[History Town] Through storytelling, we connect – and intersect – our lives

History Town 2015 (End of the Road) by vanstralen

I love a well-crafted story. I love to hear an anecdote told just right, with a strong through-line, plot twists and curves, switchbacks, tension, a climax and a satisfying conclusion. Throughout my career as an historical interpreter the act of collecting, crafting and telling stories has fueled my professional life.

Tonight at the Sunset Theatre in Wells a celebrated Canadian storyteller named TJ Dawe presented his latest one-man tour-de-force, Marathon. TJ creates that kind of transcendent theatrical experience wherein a performer reaches into our own, near-bottomless well of experiences and makes us understand stuff we already knew, although we didn’t necessarily know we knew it. Audience members all around me were constantly making noises of surprised self-recognition. We were watching a master storyteller recount a multi-faceted tale, and it was delightful.

Talking with TJ after his performance I asked what his favourite part of creating a show is. He has, after all, written, performed and toured with dozens of his own plays, as well as helped to create multi-character pieces with other artists. TJ said: “I love when I am breaking in a new one, when I’m figuring it out, learning how to make it work.” On this point, I completely concur. There are few things more exhilarating to a storyteller than that golden time spent working with each successive audience to smooth the rough edges of a story until it is a polished, gleaming nugget. Every time we speak the words we learn more about how a given tale wants to be told.

Every Thursday at the Theatre Royal in Barkerville, for example, my husband James performs a 60-minute monologue I wrote for him called The Fred Wells Show. The play is exactly what it purports to be: a story about the man for whom the community of Wells (where we live) was named. The story of Wells is inherently fascinating, and brimming with humanity. As the author of this particular version of the story I must, to some degree, get out of its way. My greatest challenge as a playwright tackling a (mostly) true story is to be adept and practiced enough to notice the natural drama in the tale, and then let it shine forth in as honest a fashion as I can. I am not necessarily inventing the story, but I am pushing it a little bit this way and that way, scooting it along, slowing it down in places, speeding it up in other places, letting it flow.

It’s a lot like performing an historical walking tour of Barkerville. I like to think of the town tour as one deep story filled with a lot of smaller stories. I love stopping in front of the Bowron House, for example, to talk about the group of adventurers who left Ontario and Quebec in 1862 on a cross-country journey to the Cariboo Gold Rush. They were called Overlanders.

The Overlanders story starts off, casually enough, as a tale of the difficult realities of long-distance travel during the Victorian era. In the beginning it has some reassuringly comedic elements, like how the novice group of gold-seekers erroneously expected to walk from Winnipeg to Barkerville… in five weeks. As the story progresses, however, the initial novelty of the Overlanders’ miscalculation – which at first seems sweetly naïve – turns dark and menacing. The travellers soon find themselves in grave danger and, eventually, on the brink of starvation.

My account of the Overlanders story features its sole female protagonist, Catherine Schubert, who was pregnant throughout what proved to be a five month walking trip. Mrs. Schubert gave birth to her child the very day she arrived at Fort Kamloops via homemade raft on the North Thompson River. I then bring the story back home, to Barkerville, by circling to its beginning and ending where I started, with John Bowron, Overlander – whose house we are standing in front of. The whole story takes only five minutes to tell, but in that brief period we have, as a group, time-travelled more than 150 years and crossed an entire continent… together. Then, together, we move on to the next story, and the next.

Storytelling is one of the most important ways we as humans make sense of the world, and make sense of our place in it. Through storytelling, we connect – and intersect – our lives. As watchers and listeners, audiences are able to take a story from me, carry it away from Barkerville, and keep it. The story is still mine, of course, but once I tell it it’s also yours. We share it, and it becomes part of a much deeper story; the story of us.

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon (originally published August 29, 2015) by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the thirteenth of twenty weekly entries that were logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2015 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing the quirkier side of living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!