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Tell me a story 

Storytellers counter an age of bits and soundbytes with the timeless power of an oral tradition

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Tales for tots are a foundation of the discipline and, for many, a regular source of income. A big, friendly man with a ready quip, Cleveland is storyteller-in-residence at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. He frequently entertains children at events such as "Pajama Storytime" at public libraries. But he says even stories supposedly told for children were never really just for kids.

"They were meant for everyone in the community," he says. "I always stop the adults when I see them leaving. The funniest thing is when adults stop seeing it as day care or babysitting, and start seeing it as a performance for anyone."

The movement to reclaim storytelling as an art for everyone began in 1973 with the founding of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn. Now more than 70 major festivals take place in the United States each year. They represent the backbone of a professional circuit that's created viable opportunities for born talkers.

But storytellers practice the most portable art form. They can turn up anywhere, from libraries and classrooms to churches and even corporate boardrooms.

Cleveland grew into the art in the 1980s, while touring as a comedian. When his twin children were born in the early '90s, he gave up the road and began to emphasize storytelling as both a performer and a publisher. It was a natural transition from his anecdote-laced stand-up performances.

"If you're giving a presentation, you can use storytelling techniques to explain why someone should invest in your company, or why your workforce should work harder," explains Cleveland, who leads workshops for law students, Sunday school teachers and others.

Live performances alone usually aren't enough to make a living. Deedy has a national reputation but earns most of her income as a children's book author, although she enjoys such occasional high-profile gigs as her upcoming storyteller's cruise in the Caribbean with Kevin Kling, hilarious contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered."

In the early 1980s, people in and around Atlanta with a hankering to tell stories found a resource in the Southern Order of Storytellers, which evolved from a storytelling class taught by Loralee Cooley at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center on Briarcliff Road. According to current SOS President Feriel Feldman, the students loved the class so much they didn't want it to end. Even though Cooley taught one more week for free, they were so dedicated they founded a permanent organization.

"Atlanta caught the zeitgeist and helped contribute to the movement," Feldman says. Now, SOS has 200 members – most of whom are tellers, some of whom are fans of the medium. Activities range from loose "cluster meetings," where members gather to share stories on specific topics, to bigger events such as concerts and festivals.

In the same way that storytellers of old learned their craft by sharing tales, tricks and techniques around the campfire, the camaraderie was crucial for Audrey Galex's development as a storyteller. "SOS," she says, "is like a greenhouse for storytellers."

Galex tries to live by the therapeutic power of stories for both individuals and communities. Her "signature story," called "The Story of the Earth," is adapted from the Talmud. It depicts two farmers who dispute ownership over a plot of land.

"It's a way to talk about the Middle East situation without having to shout, 'Two-state solution!' at the audience," she says.

Galex, who describes herself as "a Jew who's comfortable in a Muslim worship space," argues that interfaith storytelling is an ideal antidote to the anxieties following Sept. 11. She leads the Interfaith Story Circle, which meets bimonthly at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in East Lake, where a handful of participants swap parables and memories about rituals or inspirational figures. For her, the social act of listening to others' stories can be as important as telling one's own.

"When so many faith traditions are fearful of each other," she says, "I'm guided by the notion that once you've heard someone's story, they can no longer be your enemy.

"The world we live in is an increasingly global society, and we may be colleagues or lovers with people from different traditions. Storytelling is a way to find common ground."

Professional storytellers are a diverse bunch, from Irish-style balladeers to African griots to tall-tale swappers. But one demographic consistently underrepresented is young people.

"I'm 52 years old," Cleveland quips, "or, as they call me in storytelling circles, 'The Kid.'"

Andy Offutt Irwin, a perpetually boyish singer/storyteller from Covington, notes that, "the good thing about storytelling is that it doesn't matter how old you are. The longer you live, the more you know.

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