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Review: StoryFest 2019 – Make Believe

The inherent power of the oral traditions imbues these age-old stories with an undeniable magic. 

After our very positive experience with Storyfest in 2018, suffice to say, we were absolutely looking forward to this year’s third edition of the festival, with some of the world’s best storytellers gathering at the Arts House for a weekend of age old tales.

Kicking off on Friday, 21st June with a number of workshops and masterclasses, we began our journey into the realm of stories once again as young Brazilian storyteller Ana Maria Lines took to the stage and gave us something a little more modern in Reflecting Fridas. Tackling the life and times of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was never going to be an easy task, with her knack for surrealism difficult to translate from visual to oral. Dressed in a flamenco skirt and a top bearing a decorated skull (representing Día de Muertos), Ana channeled the spirit of Frida over the hour, as she takes us through her trials and tribulations.

While often more than a little confusing, due to the story’s constantly shifting point of view and change in voice with little to no indication, Ana finds her stride towards the end of Frida’s life, as she delves into more traditional tales framed by Frida encountering a vision of Death. This becomes the impetus for a string of short fairy tales surrounding subjects such as strange kings in foreign lands, much more successfully told than the framing device, and one that we wish had formed the basis for Ana’s performance instead. Still, knowing how challenging this project is, Ana’s efforts are certainly worth appreciating, and one imagines that with a little more tweaking, this is a work that can absolutely have the power to leave one enchanted.

On the second night, amidst a madcap National Day rehearsal happening right outside the Arts House at the Padang, the full suite of audience members safely made it back to the Play Den for the evening’s event – David Novak, as he told the tale of Gilgamesh, often considered one of the very first pieces of literature. Supposedly penned 5,000 years ago, the Sumerian legend tells of the titular ancient king and his exploits, as he overcomes one incredible challenge after another, and certainly, a hero for all time.

Storyteller Novak is evidently an old hand at this, yet, nothing about this feels rehearsed, his words completely natural as he recounts the creation of Gilgamesh’s loyal companion Enkidu, or the epic battle they have against the ox of heaven. Novak uses minimal audience interaction, yet when he does, we cannot help but take part in the tale, owing to Novak’s charm and complete control over his material. Despite being dressed in just a plain white shirt and khaki pants, typical office attire, it is the man that makes the story, not the props or costumes. Displaying complete mastery at his craft, one was left spellbound the entire time as we waited with bated breath to see what fate would befall our hero-king, and couldn’t imagine a better way to experience this tale told to us for the first time.

Beyond performances, Storyfest 2019 featured a single exhibition by local artist (and Presidents’ Young Talents 2019 finalist) Zarina Muhammad. Known for her ritualistic, performance-based work, Zarina’s Pharmacopeias for Accredited Agents of Poisoning took over the gallery space over the weekend, displaying a selection of effigies, altars and text, inspired in part by John Gimlette’s ‘Malay Poisons and Charm Cures’  Tackling issues of witchcraft, toxins and womanhood, Zarina uses the exhibition to reclaim the myths of the Nusantara for her own history and identity, embracing womanhood in all its legends, accusations and sorcery to celebrate the non-conforming bodies that have been demonised and (dis)enchanted through time.

Visitors could even play a part in the exhibition with Zarina’s one-off workshop Puteri, Ratu, Nenek Kebayan: Tracing the mythological roots and translations of the feared and revered body in Southeast Asia. Held on Sunday, the workshop was preceded by a ritual performed by Zarina around the Arts House, obstinately refusing explanation, and instead, allowing us to make our own meaning of it, as she lights incense, invites audience members to write the names of important women in her life, and pays a tribute to the elephant statue nearby, a ritual that, whether real or not, certainly has power in the seriousness and belief that Zarina pours into it.

As for the workshop itself, the casual session features Zarina recounting her personal experiences and research into some of the myths she chooses to delve into, making pilgrimages to islands in Indonesia as she steps foot onto the places themselves to meet with those who still cling tight to these tales. From a seven generation curse, to a goddess who will drown men dressed in green for her personal army, we hear of princesses and sea witches, marginalised tribes and spirit guardians and sacred ground while Zarina (very affably) relates her art-making to us. We end up spending the second half of the workshop crafting effigies of our own, completely based off anything we deem fit, whether to bless or condemn, and contribute to the exhibition. In creating our piece, born from our hands automatically shaping the clay before us, and letting our subconscious imagination do the work, there is evidence that even within our own minds, there is a supernatural force at work that drives us. By the end of the session, we feel satisfied, cathartic almost, as we leave our effigy in the sacred circle in the middle of the exhibition to an unknown fate. 

Sunday also saw the return of the Singapore Showcase, where a grab bag of six local storytelling enthusiasts took to the stage to try their hand at storytelling in front of a live audience. Taking on the theme of Make Believe, the tellers were tasked to tell stories relating to the sea, the gods and monsters that ruled them, and the myths that make them.

The showcase began with Dawn Lau with her tale of Daulat, an appropriate starting tale as she recalled ancient protectors dedicated to defending the land, all the way back to the time of Sang Nila Utama. Almost historical in nature, there was a good sense of universality and timelessness to her tale, as her story spanned generations and acted as a strong lead-in to the remainder of the stories that followed.

