Even as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have begun to ease in Singapore, it’s still hard to imagine planning for a performing arts festival in these extraordinary circumstances, let alone putting those plans into action. But if it’s one person who can do it, it’s almost certainly storyteller Kamini Ramachandran, creative producer of the annual StoryFest, which returns for its 4th edition this July.
Co-presented by the Storytelling Centre Limited and The Arts House, this year’s edition is themed “The Heart of Story”, with the aim of having local storytellers ascend beyond the landscape and utilise the digital space to present the oral tradition. “With The Heart of Story, I really wanted to go back to the core of storytelling, what traditional folktales tell us, and what truths they reveal about the human condition,” says Kamini. “It was a theme that was chosen even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in these new circumstances, resonates more than ever. If all these characters in myths and legends could overcomes such challenges, it gives us hope that so can we. It’s all about excavating the spirit of storytelling, and bringing these messages to the fore.”
Held entirely online this year, StoryFest will take the form of a series of pre-recorded videos that will be released on the StoryFest website over the ten-day festival period. The decision to go digital seemed an obvious one, given the restrictions on live performance, and the portability of the medium, requiring just three elements – a story, a storyteller, and an audience. “At the Storytelling Centre, we’ve gone digital for a while now, and the feedback we’ve gotten from educators and families with young children is that the kids love how they can listen to the stories over and over again,” explains Kamini.
“Of course, the live experience is something we hope to return to eventually, but we need to adapt to the changing times, and see how we can make the most of this form to reach not just locals, but a global audience as well,” she continues. “In the past, people have been unable to attend on specific dates and times, and this really would help them have that accessibility. Some audience members have told me they even close their eyes and just listen to the voice and narrative, and in a way, we’re still falling back on the oral and aural tradition despite shifting mediums. We’re hardwired to receive stories regardless of their form, and it’s definitely something I want to continue incorporating even in future editions of the festival.”
StoryFest could be seen as one of The Arts House’s anchor events each year, and a ground-up initiative that has seen growing success each time. Kamini attributes it in part to the history of the venue, and how The Arts House has a strong affinity with voice, from speech to debate. “Whether people are telling stories or arguing over policies and constitutional rights, these are all still narratives in their own right, and why The Arts House remains the perfect venue for StoryFest,” says Kamini. “We’ve had so much support from the team, and each year, we’ve really experimented with maximising the space, from outdoor programmes to introducing exhibitions alongside the actual storytelling, which is what keeps the festival fresh every year.”
This year, unlike past editions, the lineup of events and performers will be fully local, eschewing international artists altogether. From the stories passed down from generation to generation in The Singapore Showcase, to the regional tales performed by youth performers in A Dance of Stories: The Young Storyteller’s Showcase, audience members can expect to be taken on an aural voyage taking them through lush environments and meeting talking animals and heroes of yore along the way. For younger audiences, The Story Tree is ideal for families to gather round and hear some classic tales from around the world, or the Story Picnic, with characters such as Peter Rabbit, Little Red Hen, and the Teddy Bears.
Beyond stories themselves, StoryFest 2020 will also feature talks, such as Dr Nazry Bahrawi’s Tales with Tails, where he unpacks the use of animal figures in cultural lore and its relationship to the stories we tell today. Anna Ong teaches the fundamentals of a good narrative in How to Tell Personal Stories for a Story Slam, while Chan Shu Yin demonstrates using a meditative approach to personal narratives in Mandala Storytelling: Exploring Nature & Pyrography. Finally, discover the connection between puppets and storytelling in A Puppeteer’s Journey with Frankie Malachi in his virtual puppet studio, and even get to meet some of his oldest and favourite puppets.
To create the videos, Kamini and her team followed a strict filming schedule, adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines. The difficult thing however, as with all companies going digital, was adapting to the new form, in terms of learning how to work in front of a camera and adjusting one’s body and face accordingly. “Still, despite the challenges. there was so much excitement and positivity from the community and everyone we were featuring, who all rose to the task,” says Kamini. “The most important thing was really to ensure that my artists were well represented. There have been so many people working on this project, and I wanted to honour my promise to them and make sure that this happened in some form this year. So we did that, managed to capture the artists and their stories, and so far, we’ve all made it through these hurdles as a team.”
On the move to go fully local this year, Kamini explains: “It was partially a practical decision, because we made the decision to go digital around May, which would have given the international storytellers about a month to produce digital content. There’s so many restrictions in other countries, and I didn’t want to put the international storytellers under that kind of pressure given the difficult circumstances they were already facing. But rest assured, the international artists we initially wanted to feature are already earmarked for next year, for when we most likely can return to a live format.”
“In any case, I’m 100% confident in our local artists, and I really think people will be blown away by the content. In The Singapore Showcase, Melizarani T. Selva’s story about Tamil icon Kannagi will blow you away, while Karen Lee’s personal story about migration and her family will pull at the heartstrings. It’s important to present all these local storytellers, because it represents Asian stories and shows how they’re just as rich and beautiful as Western ones, and I’m glad we have the platform to really zoom in and showcase that this year.”
This year’s festival is also completely free of charge to attend, something that Kamini hopes will further help grow their following and introduce the festival to even more audiences. “We’ve been closely monitoring our subscriber growth, both on our mailing list as well as our YouTube channel,” says Kamini. “There’s a lot of people who’ve never even experienced storytelling before, and not just from Singapore, but around the world. It’s convenient that with this edition, all they have to do is click to watch, and it’s really refreshing that we’re reaching new people and growing on the digital space.”
“Over the last few editions, it’s also been very useful to showcase all the artists through StoryFest, many of whom have benefitted from the exposure and been approached by corporations or schools for paid gigs, whether it’s storytelling during assembly programmes or conducting workshops. All of that is because StoryFest is all about maintaining its status of being a high quality platform, and is in line with our goals of showcasing the talents of independent artists, to give them more opportunities to get engaged by others and be recognised for the work they do.”
As for the future of StoryFest, Kamini believes that the storytelling scene set to grow further as time goes by, whether as an artistic form or in an educational context. “With StoryFest, we’re always exploring new ways to tell stories, in addition to the oral tradition, we’ve been looking at more interdisciplinary works, like how we’ve engaged visual artists, as well as musicians, dancers and other collaborators to continue evolving the art form,” explains Kamini.
“With our 5th anniversary coming up next year, that’s a milestone to be celebrated, and we can’t wait to be back at The Arts House again to honour the team who’s been with us on this journey. For now, StoryFest 2020 is an opportunity to question how traditional art forms can retain its timeless essence even as it adopts other mediums, and how the virtual sphere can also be a space to connect more intimately to others and, ultimately, ourselves.”
Storyfest 2020 runs from 17th to 27th July 2020 online. For the complete list of programmes for StoryFest 2020, visit their website here.