Storytelling as performance art and education

Journal Pioneer staff
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Donna Washington a treat to watch and learn from

SUMMERSIDE –P.E.I. has its share of well-known storytellers, particularly of local tales, but North Carolina, U.S.A., native Donna Washington brought a new perspective to the Harbourfront Theatre on Saturday afternoon.

Washington expresses "Exploding Frog"
Storyteller Donna Washington captured attention at the Harbourfront Theatre, as much through her expressiveness as by her skill with voice.

She offered up a mix of world culture, personal perspective and just plain fun for the audience of about 150, most of them at an age prime for Washington’s auditory and expressive talents.

During an interview after the performance, she suggested her skills were encouraged from an early age by having a father who was a master storyteller.

“By age seven, I knew all the Greek mythology and Arthurian legends,” she professed, but from a special perspective as her father told them as his own experiences.

His yarns at the dinner table wove her imagination to the point of thinking him a thousand years old and being once apprenticed to Merlin the Magician in King Arthur’s court thanks to his additional skills with sleight-of-hand.

Washington ended up taking theatre at Northwestern University in Illinois, where being cast as a storyteller foreshadowed a career path she has followed for 26 years. She is also an author and a literacy advocate who promotes storytelling to boost early literacy.

Immediate connection

Washington captured her audience from her first barefoot strides onto the stage. Leading them to raise their hands and answer a few questions about their own experience with stories encouraged them to relax and respond to her frequent prompts.

This being her first tour in Canada, she was not sure what would go over with audiences. She outlined her program of seven stories – four prior to intermission and three after – but used the initial interactions to help narrow down the possibilities from her options, based on reactions. The feedback actually led her to change the remainder of her set list during the intermission.

Her performance exposed the value of tales with moral tags, reflected culture through family experience, and honoured myths and legends. She offered something for every level of age and interest, paced well to maintain attention between the various tales.

“When you have really little children, (moral tags) at the end remind them of what they just heard. It’s a literacy trick,” she later explained about that particular technique.

Not every tale needs a concluding moral. Older children can make connections without prompting, expand on them, or even create new connections.  The Brier Rabbit story Washington included in her repertoire respected that segment of her audience.

Adults can go further, understanding inferences that are beyond the experience of many children. A story Washington told about an experience her African-American family had travelling in the rural South of the United States illustrated that subtlety magnificently, though children were still entertained by the humour she was able to wrap around the dark core.

So much expression; it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Gordon MacFarlane - audience member attending with five and nine-year-old sons

Her efforts touched audience experience.

Evan MacFarlane, 5, enjoyed Washington’s story about “crocodile tears”, focusing on a monkey throwing things at the big reptile. 

His father felt the story might have hit close to home, as Evan and his older brother, Matt, 9, were glancing at one another when Washington asked who among the audience sometimes relied on crocodile tears.

For his part, Matt recognized some of the story themes, even though they were presented with different characters than he was familiar with.

Their father, Gordon, was impressed with Washington’s energy.

“So much expression; it keeps you on the edge of your seat,” he related to his sons during the intermission.

“In a family audience, you have to deal with a broad spectrum,” Washington reflected.

Inspiration from performance


As much as the performance was entertaining, it was also an incentive for anyone interested in the skills or benefits of storytelling.

Washington was constantly aware of the spectrum of her audience, varing the pace of speech and action to alternately energize and calm audiences. For example, if she was in a segment of rapid-fire speech, she accompanied that with enhanced gestures to maintain the attention of those unable to keep up with the aural demand.

She credits a lot of her technique to growing up in a household full of language, and learning how to use language.

“The amount and quality of language that a child grows up with makes a huge impact on how they deal with language for the rest of their life: being able to assimilate language, being able to hear it; being able to speak it. All of that is really important,” she explained.

Washington gathers her stories from other storytellers, from her own experiences both learned and created, and from research. There are many versions of similar tales, and she simply chooses the ones she likes.

“If you’re not enjoying yourself, (the audience) won’t enjoy it,” she recognized.

The moral of Washington’s appearance at the Harbourfront Theatre was that there is a lesson to be learned from every performance

Organizations: Northwestern University, Harbourfront Theatre

Geographic location: Washington, Illinois, Canada United States

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