Grave Kalaiselvi is more often seen as a theatremaker and actress, but here, storytelling is a whole new kettle of fish, as she delves into a tale relating to Dewi Kadita, the Goddess of the Sea. Speaking of the jealous goddess and black magic, as a beginner storyteller, this was not an easy piece to do and would likely be slightly nervewracking. Grace is evidently expanding her skillset and with more practice and experience, certainly might become a pro at this.

Author Akshita Nanda then took to the stage with her tale of Shiva & Shakti, her fingernails and toenails painted gold as she channeled the strength and stories of old. This was a well-performed, well-put together piece that was powerfully enacted by Akshita. As she herself imbued this myth with a kind of reverence and respect, one couldn’t help but appreciate this ancient tale of girl power, as the female Shakti defeats a terrorising demon, that made it all the more mythical and mystical.

Hafiz Rashid tells of Syair Sinyor Kosta, recalling a lesser known tale of the Malay Archipelago, filled with trysts, love potions, drunken stupors, naval skirmish and grief. Meanwhile, SilverKris writer Mrigaa Sethi performs one of the stronger performances of the session with her tales of Hindu god Krishna and his many adventures, from having been rescued by a legendary naga to Radha’s everlasting love for him. An eloquent speaker, Mrigaa’s tales excel because of her focus on good enunciation, savouring each word that leaves her lips and allowing them to empower her tales, each one a treasure to be admired.

The Singapore Showcase ended off with playwright and storyteller Verena Tay, coming in and singing the familiar song Bengawan Solo, attempting to get audiences’ spirits up and sing along with her as she told the tale of The Holy Banyan. This Javanese tale tells of royals, betrayal and exile, and everlasting love, revering the sacred beauty within the mighty banyan tree. There is an enthusiasm Verena displays that makes her story a fine ending to this showcase, a tale that leaves us satisfied by its content and narrative.

With this tale, we left the space happy that Storyfest had given local enthusiasts this rare opportunity to perform in front of a live audience and hone their craft. Not to mention, the sold out house certainly showed that there was a level of support and appreciation for the craft well and alive in Singapore. While these storytellers certainly had plenty more room for growth, this was a display that proved the ground is fertile, and that storytelling and the oral tradition absolutely has a future still in Singapore.

Finally, we ended our Storyfest 2019 experience as the four international featured storytellers this edition came together for A Night of Magical Myths, each sharing a short story from around the world, taking listeners to the furthest reaches of the earth and exploring stories that remind us of our quintessential humanity.

We began the evening with David Novak, this time sharing tales of the dark. As one of the most seasoned storytellers of the group, David speaks with such freedom and coolness in all he does, as he indulged us with two stories – a horrifying Native American story about a cannibal striking fear into people’s hearts, and another, rather more reflective tale where a storyteller must decide if he should walk with Death.

Scottish storyteller Daniel Allison then proceeded with The Daughter of King-Under-Wave, a legendary tale of the great Fianna, Celtic warriors who protected the shores of Scotland and Ireland long ago. Perhaps the very basis for Arthurian legend, this adventure tale was told well as we laughed along with him, feeling each moment of heartbreak that came as these mighty warriors stormed the lands, while keeping us entertained with his antics.

We were reunited with Ana Maria Lines with her telling of Barbecued Husbands, a darkly comic tale that took us straight to the Amazon rainforests, and as its title suggests, was all about wives who barbecued their husbands, as based off Brazilian jungle myths. Ana was clearly in her element here as she shared theses myths and tales of her own country with gusto, her enthusiasm coming through clearly as we were both mystified and taken by these tales.

Finally, we ended off with Italian storyteller Martina Pisciali, impressing us with her careful enunciation and speaking, as she recounted The Pale Mountains, of love between the princess in the moon and a king on Earth. This rare folktale from northeastern Italy was a perfect way to end the night as it broke reality just enough to elevate this tale of love to the stars, keeping us both mesmerised by the magic within while allowing us to believe completely, wholeheartedly, that love transcends both time and space.

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In speaking to Kamini Ramachandran, the Storyfest Festival Director expressed gratitude and joy that with Storyfest now in its 3rd year, programming has grown annually, going from 10 to 17 from 2017 to 2018, and now at 22 this year. She adds: “It can be tough with all the collaterals and planning, but I can have control over what goes out during the festival, and to my expectations. So much of storytelling goes beyond speech, and takes on a very visual approach, along with plenty of practice to get the craft just right. All of this added up come together to make these worlds come alive, reliant on our own imaginations to make the magic happen.”

With some of the world’s best storytellers on show, audiences were certainly treated to a series of quality productions that imbued their minds with epic myths of the past and reinvigorated their lives with the power of imagination. Marking yet another successful edition of the beloved festival, Storyfest 2019 was a timely reminder in this increasingly chaotic world that sometimes, belief is all we have to go on to make life a little better, and that if we believe hard enough, just about anything and everything will be made possible.

Storyfest 2019 ran from 21st to 24th June 2019 at The Arts House. More information available here 

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