Ojai’s Brian Bemel was in Spain most of last year, emerged in a decades’-old dream, immersion Spanish. Although, no doubt happy for Bemel, fans of his annual Ojai Storytelling Festival eagerly awaited his return. “I got a lot of emails” Bemel recalls, “from people telling me, ‘Please come back and bring the Storytelling Festival back.”
After the hiatus, fans got their wish. Bemel’s 17th Annual Ojai Storytelling Festival is now scheduled, September 7-10, at Libbey Bowl and the Ojai Art Center, featuring stories based on folktales and personal narratives, with tellers incorporating music, mime, comedy and drama into their craft.
Bemel believes that this craft may actually be biological, molecular. “I just think that storytelling is kind of in the DNA of being human,” says the former teacher. “Long before there was TV and movies, we all told stories. Now, we have television, and it’s still based on storytelling.”
For Bemel, with a masters degree from UCSB, storytelling’s attributes became evident early in his career. “When I was an elementary school teacher, the arts were always important in my classroom, and one year, I decided to start bringing performers into the schoolroom. The program started to grow, and we started to have public performances. People came from all over Ventura.”
Later, as Ventura County schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Specialist, Bemel became involved with the National Storytelling Festival. “Storytellers would come for a week’s residency before the performance, so 17 years ago we started the first Ojai Storytelling Festival.”
Although his early storytelling experiences were with children, Bemel emphasizes that the Ojai Storytelling Festival is for all ages, as is his non-profit, Performances To Grow On, for which the Ojai event is signature event,
“When you think storytelling, you think of kids,” he says. “But, the idea of what a story entails is very different when you go to festivals. There are stories that come from folk tales, handed down from many generations, but today many storytellers are telling things from their lives. People are hungry for personal stories.”
An example of the festival’s diversity begins with festival opener, “Raw Tales with Winners of The Moth in Los Angeles,” which the festival website describes as “a performance of personal stories for an adult audience.”
But Bemel explains, “All performances are different. Some tellers incorporate music into
their stories, some are mimes using physical movement to tell their stories.” Examples are Kim Weitkamp, who weaves in song and humor, and Antonio Rocha, who uses mime to tell stories from his homeland, Brazil, also portraying what he calls “hilarious characters in outrageous situations.”
Rocha performs worldwide, as do most Ojai Storytelling tellers, and many are from other countries. “The tellers we have are from a lot of geographic regions,” Bemel says. “You’re getting a mosaic of different kinds of tales from different cultures.” This includes Niall de Búrca from Ireland, who uses humor, audience participation, high drama, and shape-shifting--becoming even a leprechaun--to tell his tales.
But there are serious stories too, including “Bodies Unbound with Cynthia Waring,” in which she explores, life as a masseuse, artist and childhood trauma survivor, then, her transformation and actualization.
The festival also includes musical performances, such as Ojai’s Alan Thornhill, and storytelling workshops, including children’s workshop, “Japanese Culture with Motoko,” where Motoko provides a glimpse into life in Japan through story, song, and art.
Bemel concludes, “I just think storytelling is part of the human experience. I think that when you hear somebody else’s story it rekindles stories in you as a listener, and you begin to tell your own stories to other people. They talk about this idea as the Third Wall, but I think in storytelling, there’s a bridge, instead. I think this is why people come for the Ojai Storytelling Festival. It takes us back to a different place and time.”
(For schedule and information on ticketing,
visit the Ojai Storytelling Festival website, firstname.lastname@example.org )