Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Deborah Williams developed her love of storytelling at an early age. It helps when your father—and grandfather too—are big on bedtime stories.
"My dad's stories were always sort of a big adventure," recalls Williams on the phone from her home near Main and 33rd.
"He actually grew up on MacDonald Street in Vancouver, so now I can see all these places that he talked about. He and his best friend made their own canoe out of birch bark, and paddled through Pitt Lake and Pitt River and then all the way home down the Fraser River, and carried it up through the marshes.
"So I always felt like you had to live exciting things to have exciting stories," she adds. "And a lot of the best stories come from misadventure, when things get outta hand, and they're not under your control. I think that's what people mostly want to hear, is challenges. We all want to know that everybody is struggling along as much as the next person."
As well as embracing the art of storytelling—which Williams will celebrate with two events at this year's Chutzpah! Festival—she is an established actor, playwright, comedian, and director. In other words, she really likes words.
"I do, I do," she admits, "and I've been making a living with them for 35 years. I don't know if you know the show Mom's the Word, but I'm one of the creators there, and it's basically a storytelling show. So we've been doing that now for 28 years, actually, and about 13 years ago I decided that I would like to hear some other stories besides just parenting, so with a friend and my husband we started The Flame."
Williams launched the storytelling series in her living room, thinking it would be just a few friends and acquaintances coming over to share stories, but people loved it so much that they decided to find a home for it at the Cottage Bistro, where once a month for 11 years it would feature various storytellers and a musician, and often draw over 100 people. That venue folded during the pandemic, so the Flame folks have partnered with different festivals and not-for-profits and theatres like the Surrey Arts Centre and Victoria's Belfry Theatre for virtual presentations, which reach more people and allow Williams to invite folks from different parts of the world to tell stories.
The Flame's online success notwithstanding, Williams is excited about her upcoming live appearance at Chutzpah! She believes that storytelling is the ultimate way that we connect as human beings.
"We wake up in the morning and we create a story of who we are," she says, "and then we live that story, right? It's what we do—we create meaning. So we all are creatures of narrative, that's how we connect on a very fundamental level. These polarizations that are happening in our society right now are really about people telling different stories and not actually listening to real stories, really human stories. I think we'd have a lot more empathy for one another if we actually stop and listen to the person talk and tell their story. We need to listen a lot more."
When it comes to the themes that Williams likes to address in her stories, she says that it comes down to some basics, like love and adversity and questing.
"You know, I just got back from Victoria, where we had our first night on the stage there in two years, and someone told a most gorgeous story about going on a road trip with his father, who had Alzheimer's, but finding this incredible connection together on the road. And by the end we were all in tears. It was a beautiful piece.
"So there's such a range," she adds, "but everybody has a story, and mostly if I ask people if they want to tell a story they go, 'Oh, nothing interesting happened to me.' But everybody has stories, right, and I think that's what I'm actually good at—pulling a story out of a person, because I know that there's a story in you."
At her Chutzpah! storytelling night Williams will be joined by the likes of actor Stephen Aberle, novelist and creative-writing teacher Glenda Zenoff, retired counsellor and educator Eleanor Lipov, and standup comic Helen Schneiderman.
"It's all Jewish storytellers," she notes, "and some people are entertainers by profession, or novelists, and some people are just storytellers through The Flame or have taken my classes over the years. But everybody's scared before they go on stage, and then when they finish they just feel so great and realize that they've been heard, and that they have value and connection."
Budding storytellers thinking about taking the plunge might want to consider the workshop Williams also has lined up as part of the festival.
"There's room for people of all levels," she promises, "from those who are brand new and terrified of telling stories right up to people who are working on their one-person show and just want to find some new inspiration or ideas. It isn't for kids—you have to be 19-and-up—but it'll be a range of ages and life experiences and physical and mental abilities. It's for everybody."
Williams's goal of inclusivity in storytelling is mirrored in the project she's currently working on with Zee Zee Theatre called Virtual Humanity, in which she's helping 20 Indigiqueer and two-spirited people create and share their stories. The main misconception that she attempts to address in her stories is the one of "perfection".
"I make a living with Mom's the Word," she says, "telling stories about what a bad wife, what a bad friend, what a bad mother I am. I've been doing this for 28 years, and it's in 19 countries and 14 languages, so obviously it's hitting some chords. People just want to know they're not alone, so that's what I like—I like to let the audience off the hook. To let them know that we all do stupid things and we're all making mistakes all the time, and it's better to laugh at it or to share it, so it doesn't turn into like a stone in your heart."
As part of the 2021 Chutzpah! Festival, Deborah Williams will lead a storytelling workshop at the Jewish Community Centre on November 7, and will host The Flame—Home at Chutzpah! at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on November 17.