Sunday, September 27, 2009

Once Upon a Time. USA, LLC

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In an era that celebrates underwater circus acts, and performers running amok upside In down on the theatre's ceiling (hallmarks of Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas-based "Oh!" and Off-Broadway's "De La Guarda," respectively) who would believe that story telling--that's right, simple, old-fashioned storytelling--would be gaining favor. Indeed, we're witnessing its rebirth as a movement that is at once instinctual and formal.

Consider this: Every fall in Jonesborough, Tenn., more than 10,000 storytelling devotees gather to enjoy--well, stories. Over the course of a weekend, beneath seven giant tents spread across the sun-drenched landscape, dozens of professional storytellers representing an array of ethnicity, tradition, and style--from Celtic myths, to urban folklore to personal narrative, and combinations thereof- regale audiences from all social/cultural spectrums. These include families, academics, and theatregoers in search of what storyteller Heather Forest dubs "minimalist theatre in its purest form." The event, sponsored by the National Story Telling Foundation, attracts the culturally trendy as well as the most esthetically conservative.

"When the storytelling festival was launched 27 years ago, we had 50 people in the audience," recalls Steve Kardaleff, interim executive director of the National Story Telling Membership, the foundation's sister organization. "The audience has grown and so have the number of professional storytellers, meaning they make their living telling stories. Today we have 5,500 members. In addition to our festival in Jonesborough, almost every weekend, somewhere in the country, there is a storytelling event."

Universities are offering courses in the art of storytelling--oftentimes under the aegis of theatre departments; storytelling workshops are sprouting up all over the place. In New York City, storyteller Peninnah Schram gives a weekly storytelling course at the 92nd Street Y, and storyteller Laura Simms hosts weekly storytelling workshops in her downtown loft, Bookstores are awash in works covering the topic. And, most striking, arts councils are recognizing storytelling as a valid art form and awarding grants in the field.

Revitalizing Ageless Tradition

Storytelling--or the oral tradition, as it's known in academic circles--is not new. Tribal cultures have always had shamans who told stories; clergymen and wise men of all stripes have consistently proffered narratives. Secular literature also has its roots in the oral tradition, i.e., Homer's "The Odyssey." And the re-telling of tales--from myths to fairy tales--has been the domain of grandmas, aunts, and mamas, at least in western societies over the last two centuries.

"What once occurred in the parlor has moved to the tent, the platform, and theatre," notes Peninnah Schram.

There's speculation aplenty as to why storytelling has burgeoning appeal: lots of comments about E-mail, the Internet, and chat rooms--their impersonality and the user's need for human connections.

Rives Collins, a professor of theatre at Northwestern University and a storyteller in his own right, traces storytelling's renaissance to the late 1960s: "There was a resurgence of interest in legends and myths and fairy tales and folk tales because there was a fascination with folk culture. It was an attempt to make sense of a world that had become high tech. Storytelling was seen as intimate and immediate and addressed high-touch needs."

Schram also sees the late '60s and '70s as the watershed, citing values identified with the period, i.e., the renewed allure of "cotton, home-cooked meals, and crafts. Suddenly, misshapen handmade bowls were desirable. They represented human activity--the work of the hand. Similarly, storytelling came from the mouth. I, myself, am a semi-Luddite. [John Luddite was a 19th-century English philosopher who believed technology that replaced workers should be destroyed.] I don't want to do away with technology, but I would like a human voice to answer the phone. I don't want computers to replace teachers."

Storytelling in libraries and schools, of course, has been around forever, although it never had much status. Still, over the last 30 years, storytelling has enjoyed a growing cachet in educational circles. The push for multiculturalism has played its role. Some schools have resident storytellers, others bring them in for special occasions. (An early writer of children's stories was, of course, Hans Christian Anderson--1805-1875--an unsuccessful Danish actor whose stories included "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Emperor's New Clothes.") Storytelling is seen as a supplementary teaching tool, especially among high-risk youngsters. For years, psychologists have been using storytelling to get relevant information from--and as a therapeutic tool for--troubled adolescents.

And in the theatre scene of the late '60s and '70s, storytelling was beginning to carve a niche for itself. In fact, storytelling, some suggest, was the logical next step for those on both sides of the footlights "who were looking to break that fourth wall, and were longing for myth, ritual, and a way to immediately engage the imagination." So says actress-turned storyteller Laura Simms.

