Toronto International Storytelling Festival captures the emotions of virtual and in-person audiences

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Storytelling extends far beyond sharing folklore and fairy tales – it’s a performance art that captivates audiences of all ages, evoking powerful emotions and fostering human connection.

For 43 years, the Toronto International Storytelling Festival (TISF) has encouraged the collective sharing of lived experiences, imagined stories and cultural traditions. It celebrates oral storytelling and promotes the expression of the values and backgrounds that bring us together.

Folks keen on losing themselves in stories are invited to attend this year’s hybrid festival, taking place online and in-person from May 6 to 15. Select events will be available for on-demand viewing while others will be hosted at the Tranzac.

“Right now, the world needs storytelling so we can be reminded to listen to one another and be comforted by the knowledge that we are not alone,” says Michelle Urbano, festival producer for the 2022 TISF. “So let us come together, in whatever capacity we are able to show up, for each other and for ourselves.”

The Festival’s lineup features several unmissable events, kicking off with the Opening Ceremony on May 6, with Otsistohkwí:yo Eliott leading a traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.

Guests are welcome to attend African-American: Keeping Heritage Alive (May 9), where they can immerse themselves in stories passed down through African-American culture, shared by master storyteller Sheila Arnold.

Shelia Arnold

The festival provides audiences with an exciting cross section of storytelling styles like stand-up comedy and spoken word from more than 100 talented artists, including the multi-talented Rico Rodriguez.

Attendees can listen to his personal stories at Queers In Your Ears (May 7), a storytelling collective that he founded decades ago with Clare Nobbs and Jeffrey Canton. They’ll also be sharing their own tales alongside young storytellers Theresa Cutknife, TJ Banate and musician Robbie Ahmed.

As a percussionist, teacher, storyteller and drag performer, Rodriguez is no stranger to capturing the attention of others through his own artistic expression. His fascination with listening and verbally sharing his own experiences began early on in childhood.

“My parents and my grandmother were amazing storytellers and they are my biggest influences,” says Rodriguez. “When our family suppers were finished, I was always that kid that would stay at the dinner table with the adults while the other kids ran to the park. They would get bored with the conversations, but I loved listening to them tell the tales they had about their lives and growing up. That’s how I got initiated into it and after I started telling my own stories, I was always searching for a community that would listen.”

With the TISF taking an online format for the past two years because of the pandemic, Rodriguez had to share his stories with audiences over Zoom. While it sufficed at the time, he found it difficult to genuinely connect and interact with the listeners.

He’s decided to retell one of his favourite stories in-person at this year’s Queers In Your Ears.

“I wrote it about a good friend of mine, he was my roommate and he was HIV positive,” he shares. “During the pandemic, I would go out on these long walks and see these posters that said ‘we’re all in this together’. But as I walked, people would cross the street to avoid getting close to me. We were all very suspicious of each other because of COVID-19. It reminded me of the 80s, when people treated us, as gay men, like we were suspicious. I remember people being scared to enter the bathroom after us.”

Hisham Kelati

The pandemic reminded Rodriguez about his journey to get tested for HIV, which took a handful of years and plenty of encouragement from his friend.

“Doug convinced me that I needed to know. I was so sure that I was positive for HIV and prepared myself to tell my family and friends. After I got tested, it took two weeks for me to get the results. But the test came back negative and I had to meet Doug for a beer at Woody’s, a bar that had just opened,” he recalls.

“One thing I hadn’t prepared for was telling my friend, who was HIV positive, that I was negative. It was so hard. When he sat down, he already knew because he could read it all over my face. He asked me ‘how does it feel?’ and I told him that I was free from it in my body but not free from it in my mind. That’s exactly how we feel about the pandemic. Whether we’ve had it physically, we all have it in our minds.”

Virtual and in-person audiences can expect to experience a whirlwind of emotions when listening to the storytellers at this year’s festival, especially during Queers In Your Ears.

“People will laugh, cry, get enraged and then feel hopeful,” he shares. “Whether you’re queer or not, you will learn about humanity and compassion. Everyone is going to leave with a new outlook.”

TISF also offers free family-friendly programming that will take place in the morning on each festival weekend, including the Teddy Bear Picnic on May 15.

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