Performers from around the U.S. and world to gather at Ojai festival
Jennifer Munro remembers when she was growing up in Leicester, England, and went into a public restroom with her Aunt Lilly.
Her aunt removed her false bun.
“I didn’t realize it was false,” Mrs. Munro told the News-Press by phone from her home in Madison, Conn.
Sensing her niece’s surprise, Aunt Lilly went a step further and removed her false teeth.
Then her right glass eye.
“This woman literally de-constructed herself before my very eyes,” Mrs. Munro said. “Then she put herself back together.
“When I was looking at her, she said, ‘Things are never what they seem. Beauty is not even skin deep,’ ” Mrs. Munro said, noting her aunt then gave her some good advice: “ ‘And always take care of your teeth.’ ”
Mrs. Munro and other performers will entertain audiences Thursday through Sunday at the Ojai Storytelling Festival.
The event is taking place at various times at the Libbey Bowl, 307 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, and the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai.
Other performers include storyteller Debra Ehrhardt, who loves to get her audience excited.
“I like to get the audience out of their seats and into the stories with me, so they experience the story as it happens,” the Kingston, Jamaica, native told the News-Press by phone from her Irvine home. “These are stories from my family.
“My stories happen to be all true stories,” Mrs. Ehrhardt said, then amended that slightly. “They’re 99 percent true. One percent is poetic license.”
Mrs. Ehrhardt said she sees stories as a bridge that she builds with the audience.
“Coming from Jamaica, I feel it’s important to share my stories,” she said. “I feel like that when people hear them, they realize that no matter where we are from the world, we’re all basically the same. People have all the same needs, desires, hurts and pains.
“I feel like when I share my stories, people feel closer to me, and I feel closer to them,” she said.
Mrs. Ehrhardt’s and Mrs. Munro’s fans include Brian Bemel, the festival’s founder and artistic director.
“We have storytellers from all the different geographical areas of the United States, and we usually have one international storyteller,” Mr. Bemel told the News-Press at his Santa Barbara home. “When you hear somebody else’s story, you get an understanding of their culture in a different way.”
“For me, good storytelling is when you can really see pictures in your mind,” Mr. Bemel said.
“I just got back from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.,” he said. “I’ve gone for 25 years. That’s how I find the storytellers.”
He talked about the other storytellers at the Ojai festival, which he started in 2000. The festival is typically viewed by 3,000 people.
Mr. Bemel noted the storytellers don’t read their stories. They share them from memory as they engage the audience.
This year’s storytellers include Peter Cook, a deaf teacher who tells his stories through American Sign Language, pantomime and facial expressions while an interpreter translates for the audience.
“He’s so expressive,” Mr. Bemel said about Mr. Cook, who has performed previously at the festival and is well-known in the deaf community.
Other performers include Blind Boy Paxton, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and now lives in New York City. He plays blues and jazz from 1930 and earlier on piano, guitar, harmonica and other instruments.
“He tells stories about the old blues masters,” Mr. Bemel said.
Kim Weitkamp of Ohio also will tell stories and serve as emcee of the entire festival.
Mr. Bemel talked about Portland, Oregon, storyteller Anne Rutherford, whom he recruited for this year’s Ojai festival after seeing her at the National Storytelling Festival.
“She was super funny,” Mr. Bemel said about Ms. Rutherford, who tells stories about her alter ego’s adventures.
Another storyteller at the festival, Tim Lowry, almost went to clown college, Mr. Bemel said.
Instead, the man from South Carolina made a career telling historical tales, including stories Mr. Bemel heard him tell about Betsy Ross.
“He’s very improvisational and very, very quick-witted,” Mr. Bemel said.
The festival will also feature storytellers Ruby Cooper and Brian Finkelstein, who won for their accounts on “The Moth Radio Hour.” They’ll go on stage during the festival’s “Raw Tales,” which focuses on highly personal stories.
Another highlight of the eclectic festival is Kimberly Ford and her band performing a tribute to Joni Mitchell.
And the festival includes “Laughing Night,” an evening of funny stories, and “Naughty Tales,” a late evening session for the 21-and-older audience.
Mr. Bemel, a Rochester, Minnesota, native, said he saw the power of a good story when he worked as an elementary school teacher in the Ventura Unified School District.
He had his second-grade class listen to a cassette tape of David Holt telling traditional mountain tales.
“They were enthralled with this tape,” Mr. Bemel said, adding he noticed his students were riveted when he told them stories about his childhood. He started to bring storytellers to school assemblies.
One of the storytellers, Donald Davis, encouraged Mr. Bemel to start the Ojai festival.
Every year, Mr. Bemel, a former performing arts specialist for the Ventura County Office of Education, welcomes a large audience of students from Ventura County and Santa Barbara to the festival, which includes storytelling sessions designed for the youths.
“Being a former teacher, I love seeing it when the kids are totally engaged in the story and you can just hear a pin drop.”
The Ojai Storytelling Festival will take place Thursday through Sunday at various times at the Libbey Bowl, 307 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, and the Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai.
Prices vary for the shows and are discounted for youths and seniors. To purchase, go to www.ojaistoryfest.org.