In the '60s, the Living Theatre, Open Theatre, and street theatre--all emerging from the counterculture--were, in varying degrees, expressions of the communal impulses Simms cites. Confrontation, audience participation, and the denial of stage artifice were the name of the game. Storytelling, as an expression of the oral tradition, fed right into that.

The oral tradition implies a spoken, oftentimes vernacular, style. The 19th-century German-born Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (of "Grimm Fairy Tales" fame) traveled the German countryside in search of old stories passed down through word of mouth. They sat in kitchens listening to grandmothers retelling tales their grandmothers had told them. Among these stories: "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," and "Rumpelstilskin." When the Grimm brothers first wrote down and published the works, the volume was not well received. Only later, after they rewrote the tales--capturing the grandmothers' voices did--the stories gain an audience, worldwide.

The Neutral Narrator

Storytellers rarely memorize scripted stories; they don't rely on scripts at all. Instead, they talk directly to their listeners, and in some sense share the story's experience. They may or may not perform in a theatre. When they do, a large percentage prefers a fully--or at least partially--lit-up house in an effort to create a communal event and bring down that fourth wall. There are usually no sets, no costumes, and few, if any, props.

A storyteller might play different characters in his tale--usually subtly suggesting them through voice and gesture--but his central persona is himself. He is telling the story and always returns to that neutral narrator role, addressing the audience directly and serving as its guide.

"My job is to take audiences on a journey and then bring them back safely," says Simms. Storyteller David Gonzalez, on the other hand, sees the role of narrator as "messenger."

Among the most highly regarded storytellers are the aforementioned Gonzalez, Schram, and Simms, as well as Antonio Sacre, Brenda Wong Aoki, Eleni Constantelos, Diane Wolkstein, and Jay O'Callahan. Each has his own roster of stories and artistic stamps.

Interestingly, neither Spalding Gray nor Garrison Keillor, both of whom tell stories, is viewed as a storyteller in the strict sense of that term, assert most of those we talked with. Each man respects the fourth wall--there's a separation between himself and his listeners--and is thus too removed from his audience to call himself a storyteller.

"They are both reading texts," says Professor Collins. "Garrison Keillor is playing characters he has created--the men and women of Lake Woebegone--and Spalding Gray is disconnected from his audience by his [signature] desk [adorned by his manuscript], even though his material is personal and based on his own life."

Still, Professor Collins stresses, Gray and Keillor along with the growing popularity of story-readings have contributed to the storytelling movement. "It's a return to language."

Most storytellers are solo performers, although a few are accompanied by musicians. And some work in tandem: storytellers as duets. The most notable of these today is Eth-Noh-Tec, a Japanese-American team based on the West Coast. Storytelling as an ensemble endeavor is hardly unprecedented. Remember "Paul Sill's Story Theatre," that made its way to Broadway in 1970 and enjoyed a successful run? With its roots in improvisation, the company collectively created stories that were presented as stylized re-enactments. The actors would slip in and out of characters, becoming in turn, objects, animals, or fictitious figures, but always returning to their nonpartisan narrator personae who set the scene and offered commentary on the action.

Sharing a Journey

In most stories a character--legendary, imagined, and sometimes real--has taken a trip, on occasion literally, always metaphorically. Oftentimes the stories are morality tales. Folk tales are suffused with stories of love conquering all, good vs. evil, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and the ever-present trickster--he appears in all cultures--who outwits the bad guy or gets his own much-deserved comeuppance.

Stories written by the tellers--often autobiographical in nature--usually have a legendary quality, says Simms. She cites nationally known storyteller Jay O'Callahan: "He uses his life but there's an epic structure present." Indeed, all of his characters have journeyed.

"One of my themes is the father-son relationship," says O'Callahan, who has performed at Lincoln Center in New York and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, among other major venues. "In the story 'Dance,' set in the dark and in the cellar, the son is in fact in the cellar in relationship to his father whom he views as a god. He wants to talk to him about his [the father's] drinking, but he can't. For me, the key to storytelling is to discover its particular rhythm and the underlying image that accompanies it. In 'Father Joe' [a touching story about a priest that spans 30 years] a young person discovers the true nature of a teacher, Father Joe. I play with time in this one, moving back and forth, and the broken rhythms throughout the story reflect that." Among O'Callahan's best-known pieces are: "The Spirit of the Great Auk," "Dancing With Fire," and the aforementioned "Father Joe."

