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Article
Heads for Tales

The Art of Storytelling is Undergoing a Revival Around the Globe and in the Capital Region

By MICHAEL ECK, Special to the Times Union

First published: Thursday, November 11, 1999.
Article reprinted with permission of the Times Union.

'Hand me down all stories
Sweet, bitter truths to live by.
May their pleasures be repeated
Throughout our little lives."


      Robin Holcomb, "Hand Me Down All Stories," 1990

For the past 25 years or so, folks have been telling tales again, reconnecting with the age-old oral tradition of storytelling in a big way.

Story circles, story swaps and storytelling festivals have sprung up all over America, and across the globe.

Modern storytellers, like their forebears, have gone burrowing into old books, old relatives' memories and their own hearts in search of material that they can mold and fashion into their own stories, each with its own signature.

The espresso machine or the library reading room may be a more common gathering place now than the campfire, but the bottom line remains the same -- making a human connection, painting the human condition, carrying on a human tradition.

Put two storytellers together -- as the Story Circle of the Capital District does every month at its Story Swap -- and chins will wag, ears will prick up and fables will fall down like rain.

Crazy Quilt

The revival is democratic -- everything from ageless folk tales and fairy tales to personal recollections, and what local storyteller Christopher Shaw calls "downright lies'' are embraced by the crazy-quilt scene of '90s storytelling.

The hardy few (including three of the storytellers interviewed below) make their living with their words, and the rest -- and they are many -- find solace, humor, empowerment or at least a good night's fun in a round of stories.

Tellabration, one of the cornerstone events in modern storytelling, takes place Saturday, Nov. 20, all over the globe, with 10 local storytellers -- including Becky Holder, Lois Foight Hodges, Joe Doolittle, Tom Weakley and Jeannine Laverty, whom many consider the grand dame of local storytelling -- joining in the celebration at Niskayuna High School.

Kate Dudding, one of the event's co-producers along with Nancy Marie Payne, explains that the Tellabration (now under the aegis of the National Storytelling Network) was started in Stamford, Conn., in 1988 by storyteller J.G. "Paw-Paw'' Pinkerton.

"He wanted to make the point that storytelling isn't just for kids,'' Dudding says, "so the Tellabration started out as an evening of storytelling for adults.

"Over the years it has incorporated other events, but in the Capital District we've kept it for adults, because there are already so many storytelling events for children.''

Diving Into Memories

Tellabration performer Marni Gillard tells stories torn from the pages of her own life, but she takes care to craft those reminiscences into something more elegant than a self-possessed rant.

She helps others do the same at her Story Studio, an office located in her Schenectady home, where Gillard offers workshops, personal instruction and coaching seminars with visiting storytellers.

"I like to show people that while storytelling is a performing art that one can work on and perfect, it's also something that we are naturally born to do. We tell stories to make sense of our lives all the time, even waiting in the check-out line. I like to show people that you can make art out of your life.''

Like many, Gillard started with folk tales before finding her own voice "because typically the people who bring you into storytelling bring you in via that route.'' She soon found the stuff of her own life more interesting, creating strings of stories like those on her cassette release "Without a Splash: Diving Into Childhood Memories.''

"It's like a novella of a girl growing up from 5 to 13, facing all of young life's trials and joys,'' she says.

Gillard, who has been telling stories since the early '80s, left schoolteaching to pursue a career in the craft, combining her two passions in her first book, "Storyteller, Storyteacher'' (Stenhouse), which stresses "how powerful a medium storytelling was for my students to find their voices too.''

Gillard is working on an as-yet-untitled book about "the inner work involved in telling your own personal tales, and making them artful so that it doesn't feel like you're doing your therapy up on stage.''

Off The Radio

Philmont's Barry Marshall and Jeri Burns have been performing as the Storycrafters for almost 10 years, telling tandem tales that find them tossing the narrative back and forth to each other while underscoring the whole affair with strains of banjo, harp, guitar and xylophone.

Their long-running radio program, "The WAMC Storytelling Festival,'' was recently canceled, delivering a serious blow to the local community -- storytellers and otherwise.

For four years Marshall and Burns presented new talent on the monthly show, while building up a pretty strong fan base of their own, one which allows them to make their living off live appearances, school workshops and festivals.

