Thanks for the title, Pathfinder. To stand up a bit for what I spent all those years studying, you sound like you mean a lot of the older folktale collections. Particularly over the past generation or so, anthropology has put a huge emphasis on maintaining the personal context of storytelling. The common anthropological wisdom today says that stories have meaning only in that proper, interpersonal context. So even academics eventually learn.
Matt, that sounds like a really awesome idea to try out--but it also sounds way too free-form to work as a game.
I neglected this thread far too much; I had so much in mind, but my ambition out-stripped my time. Fortunately, I've found some answers anyway, so I wanted to share them here.
I got a lot of influence on this from Harold Scheub's Story. Scheub studied African storytellers, and took his examples from the African stories he'd heard told. In Story, he makes the case that stories, first and foremost, communicate emotions. They do that by dealing in images. Stories lay down images, one on top of another, until they start to form patterns. Rhythm plays an important part in storytelling, not only in the delivery, but in the rhythm of how the story invokes images. It reminded me a great deal of music. I've heard a theory that music exists primarily to create harmony: since two disparate melodies will tend to harmonize, really participating with music--singing it, playing it, dancing to it--first brings you into one of the melodies, and then as the melodies harmonize, your bodies harmonize, and then your minds. Music synchronizes us; not just us as humans, but our song will harmonize with the song that the winds play, the songs that the birds sing, the song that the streams dance to, and so on. From all those discordant melodies, we have a single harmony emerge that puts us all in step with one another, dancing together. Well, story works much the same way: story brings together disparate images and weaves them into a single story. It brings people together. The invocation of images, then layering them on top of one another, and developing a rhythm of images, weaves them together and makes them one. It unites teller and audience, the story to the people, and the people in the story to the people who hear it.
This made some sense to me as I pondered just how much universality we can assume of the three-act structure. Like music, we first have to introduce the melodies we'll tie together. In a story, you have to introduce the images. There you have the first act. Then comes the rhythmic performance itself, as we repeat those elements and layer them on top of each other thickly, the second act. Finally, we need to achieve harmony and bring those elements together, the third act.