Professor Collins anticipates that there will be more storytellers out there using their lives as fodder, while adhering to traditional storytelling structures. "These artists will be able to see the stories in their lives and the connections between those stories, as well as the connections between the characters who are in them."

Through the Back Door

Storytellers don't grow up wanting to be storytellers. Professor Collins calls storytelling "a back door art form," meaning practitioners usually come from other fields. Many are teachers and librarians and even moms who read to their kids, love it, and see storytelling as an enjoyable new hobby and/or a way to earn extra money. Others are actors, performance artists, and even dancers for whom storytelling is a branching out; for some, it's a viable way to make a living, an acceptable alternative--or ideally, a complement--to a theatre career.

For the majority, however, storytelling has become a chosen' autonomous career. Both Eleni Constantelos and Heather Forest came to it through their love of folk music, and the dramatic narratives described in the ballads. They loved the stories.

Jay O'Callahan says his profession has evolved over a lifetime of storytelling-- "First to my brother when I was a kid, and then to my children when I was an adult. Before I had children, I thought I might write a novel, but when I started telling them stories, I realized that's what I wanted to do-- be a story-teller."

Brenda Wong Aoki comes to storytelling from an interdisciplinary background. "I started out in classical music and I trained as a dancer. But I always looked for the story in whatever genre I was working. And in my storytelling I incorporate music and dance. Non-European cultures don't divide the disciplines." Aoki's storytelling runs the gamut from Japanese ghost tales to personal narratives interwoven with Asian legends and non-European performance styles.

Storytellers perform on the university and party circuits, in churches, synagogues, community centers, museums, and parks. A few make it to theatres.

Personal Connections

Storytelling is an art form that combines a host of skills: acting, teaching, and, in some instances, writing. Despite the variations within the genre, there are unifying elements that demand special talents and sensibilities.

Unlike playing a part, where the performance ends with the curtain call, storytelling represents a more personal connection to the text, says Peninnah Schram, whose specialty is Jewish stories--biblical and folk tales. 'To be a good storyteller, I have to make the story my own. And that goes well beyond the performance."

The daughter of a cantor, Peninnah Schram has a deep bond to her roots, and traces Jewish storytelling back to the third century B.C. "Right through the 19th century rabbis traveled through their communities telling stories that were religious in nature. Without being didactic, they taught moral lessons, customs, and values. Women were always storytellers in the home, often using stories to pass on wisdom or offer advice." Schram sees herself as part of that tradition, adding, 'Today among Jews, there are more professional women storytellers than men." She also sees significance in her name Peninnah--"a character in the Book of Samuel who served as a catalyst. Through my storytelling, I hope I'm a catalyst."

Eleni Constantelos, who tells stories from many cultures, agrees that an organic relationship to the material is essential, noting that she's constantly on the lookout for myths, fairy tales, and legends that hit a chord. "And when I find those stories, I then try to track down the variations. There are at least 50 flood stories and 800 Cinderella stories across the cultures. So along with finding the stories that talk to me, I have to make sure that the one I'll be telling is most truthful to the culture from which it comes. Stories are windows to cultural values and the teller shouldn't violate them."

Many Native American stories have a sacred component that has to be incorporated in the telling. And because that sensibility is frequently absent when Westerners tell the tales, there are Indians who object when anyone other than a fellow Native American tells the tribal stories. Oftentimes permission has to be granted.

"At the same time, the storyteller has to be aware of his audience," says storyteller Regina Ress. "He has to make his story accessible to an American audience. The Dyack, indigenous peoples of Borneo, chant their stories. When I tell them clearly, I have to cut back on the chanting for my audiences."

Programming an evening of stories presents its own challenges. Still, once a theme has been set, suggest our storytellers, it's not all that difficult to establish variety by alternating long stories with short ones, lighter tales with darker counterparts. Each of the stories selected embodies its own arc. Few of the storytellers address the structure of the whole performance, short of having a. clearly defined beginning that pulls the audience in--O'Callahan's trademark is his evocative sounds--and a clearly defined conclusion. Frequently an evening of stories is bookended with a musical refrain. Storyteller Heather Forest typically sings and plays the drums to open the program and then close it.

