee mugs in the spirit of sustainability.

I chose to attend a fascinating presentation after the break. Peter Chand and Aoife O'Connor promised us "a provocation and a discussion", and that was exactly what they delivered. They dropped some hard truths about diversity (or lack thereof) within FEST and the larger storytelling community. The talk revolved around representation of marginalized identities (by race, nationality, gender, sexuality, ability, language, etc.), and the ways FEST and other storytelling events in Europe could be more inclusive in general - especially to young, upcoming tellers. They also touched on the topic of cultural appropriation, and doing justice to stories from other cultures - from learning to pronounce names all the way to dealing with people from colonizing countries telling stories from the groups they had colonized. The presenters didn't only open up a lot of important questions, but they also allowed time for feedback, discussion, and expressing feelings (even uncomfortable ones). The entire presentation was just the start: whoever wanted could sign up to a mailing list to continue the discussion. It was a very important session, much needed for the European storytelling community - and all the while honest, friendly, and open. The presenters held the space well. I am glad I attended.

After the lunch break there was another selection of workshops. In the first half hour I did my presentation on MythOff and bringing mythology and storytelling to new audiences. I got some great questions at the end. After my time was up, I hurried over to Dougie Mackay's workshop on wolves. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, especially because the reintroduction of wolves to Hungary sparked some debates (not to mention the shooting of a Swiss wolf by a Hungarian hunter recently...). And I love stories where wolves are not evil or dumb. Dougie led a great discussion on wolves, their importance to the environment, and the responsibility of storytellers. He also told us about his adventures tracking wolves in the wild.

I doubled down on environmental storytelling in the next session: after a coffee break I attended Cara Silversmith's workshop on environmental literacy and storytelling. Cara is passionate and enthusiastic about nature, and educating people - through stories - about our relationship with it. We got to touch some leaves and try to guess what tree they came from; we talked about different types of knowledge, and the emotions nature can evoke in us. It turned out the leaves were from an elm tree (and I was a little ashamed that I once wrote a whole article on elm trees in mythology, and yet I did not recognize the leaf). It was a lovely workshop, and great discussion.

After having dinner, we returned to the Centre for Contemporary Arts for the evening shows. Kata and I arrived early, so we got to sit and chat with people in the cafeteria - among them Ronni Gurwicz who runs a really fun podcast series, and also published a book alongside Arjen Barel and Stu Packer (yes I bought it). The evening performance I got to attend was Queens of Albion by Stephe Harrop. She masterfully combined personal stories with the foundation legends of Britain and some Greek mythology. She is a sparkling, humorous storyteller who owned the stage with minimal props - a few rocks, and a shiny jacket that transformed into various things in her hands. It was a stunning performance. I was too tired to stay for the late night shows (toddler mom), but I was happy I made it to that one.

The second full day of the conference also had a lot to offer. I chose the workshop titled Finding Your Voice run by Irish storytellers from the Leprechaun Museum. They had done a project on Erasmus+ funding, reworking traditional stories with LGBT+ youth. We got to go through a shorter version of the workshop they designed, and had great fun with it. We discussed what queer stories do exist in tradition, and what storytellers can do to queer other tales - also, what kinds of heroes and plots we would love to see in stories 100 years from now. We had a great group of people at the workshop, and it was lovely to see folklore research combined so well with creativity.

The second half of the day was Open Space - attendees could suggest topics of discussion, and we gathered in small groups all around the Centre. I joined the table where the topic was "how much can we change myths when we tell them?" We sat in the cafeteria, and we were "violently agreeing" with each other. It was great fun. Sadly, the program was running a bit late, and we soon had to return to the main room to share our thoughts.

All that was left now was to close the conference, and pass the torch on to Paola Balbi - next year we will be in Rome!

We ended the conference with singing, laughter, and gifts - but the day was not over yet. In the evening we had a gala dinner at the National Piping Centre (with some great Scottish music). We heard stories between courses, and after dessert a surprise guest appeared: a Mari Lwyd came dancing, and we all sang and cheered. It was a great way to celebrate us being together. The evening was so lovely that in the end I only said a few goodbyes and slipped out to go sleep. 

Kata and I spent the remaining day on the Isle of Arran, walking the beach, enjoying the sunshine, and visiting the Bodick Castle botanical gardens. It was a gorgeous place to visit, with friendly people. On the morning before we returned to Hungary we also got to browse some bookshops around Glasgow, and have lunch with folklorist Maggie Mackay. We made the most of our time to the last minute.

This was my second time in Scotland, and I was once again enchanted by the place, and by the storytelling community. I am sure I will be back. And next year, I'll see you all in Rome!

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like an interesting and exciting conference!