Magpie Ulysses wants to take you hostage with her storytelling.
“Sometimes we don’t realize we want to be told a story until we’re listening and our feet curl up under our asses and we pull our arms around our knees and have a moment of absolute presence in a room full of people,” said the Nelson storyteller, who will be performing with a diverse lineup at this year’s Kootenay Storytelling Festival from September 18 to 21.
“The thing I love about the act of storytelling is that you are not in isolation when you’re on stage. For me as a performer my creation doesn’t stop when I finish writing or memorizing it. My process is still changing with people in the room and it changes all the time,” she said.
“People experience different things about your work. You have places where you go off or you stop mid-sentence or somebody needs to pee. It’s an interactive activity. It’s not a passive ‘let’s go watch this thing’ and people want that now, I think.”
Ulysses will be performing her show “Past Presence; Pleiotropy & the impossible cycle of being” on Friday, September 20 at the Old Church Hall at 602 Victoria St. The piece is about her experiences hitchhiking over 25,000 kms across North America.
“I’ve always been interested in othering. I was bullied in high school. I’ve always been fascinated with outlaws and outcasting. It’s always been present in my work but it’s really just starting to become a bit more present, and in some strange places.”
Ulysses set out to recount her experiences, and had a number of academic ideas for how to approach her work, but ultimately she found her experiences dictated the story she’s ended up telling.
“Everything shifted and now most of it is about how we engage with strangers, and strangers’ stories that they told me,” she said.
Ulysses will be joining veteran performers like headliner Ivan E. Coyote and children’s performer Anne Glover. Ulysses, who has previously focused on spoken word and performance poetry, said transitioning into the storytelling scene has been a challenge at times.
“Last year I was part of the festival and I felt really overwhelmed by it. I mean, those are big shoes. Ivan’s shoes are Ivan’s shoes. There’s no one else. Ivan is one of the most powerful storytellers I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
Ulysses said she values the way Coyote forces people into self-reflection.
“Any time you have a powerful trans person on stage, you’re going to have that experience. But Ivan has this way of taking their particular experience in the world and making it yours too,” she said.
(Coyote chooses not to self-identify with traditional pronouns such as “he” or “she” in favour of “they” and “them”.)
Ulysses said she’s also thrilled to see Anne Glover.
“Anne is possibly one of the best children’s entertainers I’ve ever experienced, with meaning,” she said.
But though she admires Glover’s work, Ulysses warns that her subject matter isn’t intended for a younger audience.
“I’m talking about big ideas about big things and if people want to talk to their children about that, it’s fine with me. But it’s not up to me to choose that for them,” she said.
Ulysses said many are under the mistaken assumption that storytelling is exclusively for children, but she said she has observed people during her performances who are hungry for the sort of communal, interactive experiences that storytelling performances offer.
“People always associate it with children, but I’ve watched adults in audiences get completely lost in the show. There’s a softening, a reckoning there,” she said.
Ulysses said one tragic event that’s on her mind leading up to the festival is the recent death of Blackfoot spoken word performer Zaccheus Jackson, who she called a “superhero” of the storytelling community.
“He was an incredibly powerful person and this is a huge loss on so many levels,” she said.
“Here I find the aboriginal voice doesn’t get showcased very much. We don’t have many powerful aboriginal voices. His work will continue through people like us, people who remember him and the people who are doing this work as well.”
For more information about the Kootenay Storytelling Festival, visit kootenaystory.org.