Bradbury Storytelling Festival Conjures a Gamut of Emotions

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By Ellyn Ruhlmann

Storytellers know why people are afraid of the dark. Nothing you can actually see—however horrific—inspires quite the same palpitations as the anxious churning of our own imaginations. On Friday, October 30, in the dim light of the Genesee Theatre, listeners at the Fourth Annual Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival managed to whirl up their own funnel of fear. Each year the Waukegan Public Library hosts this popular festival to honor Waukegan native and master storyteller, Ray Bradbury.

Chicago Emmy Award-winning Jim May emceed the evening, which featured literary ghosts from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde. One of the most famous literary ghosts, Hamlet’s father, appeared first, summoned by veteran Shakespeare actor and director, John Forsythe. Readers intimidated by Shakespeare may find the surest way to conquer the Bard is through an experienced orator. As Hamlet, Forsythe produced an almost palpable anguish, pulling listeners along in his struggle to comprehend a blood betrayal. “The Monkey’s Paw,” told next by May, affected a quicker, less subtle response, in the form of a collective shriek. 

“We both jumped out of our seats!” exclaimed Waukegan resident Amanda Teigland. “We were listening so intently.”

May, who grew up telling stories amid the haystacks in rural McHenry County, says he honed his craft listening to farmers and horse traders whose sole source of entertainment was spinning a good yarn. “The human imagination is well beyond anything Hollywood could ever come up with,” says May. “How many times do you hear people say they went to a movie but it wasn’t as good as the book? You can trust that.”

Bradbury does. Storyteller Carol Birch exposed the author’s fervent love affair with books and libraries in her selection, “Exchange,” set in Bradbury’s boyhood haunt, the old Carnegie Library. The story, about a soldier-spirit who revisits the library after a long absence, brought back memories to some listeners in the audience. Marie Flamming fondly recalled visiting the Carnegie Library when she was just a little girl. Whenever he walked those hallowed grounds, Bradbury said all the books whispered to him. Perhaps Birch, a former librarian herself, heard the whispers, too.

Artistic Director Megan Wells snapped the audience out of its sentimental reverie with the evening’s final story. Portraying Oscar Wilde’s hapless ghost of Canterville,Wells evinced the comedic rage and indignation of a spirit outwitted by the fearless Otis family, new occupants of his haunt. Clearly, only thick-skinned Americans could withstand, unperturbed, the howls and clangs of an experienced ghost such as he. And Wells had that ghost down—expertly toggling between vengefulness, outrage, and bewilderment at his own impotence.

“These folks are really talented,” said Joe Salvatore, who attends the festival every year. “It’s an art form we never knew existed.”

Before leaving the stage, Wells reminded festival goers that The Canterville Ghost, among all featured stories that evening, could be found at the local library. In some ways, this year’s storytelling festival, which the Waukegan Public Library conceived as a tribute to Bradbury, turned around and became instead a tribute to libraries. But surely, Bradbury would approve.