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Under the spell of a story

Eben Harrell
Story-teller Merrilee Hindman tells a story of swine at the Aspen Library Tuesday morning. Aspen Times photo/Devon Meyers
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As Merrilee Hindman speaks, a group of 4-year-olds sits in front of her, necks craned back, mouths agape. Just over 5-feet tall, with a voice as soft as her blue eyes, Hindman still manages to inspire an awed hush from her audience.Want to meet a talking pig? Want to visit a forbidding castle or a far-away island? Can you imagine an enchanted forest as magical as the imagination itself? Anything is possible; the storyteller is here.

Hindman is one of 500 storytellers now registered with Spellbinders, a national nonprofit storytelling organization based in Aspen. Like all Spellbinder storytellers, she takes her various stories on tour, performing in schools and communities across the Roaring Fork Valley. Last year, Hindman and 22 other storytellers performed for more than 2,500 children in the valley, according to numbers provided by Spellbinders. Nationally, the number was closer to 35,000. Spellbinders was founded by Aspen locals Al and Germaine Dietsch. The couple started the organization in 1991 in the Denver area to help retirees remain active in their communities. What they have found since is that the gift of gab does not belong only to those with age and experience. The program has trained storytellers as young as 13; young parents and community members make up many of the organization’s new recruits”Everyone is a storyteller,” Dietsch says. “It’s amazing the renaissance we are seeing for storytelling. We expect eight new chapters to open nationally. Our program continues to expand locally, with performances in 250 classrooms last year.”There are differing theories for the program’s far-reaching success. Many intellectuals argue that the impulse to tell stories is the most defining element of our species. To these thinkers, it is the narrative thread that binds humanity together. Societies define themselves through myths, folklore and legends, just as individuals assume identities through self-defining narratives. In the end, the short semi-humorous comedies we live, our long certain tragedies, make up most of who we are.

To Dietsch, the primary reason for the success of Spellbinders is also the reason for its importance: Storytelling engages the imagination. Play a video game, turn on the television, even hold a book in your hand, and there’s a barrier between the imagination and the story.On television, visual interpretation comes ready-made. When a child listens to a story, however, a world rises from the fertile soil of their imagination.”It’s amazing how similar each storytelling experience is, especially with younger students. You can literally see the moment their imagination switches on,” Dietsch says. “Storytelling is so important, especially in early education. Kids are hearing new words, learning important lessons, and most of all using their imagination.”

As a storyteller, Hindman agrees. In one of her stories to the 4-year-olds, she recounts the moment a little pig encountered a “big old drooly-mouthed fox.””The pig turned round, and …”Hindman’s not a scary woman, but the children gasp nonetheless. Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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