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Columbia storyteller Milbre Burch offers her past to digital storytelling festival

Monday, September 30, 2013 | 8:19 p.m. CDT; updated 9:37 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 30, 2013

COLUMBIA — When Milbre Burch tells a story, she doesn't just talk with her hands — sometimes she rolls on the ground or stands on one foot. 

When the Columbia storyteller recorded three tales for the "Stories Connect Us All" digital storytelling festival, the strangest thing for her was engaging a camera instead of an audience.

Burch is one of more than 50 storytellers participating in this year's festival, which gathers oral tales from all over the world and disseminates them through Facebook. Between Oct. 9 and 11, one of the stories will be posted on the festival's page every half hour.

For her part of the festival, Burch recounted her childhood in the Jim Crow-era South.

The storytellers in the festival face the challenge of adapting intimate performances into internet videos, which separates them from the audience but also gives their material more exposure.

"Storytellers prefer to see the audience," said Burch, whose album "Making the Heart Whole Again" was nominated for a Grammy in 2007. "We're not doing it alone. We're engaging with the people who came to listen." 

Susan O'Halloran, the festival's producer, said the point of the festival isn't to replace live storytelling, but to use every tool available to spread the stories.  

The biggest demographic for last year's festival was 18- to 35-year-old men — a group that she said typically shuns live storytelling. She credits the popularity among the demographic to the festival's format — a Facebook page with the videos and discussions posted straight to the timeline.

"Facebook has the platform for things to go viral," she said.

Roger Stahl, a professor of communications at the University of Georgia and a coordinator of the Rabbit Box storytelling group in Athens, Ga., has mixed feelings about the digital method of storytelling. The in-person aspect of storytelling is the most powerful part of the experience, he said, adding that the experience changes when you watch someone tell a story on a screen.

"It's almost like two different stories," he said.

O'Halloran said she went to great lengths — including hiring a professional video crew and a makeup artist — to allow each video to stand on its own as a piece of art.   

"So many people were surprised by how intimate this felt," she said. "Part of that is how we shoot it. It feels more like someone's sitting across the kitchen table talking to you."

For her part, Burch doesn't think telling a story through video every now and then will kill the oral tradition.

"Every time we find a tool, we're going to pick it up and play with it," she said. "We're going to see how well it serves what we're doing."  

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.


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