Fairy-Tale and Storytelling Festivals Storytelling as an independent art form

Regina Sommer; © Zwischen-Zeiten
Regina Sommer | Photo (detail): © Zwischen-Zeiten

What better time for fairy-tale festivals and storytelling events to enjoy a huge wave of popularity in Germany than in the year of the bicentennial of the Grimm Brothers’ “Children's and Household Tales”. What, one might ask however, is a storytelling event? And what purpose do fairy tales serve in our present day and age? Read on for the facts.

Famous authors, interviews, book signings - the literature reading business in Germany is very well organised. Whereas literature performed on stage at festivals in Hamburg, Berlin and Munich has become an integral part of the literature scene, fairy-tale festivals and storytelling events enjoy a different tradition. Famous authors are thin on the ground at such events for the emphasis is on the story itself - and how it is told.

Once upon a time … in the year 1997

It was Regina Sommer who called one of Germany’s first storytelling festivals into being with her Zwischen-Zeiten (In-Between Times) that was held in Aachen in 1997.

Being a narrator of fairy tales, sagas and stories herself, she brought the tradition to Germany after having experienced it in the English-speaking world. Since then the focus at the festival, that is conducted in two languages, has been on its international orientation - at the many individual events storytelling does not just serve as a form of entertainment for the very mixed audiences, but also as a means of exchanging thoughts and ideas.

It was also in 1997 that the Erzähl mir was (Tell Me A Story) festival was held in Remscheid, which became Germany’s second largest venue on the storytelling festival circuit. It was there that storytelling was given a stage, the stories ranged from 6,000-year-old Indian creation myths, the Arthurian legend and traditional Hindu sagas to tales about African heroes.

Regina Sommer tells „Die Prinzessin mit der Laus“ (Grimm Brothers)

The spoken word casts a spell

Anybody who wants to call him or herself a storyteller traditionally has to complete a seven-year training period. This involves training in stage practice and the art of recitation and is not unlike the training an actor has to go through. As the stories are handed down by word of mouth, listening skills are of the utmost importance. Afterwards the professional storyteller, who must be able to “tell” at least 100 stories, may decide himself how he wishes to present his stories and how he wishes to elaborate them.

This is where there is a big difference to a literature festival. An author at a literature festival is always bound by the book he has in front of him and from which he has to read, the storyteller can adopt a much more intuitive approach to his audience; he can sense the mood and even spontaneously make changes to the story he is telling. In this way the storyteller has many more opportunities to captivate his audience than the author of a book - he does this alone using the spell cast by the spoken word.

A stage for fairy tales

Of course the focus at many of the festivals is on German household tales - as one might expect in the land of Grimm’s’ Collection of Fairy Tales that was first published in 1812. Everywhere people are gathering on market places, at village fetes and large-scale festivals to listen to stories - even more so in the year of the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Brothers’ first publication. There is, for example, the Wiesmoor Fairy-Tale Festival in East Frisia, the Intercultural Fairy-Tale Festival in Cologne or the Grimm anniversary event “5 auf einen Streich” (5 at One Stroke) in the state of Hesse - the home of the Grimm Brothers, who put together the stories for Germany’s most famous collection of fairy tales.

This preserving of Germany’s fairy-tale tradition is supported by such organisations as the European Fairy Tale Society in Rheine and the Stuttgarter Märchenkreis (Stuttgart Fairy-Tale Society). They not only organise fairy-tale evenings for schools and festival events, but also deal with the significance of fairy tales for our modern times at conferences, congresses and other meetings.

Stories as a means of connecting people

The fairy-tale festivals in Germany have a much younger tradition than the storytelling festivals. Over the last few years Märchenland (Fairy-Tale Land) in Berlin has devoted itself to this rich tradition - as a centre of fairy-tale culture it has organised numerous popular events for the dissemination of stories that are not so well known.

It is however the stories themselves, with their simple structure, exciting plot and clear message, that make fairy tales a cross-cultural institution.

At the fairy-tale festivals in Berlin and in the state of Saxony actors and even politicians step on to the stage and tell the most popular stories. This not only makes a fairy-tale festival an entertaining show, but also endows it with an educational mandate that mediates between cultures and that over and over again makes storytelling interesting for the generations to come. “In the world of today, in which the individual is mostly only perceived as an isolated performer, fairy tales reveal ways to constitute a community and to create a feeling of belonging,” as the management of Märchenland, Silke Fischer and Monika Panse, emphasise.

Storytelling as an independent art form and stories as a means of connecting people: the old tradition of fairy tales, sagas and myths has found a place for itself in the hearts of audiences - and not just because it is the Grimm anniversary this year. Every time stories are told at festivals, celebrations and storytelling evenings they come alive as soon as the narrator starts his story.