Dan Yashinsky

photo of Dan Yashinsky
Dan Yashinsky
We sat down with Dan Yashinsky to learn more about the art of storytelling, and his story. 

First of all congratulations on being a finalist this year. What does it mean to be nominated for this award?

I work this very obscure art form called storytelling, so it's always nice when there's some recognition from the world about the value of it. It’s not so obscure now as it was when I got started. We have an international festival for it and there's a movement all around the world for storytelling. When I started, it was barely known as a profession or something you could do for a living. It's like that old proverb, “you make the path by walking it”. And in this case, it's been an art form that I've felt I’ve discovered every step of the way. But really it's an acknowledgement of the community I represent, I would say, more than I feel it's an individual honor. I really couldn't do what I do without being part of a community of other story lovers.

This past March, you directed the Toronto Storytelling Festival after running the first one in 1979. How does it feel to be directing at TSF years later?

I have come back over the years at different times and most recently as a five year run. It's nice to still be involved. I’ve just now passed the torch to another festival director. It's nice first of all, that some of the same people are still involved years later and are just as passionate and hopefully creative as we were when we got started. There are so many new voices and so many new listeners. We've gone from being a little festival that could fit into a church, and now we have 6,000 people come over ten days which is an honorable showing, especially since many of them are just getting involved in storytelling. I feel like it’s a little bit surprising when you've planted the seed - in this case it's grown well.

You are currently the storyteller in residence at Baycrest Health Sciences. Can you explain this role and why it's important?

There's a visionary social worker at Baycrest named Melissa Tafler and she created the position I applied for. That was four years ago. It's a wonderful place to work because I would describe it as responsive storytelling. In other words, I'm working in palliative care and with psychiatry patients, and rehab, and people with Alzheimer's, and in every case I have to figure out what kind of stories they might enjoy and what kind of stories they have to share. Some of them can’t tell their stories anymore so I turn to the family members, the caregivers, as they are the story keepers for their loved ones. Out of that we came up with the idea that this is ‘storycare.’ I really feel it is a growing interest in that you can't simply treat somebody separate from their stories, that they carry the stories they can imagine for themselves. It’s been a great gig.

Why do you feel that storytelling is a medium that resonates with so many people?

I suppose everybody has a different answer to that. My sense goes back to why I love storytelling and why I decided as a young guy to try to figure it out. I was always really interested in the idea that with just your voice your memory your imagination and the community that gathers around to listen, you can create culture. And I felt like in our society there are so many messages that tell you you can't own your own culture. You have to get it mediated. The nice thing about storytelling, is that it seems like a very simple art, but it's not so simple because it really says that the community itself owns their heritage and owns their ability to dream new possibilities. There's a beautiful quote by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, and he says storytellers are the enemies of all champions of control. And I think that often. I really think that storytelling is a subversive art form for the times we live in and that the more stories you know, the more ways you have of telling the truth. In the era of alternate facts and certain politicians who don't have a high regard for the truth, it seems to me that stories are maybe the best antidote to this kind of rhetoric. The other thing that is say briefly is, I've always loved folk tales, old time stories - the traditional stories from every culture. I also love the way that they're still alive today and that they can be remixed and reimagined and so on. I feel like it's avant garde art but it's ancient at the same time.

You have performed and taught at festivals all over the world. Do you see a difference in the way audiences from different areas or cultures respond to your work?

People want to listen to stories everywhere, and I think it's part of being human. When you're listening to a story, that's very just a universal experience. So no, I haven't found huge cultural differences. People are hungry for stories, and that kind of quality of listening is found everywhere. When you go to places like Ireland or Israel or places that really prize the spoken word and you're introduced as a storyteller people say “so? We’re all storytellers”. In a lot of cultures people haven’t lost their love of the spoken word.

What does the art of storytelling mean to you?

It's how I’ve earned my living for all my life. That's an important part to where I started: I wanted it to be a profession. I didn't want it to be something I do on the side or for recreation, although if I was independently wealthy it is exactly what I'd like to be doing. I feel like storytellers in our society, we're reinventing art. It wasn't there waiting for us. It was there to be discovered. There's a Celtic proverb that says every force evolves a form. So, in a way, I feel that the force was there, the force that said let's start to listen to each other again, let's rediscover voices, let's rediscover our memories in modern times, and the power of imagination. That force has pulled people all around the world in the last 30 - 40 years into this renaissance into this movement. The force was there before the form. So, for example, in my case, I didn't have a repertoire and didn't have a terrible memory, I had to learn how to remember stories and to find stories worth telling. I pack a storytelling stick a lot of times when I travel; that's part of the custom of storytelling. Didn't know that when I started…the force evolved the form.