PICTURED: Diane Macklin to perform for the 20th Annual Ojai Storytelling Festival, taking place Oct. 28-31. Photo submitted

by Mike Nelson

In times like these, when cacophony is the norm, we need stories. Specifically, stories that connect with our lives in a way that promotes empathy, understanding and, if possible, healing.

“In this time, it is so crucial that we learn to listen to each other with depth and width, in a way that we can see how someone else’s story can fit into ours,” says Diane Macklin, one of America’s most prominent storytellers who will participate in the 20th Annual Ojai Storytelling Festival Oct. 28-31.

“Right now, things are a little — well, problematic in our society,” continues Macklin, speaking by phone from her Baltimore home. “And it comes from not being acknowledged, which is the most isolating thing we can do to one another. The feeling that no one’s hearing you is the quickest way to feel alone, or angry.”

Which is why, says Macklin, “story-listening” is as important as storytelling.

“It’s having the capacity to say, ‘We want to know your story, to find out what’s going on with you,’” she says. “That’s what storytellers model, to look at the culture and the community, to speak into that space and show how we can connect to each other in a positive way. And when we do that, we realize there is space for everyone.”

That philosophy — especially the desire “to treat each other better” — frames Macklin’s own approach to storytelling, which includes song, dance and “lots of energy,” she laughs.

“At the core, I am about the connection we have to one another,” she continues. “And that’s the purpose of storytelling: to assist in helping people realize how we are human beings together, how we can show kindness to each other. So my stories have themes of teamwork, caring, understanding, wanting people to rise up to be their best selves.”

Such a role and responsibility, Macklin adds, is both exhilarating and humbling. “I’ve spent the past 20 years living this very ancient art form that is the core and atom of human existence. Storytelling is the language of the entire human race, a shared experience by all.”

Born and raised in New York’s Hudson Valley, Macklin was between her junior and senior years at Vassar when she attended an event featuring storyteller-artist Tracy Leavitt, which ultimately influenced her choice of livelihood.

“I was just enchanted at how Tracy could tell stories that connected to an important part of each one of us,” Macklin recalls. She joined the Hudson Valley Storytelling Guild and connected with “a great cluster of people who fostered my development in the art of storytelling — mainly, to let the story become a part of me.”

Earning her master’s degree from Simmons University in Boston, Macklin made a living as an administrative coordinator for a nonprofit and teaching English and social studies in private and public schools.

“But in 2000,” she says, “I said to myself that storytelling needs to be more part of who I am. So I prayed, took a leap of faith, and devoted myself to doing it full time.”

She was also influenced by Mother Mary Carter Smith, founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers. 

“They spoke a language I didn’t know,” Macklin says, “different sounds and rhythms, more animated, and a dynamic interaction and relationship between audience and storytellers, where both are on the same plane, with give and take.”

Having been “called” to what she believes is as much ministry as it is career, Macklin says she is “grateful for being able to follow this spiritual path, because storytelling goes everywhere. As long as there are people, there are stories to tell.”

The #MeToo movement, Macklin adds, reflects the desire and need people have to tell their stories, to be heard.

“That’s something we as human beings have always needed,” she says. “You can talk through hurt and conflict through sharing and listening to stories.

“Because, ultimately, we all need that joy, that light, that sense of connection with one another that comes from being able to hear each other’s stories — and making sure that those stories do not end in judgment, or in shame. If our community had that mindset in our core, we’d be in a different and better place.” 

The 20th annual Ojai Storytelling Festival runs Oct. 28-31 and includes workshops and outdoor performances at multiple venues including the Libbey Bowl and Ojai Art Center. In addition to Diane Macklin, award-winning storytellers Regi Carpenter, Donald Davis, Reverend Robert B. Jones, Kim Weitkamp and more will participate. Live music and special Halloween activities for children are also scheduled. All guests are required to show proof of full vaccination (with photo ID) or a negative COVID-19 medical test within 72 hours prior to the event. For full schedule, tickets, including passes for multiple performances, and more information, visit www.ojaistoryfest.org.