In his "MytholoJAZZ" that was produced at Broadway's New Victory Theater in February, David Gonzalez was keenly aware of contrasts. Since his first piece, inspired by the Orpheus myth, is a sad tale dealing with irretrievable loss, his second piece, "Delgadina," a Chilean story, ended on an optimistic, life-affirming note. "I chose it as an antidote," he says.

Not all storytellers perform a series of interconnected pieces. Some do one long story, although it is less common. There's Diane Wolkstein's "Inanna," an ancient Sumerian epic centering on a goddess of fertility, that both partakes of written text and oral tradition.

Audience Interaction

The role of the audience as a participant in the event is, as noted a key element in the storyteller's world. The audience interacts collectively and individually with the. storyteller, each audience member ultimately creating his own story. "It's what the rabbis call the 'white fire' in the story," says Schram. "It's the gap filled in by the listener."

Observes Laura Simms, "The storyteller has to understand how the oral tradition works, how the audience enters into the story, how it visualizes images, and how images work in the mind. The text is only the skeleton. The storyteller must understand language and improvisation.

"Unlike a scripted, blocked performance, the evening is not cast in stone," continues Simms. "Yes, the program is set and it will begin and end at the same time each night. But beyond that, the program is never the same twice. A lot depends on who is in the audience, and that varies. And a lot depends on who's onstage and how he defines his role. "I'm me up there," underscores Simms, "in a heightened state of openness."

Adds Constantelos: "I'm me, a conversational me, but not me sitting at a dinner table talking. I'm an excited me, wanting to share something: 'Listen to this.'

Professor Collins says, "A good storyteller makes the audience believe it knows the performer personally. It is different from an actor playing a character who an audience might find likeable, but never really believes the actor is the character."

Yet, "an acting background is helpful to the storyteller in terms of projection and feeling comfortable with the audience," emphasizes Constantelos.

Schram says, "I see myself as a teacher, using the performer's tools." Stories may be amusing, touching, awe-inspiring, but almost always there's a lesson to be learned. And therein perhaps lies the biggest acting challenge: "Everyone wants to learn, but no one wants to be taught," says Professor Collins, noting that the storyteller treads that grey area between being a lecturer and entertainer.

Blending Benres and Traditions

There are storytellers, however, whose presentations seem more closely allied to theatre pieces. Text is frequently memorized, staging is set, and a fourth wall exists. Oftentimes, other genres--from dance to music--are incorporated. And many of these storytellers blend cultural traditions.

David Gonzalez--his "Mytholo-JAZZ merged be-bop, Greek mythology, and a street smart mode--describes himself as Jungian and a performance artist of sorts. He credits Eric Bogosian's influence, "although he's more conservative than I am. My interests are youth, myths, and my muse dances across all continents. I'm interested in stories that deal with quests.

Stylistically, I'm movement-based. For me, movement carries the story. I'd like to think of my work as the meeting place for dance, music, rhythm, rhyme, and psychology. I also like to incorporate contemporary urban grit into my stories."

So does storyteller Antonio Sacre, whose pieces often bring together the emotionally charged issues of race, class, and ethnicity in contemporary America, interwoven with ancient Aztec myths and Celtic and African rituals. His "Brown and Black and White All Over" was performed this past fall Off-Broadway.

Sacre's artistic mentors, he says, are John Leguizamo, Spalding Gray, and actor Danny Hock; the latter for his ability "to totally become a character."

"When I perform for adults I like to slip back and forth between myth and personal stories," says Sacre. "I'm interested in stories that look at woundings--metaphorical and physical. I may then tell a personal story on the subject, add humor, and talk about the myth 'The Hunter and Son.' I tell my stories with movement, gesture, and dance." He notes a "ritual" element in his storytelling and views the stage as a "sacred space."

Brenda Wong Aoki's highly theatrical and physical storytelling is perhaps the most pointed example of a potpourri of traditions, at various points combining elements of Noh, Rakugo, Yoruba, and African storytelling. "In Noh, the narrator represents the eye of the audience," Aoki explains. "Rakugo is the telling of Japanese folk tales with dance and a fan. Yoruba is dancing and chanting. And African storytelling uses drums to complement the narrative."

