By Allison Cox.
It is kismet. I take a break from editing storytelling articles to come to the IsleWilde Festival here on Vashon Island Washington, and stories are unfolding all around me. Artists of all kinds travel from near and far to join islanders in creating this weekend pageant where the line between audience and participant is blurred.
Two weeks beforehand, workshops prepare the community cast to co-create this event by offering instruction on everything from stilt walking to bread baking. Somehow, the mundane material requests that appear in the local newspaper (brown bags, cardboard, lumber, wire, fabric, paint…) magically transform our library park into a wondrous land abounding in vibrant banners and flags, giant puppets, sculptured arches and murals.
Paraders carry paper lanterns in shapes of fish, birds, bugs, mammals and more, as we weave through a magical town that suddenly appeared, Brigadoon-style, for only this weekend. It is the opening evening event. The stilt-walking master of ceremonies announces, “This year’s theme is chasing our tales” The cast, flamboyantly costumed and resplendent in bushy tails of all shapes and sizes, shake their new appendages in anticipation each time the word “tales”is spoken. “Welcome to Yaksburg,” the MC shouts, “where stories come to life!”
We all follow the lead, passing under a monstrous dog-like creature straddling the walkway, shaggy head cocked to one side to hear any stray stories that are whispered in its ear. Slowly, our procession winds through the transitory village.
A bright yellow lemonade stand advertises “Free drink for a tale.” A giant Talking Head TV puppet stage periodically features real clowns reporting their slant on our island happenings: “Hundreds of people turned out last week in protest of the gravel company that is chewing up and carrying away pieces of our island! “A bright canopy covers the Free Speech Zone set up by our island radio station “where everyone’s story can be heard”on the local broadcast.
We pass the Speakeasy Beauty Parlor, where children can adorn themselves and dress up as characters in spontaneous tales. Beyond the trees, there is a place set aside for bedtime stories. Twin beds rest beneath the cedars, spread with quilts of painted canvas squares stitched together with rough twine. One side of these bedspreads is covered with nightmare images and sayings in bright acrylic paints created by the cast: “People believed the lies,” “I am afraid of who I am and who I am not.” “We couldn’t breathe but the sunsets were beautiful.” The headboards are painted with instructions to “Write down or draw your own nightmare or dream for the future and place under the bed then turn over the quilt to reveal our dreams.” Both sides of the quilts are equally fascinating. Slips of paper and colored markers are supplied to add your night time memories to the mix.
The procession continues past the graveyard where a burial is in progress, and a massive puppet named Grief sits as sentinel on a bench that reads, “We hear you.” The tombstones behind the giant mourner commemorate what has been lost (“We miss you Mr. Rogers”) or left behind (“my hair, my overblown ego trip, bad ideas, cigarettes”). A sign asks participants to write down brief stories of loss and change and leave them in a fish bowl for safekeeping since Grief will watch over all contributions.
The procession spirals into a great circle for the opening ritual. “Animals” of the island, wearing masks and walking on stilts, lead the opening songs. We call upon all the creatures of the island, incarnate or spirit, to help us explore. What happens when we tell our stories? What happens when we don’t?” Tone bowls ring out with drums as all agree in chant together we will return again tomorrow to see what stories the new day brings.
Throughout the weekend – whether juggling, fire dancing or hamming it up in the vaudeville shows – stories of individuals, families and community are told. Myth, folktale, legend and fairytales are interwoven with our community concerns. Our hopes and fears, doubts and dreams are played out in the telling of these tales.
In the Water Bucket Circus, children offer their own explanation of why their grade school was torn down for renovation. In search of affordable housing, the three little pigs huddle behind a cardboard facsimile of the old elementary school until the big bad wolfs bulldozer knocks the school over. The puppet theater follows, featuring Orcas whales mourning the loss of fishy friends due to sonar blasts from patrolling Navy ships in the Puget Sound.
In the final pageant, a life-sized puppet named Chatty Cathy loses her voice to an ill wind and undertakes a heroine’s journey, completing several impossible tasks in order to finally restore her speech. In the end, Cathy realizes that she always had her inner voice guiding her, telling her stories heard over the weekend every step of the way.
Many artists, actors, musicians and, of course, storytellers, call this island home, so it should be no surprise to me that Yaksburg appeared at the island’s center overnight. I know that when creating art, we draw meaning from life, and yet, I am still a bit in awe at the power of the stories being told here in the park.
To give you an idea of how this weekend appears out of the mist each year, the following is condensed from the IsleWilde web site. The festival philosophy is that communal creation of art helps to foster a vibrant community. IsleWilde has been run by members of the Vashon arts community since 1992 in collaboration with the Vashon Park District. Each summer, one to two week workshops are advertised in the island paper, featuring mask making, giant puppet building, lantern making, batiking, costume design, stilt walking, acting, circus troupe, jug band, etc. The cost is $100/per individual or $150 per family for as many workshops as you wish. Scholarships are offered by the Vashon Park District for island residents.
In recent years, new workshops have appeared, such as: Deep Ecology Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed and Tools for Sustainable Living. Each year’s theme is brainstormed, and the agreed upon idea then guides the festival. Festival themes often focus on island life, often including politics, the ecosystem, and local whimsy. The whole event is designed, built, and rehearsed during these two weeks. Favorite events from the past are relived anew, like the Waterbucket Circus (“A performance opportunity for kids and parents!”) The Council of Beings, fire dancers and always the giant puppets that stand 12-feet high and often span Main Street.
During the workshops, participants are encouraged to camp together in a donated campsite to keep the creative juices flowing.
Besides all the homegrown talent – for example Island storyteller Merna Hecht was involved this year (no wonder storytelling was a theme!) – assorted celebratory artists arrive each year from across the country and overseas to join in this festival. There is no admission charged for the IsleWilde Festival and often a community dinner is served to boot.
Standing on the hill above the whole festival, I look down on a wondrous sight. In center ring, the audience sings to soothe an angry sea giant with hopes that he will pour forth stories of ancient times. Grief s presence is welcomed and the solemnly looming puppet watches from above the cemetery. During intermission, the Free Speech Zone announces the latest politician to win the Vashon-based Backbone Campaign Award, for standing up for what he or she feels is right, even in the face of overwhelming political odds. Behind the stage, weary souls can lay down their nightmares and rest under a blanket of dreams. Sporadic clowns and puppets revel in newscasts of justice being served. And everywhere, wacky tricksters leap, howl, caw and dance along with the water crones, and fish bones frolic among the moving cardboard waves.
And as the cast holds out their hands inviting us all to join them in this burgeoning dance of life， the storyteller in me is delighted and the being within is encouraged and refreshed with hope. This is what can happen when community stories are given voice! For, as the master of ceremonies reminds us, “Stories can help you see with new eyes!” So whenever you need a rest between the challenges of life and story, come to our island, where storytellers can drink all the lemonade they want for free.
This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.
*For more information about IsleWilde, go to: www.islewilde.org
Allison Cox is the co/editor and a contributing author of The Healing Heart books and past editor of The Healing Story Alliance’s journal, Diving in the Moon: Honoring Story and Facilitating Healing. Allison combines her love of story with her experience as a therapist, social worker, health educator and prevention specialist to create story encounters that encourage life, hope and laughter.