Storyfest Productions

Storyfest Productions with Robert Bela Wilhelm and MaryJo Kelly Wilhelm

Apples of Paradise: Armenian Folktales and Spirituality
Christmas Parables
More than the Blarney Stone: A look at Irish Americans Seeking their Roots
& The Native Irish Telling Their Stories
Pagan Babies: Ten Pre-Evangelization Story Poems & Coloring Book for Young Children
Sacred Stories from Celtic Lands
Storyfest Journeys Cookbook
Stories for the Lenten Journey
Stories from the Mabinogian

Storyfest Productions is the umbrella company which encompasses Storyfest Press, Storyfest Journeys, and Storyfest Ministry. It is co-directed by the husband and Wife team of Robert Bela Wilhelm and Mary Jo Kelly Wilhelm. Founded in 1979 as a way of combining their interests, it makes the most of Bob's work as a storyteller, theologian, and folklorist, and Kelly's work in recreation. (Each of them holds a doctorate: Bob in storytelling as a performing art, and Kelly’s in travel and leisure.) The company is truly a family enterprise, since it also includes Kelly’s brother and sister-in-law, and Bob's sister.
I first ran across Storyfest years ago, with the notice of one of the trips to Ireland. Since then, I have been on the mailing list still dreaming of the time when I may be able to join a tour, and acquiring, over the years, many of the Storyfest tapes. The trademark for the tapes is Stories For Pilgrims. After listening to the tapes and reading their other resources, it becomes clear that the Wilhelms see us all as being on a pilgrimage through life. Stories are the key to the pilgrimage because they tell us about ourselves, transform us, and connect us with others. Any stories which can do this, no matter where they originate, are sacred stories.
Storyfest Journeys offers travel seminars to select destinations around the world. This year, the journeys were to the West of Ireland for Celtic myths and legends, to Wales for King Arthur's Britain, and to Spain along the medieval pilgrims' road to Santiago de Campostela. The emphasis of the journeys is on the stories of the people told in place. Stories not only show us our inner selves, they also connect us to each other, and what better way to forge those connections than to do so in the very locales from which the stones spring?
Storyfest Ministry offers lectures, workshops, performances and seminars in sacred storytelling. This year, the annual 5-day Institute of Storytelling as Sacred Art was held in Tucson. The format for these institutes (this was the 17th) is a lively mix of lecture, storytelling, discussion, quiet time, and large and small group sessions. Perhaps an indication of their success is that in response to the request for on-going education in the art of sacred storytelling, Storyfest started an apprenticeship program in 1994. This program is the central activity of the Storyfest School of Sacred Storytelling. It is already scheduled 10 divide into two programs, one in the southwest, and the other in the northeast. Storyfest Press produces books, and audio and Video tapes on

Its best-selling book is the Storyfest Journeys Cookbook ($15) written by Kelly, and illustrated by Robert, Kelly, and Kelly's artist brother, Joseph Kelly.
The book is a collection of recipes from chefs at the hotels and retreat centres visited by Storyfest Journeys in 1991 and 1992;. Of course the recipes are accompanied by stories. My favourite is probably the episode in which the tour found itself locked in a cemetery after dark in New Orleans, but I. also loved the room-by-room tour of Old Gwernyfed Manor in Wales, and the description of girdling the church in Devon to ward off evil. The recipes range from prawns and mushroom salad (England) to bread pudding with bourbon sauce (New Orleans and a world of places and foods in between. Some of the recipes are slightly more time consuming than others, but all are accessible to the average cook. And thank you, Kelly, for suggesting a substitute for the sea urchins which are over $70 a pound!

The second best seller is Apples of Paradise:Armenian Folktales and Spirituality ($12), written by Robert Wilhelm. The book begins With a reflection:on the nature of the pilgimage experience, and speaks in particular, of the Lenten journey. Part.II is an Armenian folktale, The Apples of Eden, which contains many Christian images and symbols. The text of the story is presented in a poetic, rather than prose,. form an attempt to more closely recreate the oral form from which it was recorded. We are told that it was transcribed from an oral performance, and can only assume that the teller was Wilhelm himself, since no other teller is identified. A postscript gives brief notes on Armenian history, particularly as it relates to Christianity. A source of Armenian stories is suggested, but no written source is given for the tale itself. A little more care in editing would have eliminated the gremlin typos which occur in the introduction.