Aoki is at once an advocate of her culture's traditions and a feminist. Japanese ghost stories are of special interest to her. "Noh plays have many ghosts and they're usually women. It's interesting because in a society that's oppressive to women, it's the women ghosts who seek and get retribution."

There are also many contemporary threads in her work. In her "The Queen's Garden," she fuses urban funk with an old-fashioned coming-of-age tale in Los Angeles.

Like Sacre, Aoki sees a religious element in storytelling. "In many non-European societies, storytellers are channelers of the Gods who explain the universe and the strategies of living. Although I'm a fifth-generation American I try to discover what important truths are coming through in my stories."

merging forms

Most of the storytellers we talked with suggest that the line between storytelling and theatre will grow even more blurred than it is now, and that categorizing the form will be problematic.

Professor Collins believes that the most cutting-edge storyteller out there now who may represent the wave of tomorrow is Anna Deavere Smith who is "a storyteller, a performance artist, and an actress within the parameters of a traditional theatre."

He further speculates that theatre-goers will be seeing more narrative elements and narrators in legitimate plays, citing "Ragtime" as an example.

Simms concurs. "Unlike the narrator in 'Our Town' who does not directly engage the audience [a distance is maintained] we may be seeing more narrators like the lead character in 'Wit.' She speaks directly to the audience and we reflect on her life along with her. And in 'Weir,' which is coining to Broadway soon, the characters are sitting around in a bar telling stories."

But in the best of all worlds, theatres on and Off-Broadway will regularly feature storytellers. Perhaps there will be theatres that specialize in the genre, some of the storytellers fantasize.

And in the classroom when storytellers visit, Wolkstein adds, "teachers won't see that time as a free period for them to do paper work."

Once Upon a Time

The Fine Art of Storytelling

BRENDA WONG AOKI--May 1, University of California at Santa Cruz, Calif.; May 22-29, Graz International Storytelling Festival, Graz, Austria; June 30- July 2, Mad River Festival/Dell' Arte International Players, Blue Lake, Calif. Three books--including "Oral Tradition Through Time" and "Contemporary Plays by Women," and three CDs and cassettes; website:

ELENI CONSTANTELOS--April 23, South Ozone Park Library, 3:30 pm; April 30, East Flushing Library, 3:30 pm; July and August, playgrounds in Central Park.

JAY O'CALLAHAN--April 23, Alvah Belding Library, Belding, Michigan, 7:30 pm; Sept. 16, 17, 18, Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Penn., 8 pm, and Sept. 19, 3 pm. His performance has been commissioned by Lehigh University and is part of "The Steel Festival: The Art of the Industry." He has written three children's books and produced 20 cassettes and three CDs. (1-800-626-5356)

DAVID GONZALEZ--April 19-24, Cincinnati Playhouse in The Park, Cincinnati, Ohio; May 4-6, United States Holocaust Museum, New York City. June 8-13, Santa Fe Stages; Santa Fe, New Mexico; June 28-July 6, Royal National Theatre, London.

PENNINAH SCHRAM--April 4, Museum of Jewish Heritage, Battery Park, 11 am-3 pm; April 24, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, Brooklyn, 8 pm. Her best known book is "Jewish Stories--One Generation to Another."

LAURA SIMMS--will be starring in "Best Stories," in a theatre on the Lower East Side, dates and times to be set. She has published and produced CDs and books; the best known are "The Bone Man" and "Rotten Teeth." For more information, call (212) 674-3479 or e-mail her at

DIANE WOLKSTEIN--April 11, "Story of Exodus," Kaufman Theatre, American Museum of Natural History, 10:30 am-4:30 pm, New York City; May 1-2, "Glass Mountain--Fairy Tales of Transformation," presented by NYU's Theatre Department at the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City; May 1, at 7:30 pm, May 2, 2 pm; Saturdays (June-end of September), 72nd Street and Fifith Avenue at Hans Christian Andersen statue. Her best known books are "Magic Orange Tree," "manna," and "Esther's Story."

To contact the National Story Telling Foundation, call 1-800-952-8392.

Source Citation:Horwitz, Simi. "Once Upon a Time." Back Stage 40.13 (March 26, 1999): 28(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 27 Sept. 2009

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