“The inciting moment was when I got to see Star Wars with my buddies,” Mark Henderson, artistic director of Thousand Faces Festival, said of his love for epics.

It was another moment, years later, that sparked Henderson’s idea for the festival, when recalling how George Lucas spoke about re-reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to finish the first Star Wars screenplay.

The festival has been going strong since 2011. “I decided I wanted to create a festival where we explored, shared, and celebrated the truly greatest stories that are at the roots of all different cultures,” Henderson said, “many of which share very similar patterns.” These stories are what he coins a “root story”.

Henderson said he hopes festival goers experience something akin to what a king holding court would. “This royal experience is for everyone,” he said, which includes food from restaurants all along the Ave.

Children’s book author and playwright Tololwa Mollel created an adaptation of South African poet Mazisi Kunene’s Anthem of the Decades. The story stems from a traditional Zulu creation story where the gods debate mankind’s claim to live on Earth. “I took the original 20-page poem from Kunene and boiled it down to a 20-minute performance,” Mollel laughed. “It took a lot of notes, and I read it so many times.”

Mollel said the performance will involve many forms of storytelling. “Traditional African theatre—if you can call it that—often involves much more than an actor speaking. In fact, sometimes it falls to the background with all the dance and singing and chanting and things happening.”

Actor and director Maralyn Ryan will be a puppeteer at the festival with an adaptation of the original Brothers Grimm tale, The Fisherman and his Three Wishes. Ryan said the story hasn’t lost any relevance. “In light of the prevailing sensibility here about money, and how it will give you happiness and success and respect, I wanted to adapt it to a puppet show.”

Ryan said performers can communicate important perspectives that may otherwise be misconstrued. “I always come from the ridiculous or the humorous, because I’ve found when people are laughing, they are more open-minded about the message.”

Theatre artist Bill Yong agrees with the ability of theatre to communicate subtle messages. Yong will be clowning a section of Journey to the West, a thousand-year-old odyssey written in the Chinese Song Dynasty. The Monkey King, known to be a trickster, is an archetype Yong identifies with given his theatrical form.

But he said the importance of the story goes further than humour. Even with the large Chinese population living in Edmonton, the Chinese epic doesn’t get told very often. “It’s important to tell a story that’s not Eurocentric.”

“Those old stories can take a turn,” Ryan said, speaking of the various root stories the festival performs, “and all of a sudden become more relatable to what’s going on now.”

Header image: The stories are meant to be food for the head and for the heart, said Tololwa Mollel. Pictured from left: Tololwa Mollel, Mark Henderson, Bill Yong, Jennifer Spencer and Enakshi Sinha (front). | Randall Fraser


Alberta Avenue Community Centre (9210 118 Ave)

Public shows May 26 – 28

Adult shows at 7:00 p.m. (May 26 & 27)

Family shows at 1:00 p.m. (May 27 & 28)