San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Once Upon a Time: Celebrating the New Art of Storytelling

THE words “tell me a story” are familiar to all parents. So are many childhood stories: Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and Jack and the Beanstalk endure from generation to generation.Theater is a form of storytelling, and history is nothing more than the story of people and events in the past. Oral traditions, legends and epic poems are all forms of storytelling. In Costa Rica, retahilas are rhythmical stories that stem from Guanacaste’s culture. Storytelling as an art form is of more recent times, although storytelling has been going on informally on park benches, front porches, in living rooms and wherever people gather. We all like to tell others about our adventures, our exploits, the big fish we caught. But now storytellers have a format, and meet in several cities to work out their stories, help each other develop new material and give public performances. And the public gets to see a new form of theater.Storytelling is for all ages, from children to older adults, and is now a separate category in cultural festivals, along with poetry and drama, throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. This month, Costa Rica will host an international storytelling festival in Alajuela, northwest of San José, with free events the week of Nov. 19-27 under the direction of Juan Madrigal, better known as Juan Cuentacuentos, Costa Rica’s best known cuentero (storyteller).Madrigal began making up stories 22 years ago, when he taught catechism classes and noted that the children paid more attention when he added action and voices to the Bible stories.“Every week, more and more children came to class,” he recalled. “In communicating with children, adults must let go of the ‘seriousness’ and add a little fantasy. “Stories are a great tool for achieving a good relationship, but the storyteller must believe in his or her story with all its fantasy and magic, and let the words blossom.”And it’s true; the most restless of children are enthralled by good story. Aren’twe all? STORYTELLING as a medium is still forming, but two groups have organized to produce and perform stories publicly.In Alajuela, Los Alaputenses – a name that combines alajuelenses (people from Alajuela) with a not-so-nice word in Spanish – is a group of about 20 people under the direction of Juan Madrigal.Participants come from different backgrounds and include anyone who wants to tell stories.On the first Monday of each month, at 7 p.m., the storytellers give free public performances in the city’s Casa de Cultura, across from the central park, opposite the cathedral. There is no set formula. Some stories are original, with tellers delving into their own backgrounds or interests for material, or just making up something for fun. Some embellish an old familiar story with new twists accompanied by sounds and gestures. Some stories deal with problems such as drugs or poverty. Others entertain. Heredia’s small group, Había Una Vez (Once Upon a Time), meets at the Casa de Cultura across from the central park in Heredia, north of San José, and gives open programs on the last Friday of each month, at 7 p.m. The group also performs at civic festivals and schools. They, too, make up their own material or give new twists to old stories.RODOLFO González of Los Alaputenses is a journalist with the weekly El Financiero, but admits to a passion for acting. As a child, he and his friends made up plays for neighborhood audiences.“We charged one colón, and they complained that it was too high,” he recalled, adding that he wondered if it was a judgment of their work.González has a wealth of stories, some gleaned from old family tales such asthose about his uncle Cayatano, the family rogue. His stories involve sound, motion, action and fun, which keeps audiences riveted.González put his writing talents to work on Juan Madrigal’s monologue production of “Con el Perdón de Dios” (“With God’s Pardon”), which played in Alajuela in May and will tour the country next year.Oscar Gutiérrez, 11, is a fifth grader at the Tuetal Sur school and has already won an award for storytelling at Alajuela’s Creativity Festival and at school. He has told stories over Radio Alajuela and now performs with Los Alaputenses. He is an honor student and plays in the flute band at school. His version of the Three Little Pigs running and oinking as they flee from the wolf and his interpretation of Carmen Lyra’s well-known tale “Salir conDomingo Siete” keep both grownups and kids laughing.Carmen Lillian Ocampo, from San Isidro de Heredia, is a member of Había Una Vez, and has been storytelling for years, beginning when her children were small. Her stories are silly, sad, scary and serious. She has performed in schools, local civic festivals and national competitions.A seamstress and tailor by profession, Ocampo has compiled her original stories into a book, which she hopes to publish.She puts a lot of chispa (spark) into her stories. Once, while telling a tale about a ghost child who visits a lonely old lady, someone in the audience fainted, scaring Ocampo as well. “I thought I had given him a heart attack,” she said. HERE is a summary of some of the stories, which, unfortunately, cannot convey the sights and sounds that accompany them. Use your imagination. –Five new patients are being rushed to the psychiatric hospital, with sirens blowing and the press demanding the story.They are all identifiable public figures who, for their shameful acts, were forced to confront figures out of Tico legend: the devil dog cadejos, the priest without a head, the llorona (crying woman), the segua (temptress-like creature) and the cart without oxen. The audience is asked to match personalities with legends in this original story by Rodolfo González. –A young man wants to go out carousing with his friends but unfortunately lacks funds. He prays to all the saints and celestial bodies for a miracle. “Please, Lord, just a little money to cover tonight,” he begs. Putting his hands in his pockets, he discovers a great wad of bills and happily goes off to the cantina to meet his friends. That night, he pays for the food, drinks and music. Then, in walks his father, who angrily demands, “Why are you wearing my pants?” For the son, worse than losing the money is losing his faith in miracles in this traditional Alajuelan tale told by Juan Madrigal.–A priest is writing a sermon on salvation when it starts to rain. And rain. And rain some more, until the waters rise to the floor of the church. “Father, come on.Let’s get to safety,” someone calls out from a passing rowboat. “No. I will stay here and write my sermon. God will save me,” he says. This scene is repeated twice more as the waters rise until the priest is clinging to the choir loft and then the steeple, from which he slips off and drowns. As he meets his Maker, he complains, “I was writing a sermon on salvation and you left me, a servant of the church, to drown. How could you?” “I don’t understand,” God says. “I sent three boats for you.” A traditional tale told by Ana Coralia Fernández, a journalist and storyteller from Coronado, northeast of San José.Storytelling from Around the WorldAN international festival of stories is coming to Alajuela, northwest of San José, with a week’s worth of entertainment Nov. l9-27. Storytellers include Boniface Ofago of Cameroon, Matias Tarraga of Spain, Francisco Centeno of Colombia and Edgar Valeriano of Honduras, in addition to storytellers from around Costa Rica. Other international artists are also expected.Events will be held in Alajuela at the Juan Santamaría Museum and Parque Central, as well as in San Pedro de Poás, Atenas, Fraijanes and Colinas de Poás, all northwest of San José. The opening night program will be held Nov. 19 at the Juan Santamaría Museum in Alajuela, at 7 p.m., and a storytelling workshop will be held at the Casa de Cultura. Events are free. Fluent Spanish is not necessary to enjoy the action and the spirit.

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