Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tall tales: Maine storyteller heads away for audiences

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We here at the Phoenix don't pull this kind of thing often, but this weekend you're missing out. Lewiston native (and Munjoy Hill dweller) Michael Parent has headed 1000 miles southwest from Portland to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, this weekend.

He'll be telling up to eight hours of stories over the course of the weekend — not all at once, but in chunks ranging from 15-20 minutes up to a full hour. Sadly, Parent, a 64-year-old of French-Canadian descent, doesn't do a lot of performing around here. He's been in a few theatrical productions and has done some one-man storytelling shows around town — and is hoping to line up some appearances this fall — but most of his work he does elsewhere. "The further away you go, the more they pay you," he laughs wryly.
In Jonesborough, the International Storytelling Center hosts one of the country's largest annual festivals for storytellers; attendees number between 12,000 and 15,000, spread among several tents. Parent will regale his audiences with selections from his extensive repertoire.

He has one story retelling the fable of "Beauty and the Beast" from the Beast's point of view; another is a series of vignettes called "Heroes and Sheroes, Working Class and Otherwise," which includes one tale about a sanitation worker "who puts pizzazz in the collection of garbage," he says.

He tells folk and fairy tales, but many of his pieces are based in fact, though embellished for the telling. "I take events that actually happened and try to capture the spirit of the event, whether or not I have all the facts straight," Parent says.

A favorite of his is "The Beautiful Game," a story centered around the fire that destroyed Lewiston's St. Dominic's Arena in 1956, crushing the spirits of hockey players and fans alike in that economically troubled town. It's based on the facts of the event — including research into newspaper archives on microfiche — but his descriptions of residents' reactions are based on his own experience growing up in Lewiston as a player on one of Maine's five high-school hockey teams at the time.

Parent begins his stories by writing them, but before they are ready for delivery, he tries them out on friends, preferring to hone his work in the telling. "You'll come up with things on your feet that you'll never come up with sitting on your butt," he says.

And when honed, they're ready. "You have 1000 people in a tent, and as soon as a story starts, it's just dead silence," he marvels. "I think people are longing for that kind of connection with the spoken word." (He mixes guitar music in with his stories, and seeks audience participation from time to time — whether singing along or performing on stage with him: "I seem to have a gift for getting people to be a bit silly," he says.)

Parent has been performing as a storyteller since 1977. "I feel I'm really getting the hang of it, after 30-plus years," he says, only half-joking. His first Jonesborough performance was in 1981; "it isn't quite the career catapult that it once was," because there are so many more storytellers and so many more festivals. In fact, after Parent leaves Tennessee, he's heading to another storytelling festival in Washington. He swears he'll come back at some point soon — keep an eye out for him in our listings pages and around town in Portland or Brunswick.

Hear some of Michael Parent's work at