Cantastoria: Centuries-Old Performance Style Making a Comeback

06/21/2011 1:48 PM |

Ramshackle Enterprises with Beth Nixon. (Photo: Kristin Basta)
  • Clare Dolan. (Photo: Kristin Basta)

“Illustrated lectures with music.” That description sounds like it could easily fit the work of a handful of downtown performance artists and groups. First, there’s the huge surge in the popularity of slide lectures over the past 10 years, now at its peak (perhaps) in the form of hundreds of online TED talks. Then there’s the gradual way that indie companies and bands have created new ways of building theater with music that doesn’t fit any particular musical mold. It seems inevitable that the two would combine into a new form. But of course, this being performance, the truth is that the idea of singing along as illustrations are displayed for the audience goes back centuries and cuts across multiple continents.

Cantastoria is the Italian name for it, which translates to “sung history,” but the form precedes the existence of Italy by a few centuries—dating back (at least as far as the history we have can tell us) to India. In just about every iteration a traveling storyteller wandered the cities and countryside, and instead of just singing the stories, like the bards of ancient Greece or Rome, they added illustrated banners or scrolls. Some of the scrolls required the aid of helpers, one of whom would slowly unroll one end while the other helper rolled the other end back up, creating a literal moving picture for the storyteller to interpret for the rapt audience. As Beth Nixon, of Ramshackle Enterprises describes it: “It’s like super low-tech PowerPoint, no cords and wires and plugs needed, you just unfurl your fabric and presto—visual aids to accompany your tale.“ It started off primarily as a means of telling religious stories but eventually became a cheap and easily transportable sideshow of sorts.

In fact, New York, in its youth, played host to one of the most famous cantastoria of the 19th century. At a time when theater and variety shows were the primary forms of entertainment in the city, spectacle could earn you a pretty good premium if it captured the audience’s interest. William Dunlap, one of the first truly American theater writers, built a play around an enormous “moving diorama” operated by cranks and pulleys that illustrated, in motion, the beautiful shoreline of the Hudson River. The play, titled A Trip to Niagara, was a huge success, in large part because of its innovative depictions of parts of the new world that many of the freshly immigrated audience members had never seen before.

Hard to imagine, given our 21st century addictions to technology and spectacle, that there would be much interest in bringing back cantastoria. But leave it to the low-fi magicians working in contemporary puppet and object theater to remind us that wonder and imagination require no technology at all. According to Trudi Cohen, one of the members of the theater company Great Small Works, it’s not just here in the U.S. that cantastoria is re-emerging as a highly accessible and useful form: “There have been extraordinary cantastoria created in Italy, Turkey, India and Iran, including contemporary stories like the attacks on the World Trade Center.”

Between June 22-26, downtown’s HERE is hosting BANNERS & CRANKS: a cantastoria festival, which features a wide variety of re-interpretations of the form by some of the best known puppetry and object theater companies in the US, along with a variety of others who have embraced the form either for its historical connections or for its particular ability to give artists new ways of communicating with an audience.

I asked a couple of the artists participating in the festival to give me some insights into why they have embraced the form.

The L: What interests you about cantastoria and why do you think it’s relevant in today’s culture?
Beth Nixon (aka Ramshackle Enterprises): “[Cantastoria is a] sort of a performed graphic novel, maybe with some audience participation or music. I think cantastoria as a form has stuck around so long because it is flexible. It can accommodate any range of content—from statistic lists to cartoons, landscapes to sing-along lyrics. And because people want to gather around something and be entertained. Cantastoria lives somewhere between library story-hour, a coach’s white-board reveal of a football play-map, ghost stories around a bonfire, and the TV meteorologist’s awkward partnership with green screen weather.”

Trudi Cohen, member of Great Small Works: “Much of our work is the reinvention of traditional theater forms, to make them relevant to our current situation. At the same time, most of us in the company met through our associations with Bread and Puppet Theater, where cantastoria is a frequent medium for street theater performance… As a form, it is simple and accessible—everyone has a story to tell, and cantastoria offers simple tools for bringing those stories to light.”

Emily Anderson, Director and founding member of VSA Vermont’s Awareness Theater Company: “We use this form of illustrated theater a lot, as many of our members who are adults with a variety of developmental disabilities express themselves best through art… It’s a great method for conveying a message or story while showing off the creative methods of the creator/performer… Our company members have unique talents so we want to show off several of them in each theatrical encounter so our audiences have multiple ways to connect with the performer after the show.”

Tell me a bit about the work you’re going to present at Banners & Cranks.
Beth Nixon: “I have a brand new show, just born this week, that I’m planning to debut at Banners & Cranks. It is sort of a performative lecture/guided tour/psychological training program using some charts and graphs, drawings, and cardboard gizmos. Additionally, I employ the smallest and most mundane cantastoria: the clip board. I’m also performing a cantastoria about sloth-moth symbiosis, replete with algae costumes and a rousing sing-a-long chorus.”

Trudi Cohen: “Our signature [toy theater] series is one called Terror As Usual, which is our take on the news through the use of found images and texts from newspapers and magazines. We had the idea to create a cantastoria with banners created from a similar found-image aesthetic. So we created photographic collages (designed by company member Stephen Kaplin), and decided to make the show in black and white to further reference the newspaper idea. And we created banners and costumes inspired by a psychedelic black and white film of the Cockettes.

“We can’t entirely remember how we came on the idea, but we call our show Three Graces, and we have Aphrodite and the Graces presiding over the pleasures of life as a context for quoting from four real-life Graces who inspire us—Grace Paley, Grace Jones, Grace Kelly, and Grace Lee Boggs.”

Emily Anderson: “Our cantastoria I’ll Fly Away is a piece we created in a cantastoria class I taught 10 years ago to adults with disabilities. It tells the story of a green bird living among pink birds who flies away to escape his loneliness. On a far distant planet an encounter with an Alien Angel gives him the courage to return and find the love he was seeking. We’re also doing two shows on a new Crankie Stage which is a brand new format of storytelling for us. We’ll present two pieces in this format. Wondering Why We’re Here introduces the audience to our company members and a mission to get everyone to surrender their wishes for perfection and embrace our different ways of being human. Hello Yellow Snow is a tribute to Frank Zappa who said ‘without deviation from the norm, “progress” is not possible.’”

BANNERS & CRANKS: a cantastoria festival runs at HERE June 22-26. For a full schedule and tickets click here.