Art of Storytelling Isn't Lost on an Enthusiastic Gathering
By Julia McCauley
Originally published in
The Courier-Standard-Enterprise, Canajoharie - Fort Plain - St. Johnsville, NY, October 2, 2008
Charlestown -- Storytelling was once a fundamental part of every culture in existence, and existed way before the introduction of technology, of the Internet, of DVDs and videos, of CDs and cell phones and texting and all of the other conveniences that exist in today's society, before the night time radio broadcasts of the early 20th century, indeed, thousands of years before the invention of the printing press, there have been storytellers.
They were once the repositories of the collective memory, the history, the beliefs, the lessons learned from generations of trial and error, and it was their duty to speak and repeat these stories, spin them out for people to hear, and learn, and ultimately, remember. From mouth to mouth these stories moved history endlessly forward, cultures building and rebuilding themselves to emerge here in the 21st century, where technology reigns supreme and the sound of a familiar voice reminiscing seems far away. Perhaps that is why, in recent years, the art of storytelling has reemerged, gaining in popularity as people realize that there is something unique, and almost sacred, in gathering to hear stories from our own past.
Nancy Marie Payne is a storyteller. A NYS certified teacher, she has worked for 30 years for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar. Her storytelling career emerged as she spent years working with the public, educating them on the environmental issues that surrounded them in the Adirondack Region of New York.
"I spent all these years working in and around the Adirondacks, but it was always from an environmental perspective," said Payne, "only in the past few years have I started to pay attention to the history of it." Once she started learning about the history, storytelling became the natural next step.
"I am a teacher," she said. "I want to share what I have learned." And storytelling is the ideal way to pass on this knowledge. "When you tell a good story, people want to come back for more," Payne continued. And she does tell a good story.
On Sunday, at the Charleston Historical Society, on Polin Road, a small crowd gathered to hear her spin her tales, of life in the early Adirondacks, tales of yore, a spell binding moment in time. A good storyteller can bring their audience right to the place where they are speaking of. You can feel winter setting in, the English Army threatening your very doorstep. You stop with surprise when you learn at the end that the American general who saved the day was none other than Benedict Arnold, who later went on to betray his country, becoming perhaps the best known turncoat in all of American history.
This was one of the many stories that Payne recounted for those who attended the program. She began with the tale of Duncan Campbell, of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Scotland, otherwise known as the Black Watch, who was haunted by the ghost of his slain kinsman, who predicted Campbell's arrival, and ultimate demise, at Fort Ticonderoga. We learned of how the Johnson clan, for whom Johnstown was named, and how members, loyalists to the British Crown, yet having no desire to be at war with their friends and neighbors, fled during the winter months, north to Canada.
We learned how the Mohawk Indians guided them on their way, providing them with the knowledge necessary to survive the brutal Adirondack winter. She entertained folks with these and many other tales of life in the early Adirondack region, back when things were new for America, when our forbearers were just getting their feet under them in this brave, new world. It is a remarkable talent, to be able to paint such clear pictures with the spoken word. That is what draws one in, what settles into our memory. That is what makes storytellers, and the tales they relate, so important to us in this day and age. Stories help us remember our past, with the hope that we will learn from it and will use it to make our future a better place.
Nancy Marie Payne will be appearing at the Story Circle at Proctors Theatre on Sunday, November 16th at 2 p.m. The Tellabration 2008: Smiling Out Loud: Stories of Joy and Laughter is the thirteenth annual benefit performance for Capital District storytelling. Every November, in 200 locations around the world, people come together to celebrate the wonders of storytelling.
The Tellabration programs have allowed some of the Capital District's best storytellers to share their tales. Since 1996, between 200 and 400 people have come to hear these masters spin their stories. Proceeds from previous programs have funded more than 75 different storytelling events. These events occur at libraries, at historical societies, at museums and other locations around the area throughout the year. For more information, call the Proctor's Box Office at (518) 346-6204.