Diane Ferlatte stood in the middle of the stage and extended her arms like a bird. Leaping from one foot to the next, she made quick panting sounds as if she was being chased. She wore an all-black outfit, except for a colorful jacket that resembled a patchwork quilt with dozens of different fabrics sewn together in an African motif- design.
“And he jumped and began to run and made a sound like ooooo oooh, ” she said to a group of young children, who burst into laughter.
The laughter of more than 100 children echoed through the auditorium of the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, where students in third to sixth grade gathered Thursday for the first day of the 2012 Bay Area Storytelling Festival. The event continues today until Sunday evening at 4:30 p.m.
Ferlatte has been a storyteller for more than 20 years, traveling through South America, Africa, and Asia to tell stories in their most vivid form with costumes, music accompaniment, vocals and dance.
On Thursday, with the help of guitarist Erik Pearson, she told the African folktale “The Hired Hands” to young students from elementary schools across the Bay Area. The story was fitting for a young audience, she said, because it’s a story about a young man making mistakes and learning from lessons from those mistakes.
“Everyone makes mistakes right?” Ferlatte asked the crowd gathered near the stage.
“Right,” a group of students said in unison.
“But we can learn from those mistakes right?” she asked.
“Right,” the students responded.
Ferlatte said audience response is the best thing about being a storyteller. Listening to people gasp and giggle and even look horrified is what she enjoys the most, she said.
“To me, storytelling is an interactive thing,” Ferlatte said. “I think it makes a difference when we can hear characters because we can see them come alive in a way we can’t with just words.”
Ferlatte is originally from New Orleans, but has lived in the Bay Area for many years. She said she remembers a childhood filled with vivid storytelling, something she struggled, at first, to provide for her own son.
“I started telling stories because when I adopted my son from foster care he was a TV-head,” she said. “Anytime I tried to read him a story he would say, ‘No, want to watch TV.’”
Ferlatte persisted. As she made a bigger effort to be funny and dance and make up sounds, her son became more interested in her stories. That one bedtime story turned into local appearances at schools and now a full career as a storyteller.
The event, which runs through Sunday, will feature many other storytellers, who, like Ferlatte, who have their own unique style of getting an audience engaged. Featured performers include Tlingit Raven dancer, storyteller and musician Gene Tagaban, Celtic harpist and storyteller Patrick Ball, and lively stories from America’s heartland told by Beth Horner. In addition, there will be folktales from across the globe with showcased by storytellers Jill Johnson and Michael Katz.
In addition to the storyteller’s concerts, the event offers a children’s program, storytelling workshops, open mic sessions, and for the first time this year, a Story Slam, where participants will have five minutes to compete for a prize for the best story told.
To cap off the event, the audience will watch the solar eclipse Sunday evening For a full list of event details visit Bay Area Storytelling at bayareastorytelling.org. Advance ticket sales have ended. Tickets can be purchased at the gate.