Marshall says the goal of the show was a simple one.

"We were really just trying to broaden the understanding of the breadth of what was going in the storytelling world. We were trying to paint as broad a picture as we could of what it means to be a storyteller and what the art form is all about.''

The Storycrafters, he says, find their fodder in the old-fashioned way, "by doing a lot of research, reading books and listening to other storytellers.''

Often enough, Marshall and Burns create new pieces by weaving together the best elements of various versions of the same tale, always searching for a way to create the most impact by the most direct route.

"Every story, though,'' he adds, "is going to touch a different person in a different way.''

Loves Creativity

Onawumi Jean Moss trekked west from Amherst College in Massachusetts last week to offer a "Cross-Cultural Collection of Folktales'' to a family audience at Schenectady County Community College. Moss makes her living as associate dean of Students at Amherst, but her heart lies onstage, telling stories from her mixed bag of multicultural, intergenerational tales.

"I really look at what the story teaches, though, more than the culture that it comes from,'' she says.

Moss was given the Yoruba name Onawumi, meaning "one who is creative and loves creativity,'' at an official naming ceremony not long after her 1991 storytelling debut at Amherst. She traces the roots of the oral revival back to the beginnings of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., 26 years ago.

"It started with people sitting on back porches and around haystacks, literally, telling their stories. The festival, which used to attract a few people from the surrounding area, now attracts 8,000 to 10,000 people every October.''

Moss was invited to make her national debut at the festival in 1995, and she feels that the movement it spawned has continued to grow, reaching an ever wider audience, hungry for something more than TV, the movies and the Internet can offer.

"I think people started reaching back for evidence that they had roots, that they had traditions that had outlived the years. These people wanted to showcase that new awareness in a creative way. The story was looked to because there was a record of stories -- in archives and libraries, all over the place -- that could be shaken out and put back into the oral tradition.

"The need to reaffirm that we, as a people, belong to something important, that we belong to a tradition, was probably the provocation for the storytelling movement.''

Adirondack Storyteller

Singer/songwriter/storyteller Christopher Shaw grew up in a different Lake George than the one you and I know.

"It was a resort,'' he says, "but not the kind of resort that it is today.''

Shaw worked in the family's boat business as a child, regularly fished his dinner right out of the lake and fondly remembers listening to his Uncle Walt Blair spin yarns on the dock and on the hunting trail.

"It's not something I ever set out to do,'' Shaw says of his storytelling career.

At a 1988 Caffe Lena gig a buddy called out for him to "tell one of your Uncle Walt's stories!'' and Shaw has been telling them ever since, at solo performances, festivals, workshops and even in the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian Institution.

Initially, Shaw's wife, singer/songwriter Bridget Ball, would take notes as he tried to remember Blair's old stories, scratching them down while the duo was traveling on tour. Eventually Shaw built up a catalog of stories and now he tells all his tales from memory.

"If I can't just remember it and come up with it conversationally it's not going to work for me. They're never quite the same way twice.''

Shaw -- who recorded a cassette called "Fireside: Adirondack Stories, Humor and Downright Lies'' in 1993 -- is also a proud member of the Adirondack Liars Club, a loose aggregate started by Vaughan Ward and including Bill Smith, Joe Bruchac, Chris Morley, Daddy Dick Richards, Steve Peck and Tim Cavanaugh.

The club gathers a few times a year for a round robin of North Country tall tales, bluster and whoppers like "Uncle Walt's Hunting Trip,'' Shaw's trademark piece drawn from an old-timer's yarn.

"Some of the stories are pretty predictable, after a fashion, and making them exciting is the mark of a great storyteller,'' Shaw says. "You have to be a little animated in the telling of it.''

Shaw, though, sees something much more important than mere entertainment in his Adirondack tales.

"I think storytelling is one of the most important things we can do in American culture. In these stories, in the different versions of them, what you see is a cross-section of this country. You'll hear the same stories in the Midwest that you hear in the Adirondacks, but there's an entirely different flavor and direction to them that points out very little to do with the two stories, but plenty to do with the difference in the people telling them.

"It's very telling, no pun intended, that you can find elements of the culture and the language and all those thing that are so easily preserved by passing these stories down. Yet those same things are so terribly difficult to find outside of these stories, more and more so as time goes on.''