Storytelling in New Zealand with Anna Jarrett: Travelling Storyteller



Anna Jarrett

For The Storyline, New Zealand Storytellers Guild Dec 2008


There’s nothing more exciting than being invited to jump on a plane and head overseas to be part of a storytelling festival. A whole weekend of telling and listening to stories. Mmm I love the idea! Its even more heartening to know that these storytelling festivals are taking place all around the world and that there are people everywhere , adults and children, who love the experience of told stories. The ancient oral art form of telling and listening to stories is alive and well in many corners of the world including Scotland, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to New Zealand twice to be part of two storytelling festivals, The inaugural Southern Skies Storytelling Festival in Invercargill (on the tip of the south island) and the Glistening Waters International Storytelling Festival in Masterton, just north of Wellington (north island). Both festivals have a uniquely delightful style.When I think about my weekend adventures into storyland at both these festivals, I smile deep from my heart. Storytelling festivals are a place to make a lot of new friends who all share the same love of stories – listening to stories, traditional and original, telling stories, playing music, singing together, eating and laughing and talking story together. It really is one of the most essentially human, deeply satisfying, soul enriching things to do. While most storytelling festivals only last one weekend, the stories live in our hearts, and the friendships continue to grow as time moves on. 
~view album~

Its both funny and odd that New Zealand is such a close neighbour to Australia, and yet we’re arch rivals in some ways (is it a footy tradition? Please explain!) and we really don’t have a lot to do with each other. My first and last visit to New Zealand until recently, was a ten day expedition over Arthur’s Pass (ah to be young & fit again). So my association with new Zealand has always been tall, snow capped mountains icey clear, fast flowing rivers. I’ve now learned that New Zealand is full of friendly people who seem to like Aussies), that Wellington has some great cafes with serious coffee and that there are many cultures living together here with fascinating threads of Maori, Scottish, Chinese, Indian and African threads.

A storytelling festival is a wonderful place to celebrate these cultural threads as well as to experience the diversity and uniqueness of each storyteller’s style. One of the most powerful experiences for me was being part of the Maori Powhirri in Masterton. The visiting storytellers gathered with families, youth and elders to watch a cultural storytelling show and to listen to the Maori voices speaking in their language, telling their stories and talking about the importance of storytelling as a way to bring communities together. A huge thankyou to all those who helped this event to happen.

Storytelling festivals are just as much fun of stage as on stage. Its at the parties, dinners and chats over coffee, that we really learn about each other’s extraordinary and sometimes very ordinary lives as storytellers. Storytelling festivals give as much to the professional storytellers as they do to the audience. There’s time to talk story, to see what other storytellers are doing (and to be inspired by this), to learn some new tips for crafting and telling stories and to meet all the people who come to hear our stories (both the story “virgins” and the die hard story listeners). From what I’ve heard, the New Zealand storytellers are a motley crew, just like the Aussie tellers, a combination of professionals, amateurs and emerging tellers..

One of the most important roles that a storytelling festival plays is to raise the profile of the oral tradition. Keeping storytelling alive and well in our communities is only possible if we continue to create events, to make spaces and to find new audiences for sharing stories. Storytelling festivals bring a wide range of professional storytellers to the stage and give people the opportunity to hear “live” storytellers. It’s a very different experience to the other forms of story which we’re exposed to everyday – story reading, stories in the media, stories in conversations. 

While the audiences in the New Zealand storytelling festivals were small (a few hundred), the people who came seemed to be inspired and excited by their experience of being at a storytelling festival. I think back to my very first storytelling festival in the Bay Area, San Francisco, 1989. I was blown away that there could be so many adults who saw telling stories as a serious art form. I was even more amazed that there were so many good storytellers who were telling stories professionally. Twenty years on, after catching the story bug myself, and dedicating my life to storytelling, I enjoy seeing how alive the art of storytelling is, and look for the moments in every show, when someone new makes a connection with storytelling, and the “lights go on”.

There are so many ways which we can continue to nurture storytelling in our communities as both a personal and professional art form. At the Southern Skies Storytelling festival, we had the chance to spend intimate time with two master tellers from USA, Diane Ferlatte and Jay O’Callahan. This time with them, listening to their stage stories, learning from their wisdom in the workshops, and simply chatting, is priceless. We need to see how the “masters” tell stories, so that we can find new ideas and ways to tell our own engaging stories. We are all storytellers and we all have stories to tell. However, telling stories on stage to large audiences is a whole other level of the oral art, which needs to be learned, practiced and gently guided. Storytelling festivals give us the opportunity to really fine tune our storytelling.

The Glistening Waters Storytelling Festival provides many different opportunities for listening to stories from the large stage shows to the more intimate solo sessions in classrooms. Alas, I was too busy performing to be able to attend many of the solo sessions, but I heard great things about these sessions and really enjoyed my own solo time. In the coziness of a classroom (out of school hours!), thirty or so people can gather to hear a whole hour of stories from one teller. In this hour, I chose to share some sea stories, and by the end, the room was alive with the sounds and images of the sea. The magic of storytelling happens when the audience are in a space where they can truly listen and the energy of the stories can grow undistracted. I’d love to go to a whole weekend of solo sessions!

It was wonderful to have three Aussie storytellers invited to this year’s Glistening Waters Festival (myself, Donna Jacobs Sife and Hendre Roelink). Our storytelling styles are vastly different and its this diversity that makes our cultures so rich. I look forward to many more opportunities for Aussie/New Zealand storytelling gatherings. Australia is planning a festival but no dates or places are set. We’re planning a gathering of some sort in 2009 so stay tuned!

Thank you Liz Miller (Southern Skies) and Janet Hayes (Glistening Waters) for being the directors and guiding force behind making the New Zealand storytelling festivals a success



Last updated, Monday February 08, 2016


All content © 2004/2016 Anna Jarrett t/a the Travelling Storyteller.