Number three on the best seller list is Pagan Babies: Ten Pre-Evangelization Story Poems & Coloring Book for Young Children ($15) also by Robert Wilhelm. An interesting idea, this. In the preface, Wilhelm first addresses the importance of stories for children, touching on play, bonding, protection, and covenant. Storytelling, we know, is a co-creation between teller and listener, and that co-creation, Wilhelm implies, helps to teach the child his role as a co-creator of the world.

The stories in the collection are not what one would term "religious". They incl\lde Puss-in-Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and others. And yet, Wilhelm says, they are religious, because they speak to the universal needs and understandings of all children in a language that is religious, but not yet specifically Christian. Stories are always "processes by which the 'pagan', that is, the truly human in the Child is addressed so that somewhere down the line, in the future, a full Christian response can be made. Only later is evangelization possible."

The stories are written in poem form. To accomplish this they were simplified a great deal, and one or two suffer a bit for that. In Puss and Boots, for instance, Puss hurries off to the Ogre's castle. Since the castle and ogre had never been mentioned before this point, there was some confusion, both on my part, and that of my young listener. Overall, however, the simplicity of the stories makes them easier for inexperienced tellers to learn.

Other printed materia! from the press includes More than the Blarney Stone: A look at Irish Americans Seeking their Roots & The Native Irish Telling Their Stories ($3.95), a 22 page chapbook by Robert and Kelly Wilhelm. In this, Kelly examines eight Americans who traveled to Ireland: their expectations, experiences, and memories. "One travels hoping for change," she says. "One creates meaning of the daily events of the journey... Ireland can be reclaimed, but only if the traveler eschews the beaten track and seeks the pilgrim path within his or her own heart first." Robert Wilhelm went to Ireland seeking not family roots, but roots of his craft, and found Mark Coyne, Eddie Lenihan, and Michael O'Flaherty. In describing them he touches on the imaginative and creative language of the Irish, but says the magic is more profound than just their language. "The Irish respect stories, they love stories, and they generously share stories with those who are willing to listen...and exchange a story in return."

Also available from Storyfest Press are audio and video cassettes. I had no videos to review, and so can only report that five are available. Four are storie of St. Francis, and three of the four were taped at various sites in Italy. The other video is a Native American tale for children. The videos range in length from 7-17 minutes, and in price from $12-$19

The audio cassettes all feature Robert Bela Wilhelm's telling. They fall into four categories: Christmas parables, Stories for the Lenten Journey, Sacred Stories fron Celtic Lands, and the Welsh Mabinogion.

Stories from the Mabinogian ($19.95) is a two cassette package of tales from the Welsh national epic that inspired the Arthurian romances of Camelot. Tape one ha! three tales from the First Branch of the Mabinogion, and tape two includes the complete story of the Third Branch.

Sacred Stories from Celtic Lands ($39), includes four tapes, three of which (Stories from the Hebrides, Tales of Old Ireland, and Quest for the Holy Grail) may be purchased individually for $11 each. The fourth tape is an introduction to Christian theology and Celtic folklore, and includes stories of St. Patrick and Oisin.

Christmas Parables ($39) offers stories which cover Advent through the Epiphany. They include the very funny story of St Anthony's trip with his pet pig to the "other place" to bring fire and light to the world, moving stories of St Francis, and Twelfth Night tales - two for women (Rachel's Cave, and Dame Ragnel), and two of men and their sons (Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket). The one tape of this set which is not. available for separate purchase is an introduction to Advent which discusses the feast days of Advent, and the sacred themes of the season.

Stories for the Lenten Journey ($39) which also has an introductory tape which is not sold separately. It covers the character of discipleship, and says that "storytelling and story listening are two acts of discipleship that deepen outward actions by first evoking an interior transformation of the imagination." Tales on the other three tapes include, among others, a Jack tale, a Haitian tale of Papa Death, and stories by Tolstoy.

Wilhelm's style of telling is calm and intimate. There is no sense of performing the stories for the listener, but rather a sharing of them. Some of the tapes have musical introductions which help to set the tone for what is to come. You can find Storyfest on the Internet at Or you can call them at 800-277-7035, Fax them at 301-379-2779, E-Mail at or write Storyfest, 18934 Rolling Road, Hagerstown, Maryland 21742

The Second Story Review, Vol 1, No. 3, September 1996
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