AFTER all the chairs were filled, latecomers simply sat down on the floor and waited for the program to begin. There was neither a microphone nor a podium for the speakers. But a frayed Oriental rug at the front of the white paneled room hinted of magic carpet rides to come.
As she was introduced, a young French girl in harlequin polka-dot pants and white smock picked up a chair and carried it to the middle of the rug. She plunked herself down, crossed her legs, and leaned forward.
"There once was an old woman who bought two chickens for her husband's dinner ," she began -- and that was enough to touch off several giggles in the audience. It may have been her pronunciation of "chickens," or else the quizzical knack she had for turning a statement into a doubting question that gave her away. We could see right off that Muriel Bloch was a teller of delightful nonsense tales.
Next came a crusty Irishman. "You may not believe in the wee folk now," his squinty-eye gaze seemed to say, "but you soon will." Joe Heany's brogue was as thick as you please, and his pauses were scarcer than snakes on the Emerald Isle. He stood right still, one hand in his pocket, one hand gesturing with a rolled-up newspaper, and let the blarney beguile.When he was done with the tale of the hunchbacks at fairy rock, we believed.
Where Joe Heany was heavy-footed as Gaelic sod, Laura Simms was whirling dervish. Fingers snapping, tongue clicking, body swaying to the flow of an unseen current, she took us on a ride down a noisy African river. Spears hurtled eerily over our heads and characters changed from ugly to handsome before our eyes. We chanted with her, whispered with her, clapped with her, and jumped in with the chorus whenever we got the chance.
The energetic Miss Simms had collected some 20 professional storytellers for the First Storytelling Conference, in New York City, held at Columbia University. But as the two-day gathering got under way, it was apparent that the intimate conference room of the Maison Francaise was only just going to accommodate all the amateurs and listeners who showed up.
The next few months will probably see even bigger crowds at the Second Annual STorytelling Festival, in St. Louis, the Third Annual New Mexico Storytelling Festival, in Albuquerque, and the Fourth Storytelling and Folk Arts Festival, in Callicoon, N.Y.
At state and city festivals, in classrooms, libraries, and museums, man's oldest known art form is making a popular comeback. Much of the national revival of interest in storytelling can be traced to the creative work of professional storytellers like Laura Simms and Jay O'Callahan, who travel widely in the United States and overseas giving workshops and "telling."
Laura and Jay are known as "revivalist," because they write or adapt most of their own stories instead of passing down legends, word for word, as the "traditionalists" do. But there the similarities end and individual styles take over.
Laura often finds the kernels of the epics, myths, and fairy tales she tells in old manuscripts and books of folklore.
"I consider storytelling a kind of living literature," she explains. "I rewrite almost everything I use with as much care as I would if I were writing a poem to be published. But I don't memorize stories -- I have to keep them fresh and tell them differently for each audience."
Jay, on the other hand, writes all of his own stories. Some are about outrageously silly bears who spend all their time pinning leaves on one another for medals. Others describe real-life heroines and historical events.
"What we're doing is not a revival of an old museum piece, not something we're dusting off," Jay explains. "Storytelling is growing and changing -- it's a way of exploring ourselves, really. STories allow us to touch something very deep inside."
One of the stories he's recorded as a regular storyteller on National Public Radio's "The Spider's Web" grew out of a visit to Nova Scotia a number of years ago.
"'The Herring Shed' is a story about a 14-year-old girl working in a herring shed in World War II," he begins. "The war drifts into the herring shed and affects everybody. The rhythm is as important as the drama of the story . . . ."
The rhythm, Jay explains, goes back and forth, and there's a lot of storytelling in between in this tale, which runs almost 45 minutes. "The girl's brother dies in the war, and she and the family have to try to deal with that, and everyone gathers around and tries to help out.The war is really coming in, and at the same time she is going through the hardness of ordinary life. The herring shed's cold. The cold is like the cold earth where people are buried when they're killed, including her brother. And it's a very hard season, the herring season."
Jay stops his narrative to reflect on the qualities of the people who inspired this tale. "They have wonderful strength," he concludes."I met them and I heard their stories. The very woman this story is about is actually in her late 60s and blind now. She told me about working in a herring shed, and many others told me about World War II, and I combined a lot of their stories.
"The most important thing is their sense of strength and life . . . that you simply go on, no matter how hard it gets, without complaining."
Like many of his fellow legendsmiths, Jay links the growing interest in storytelling to the growing isolation of contemporary American society.
"For most storytelling you have to gather, you have to come together," he says. "You have to relax and let go of your problems and your self-importance and be willing to enter in."
Ellin Greene, who teaches at the University of Chicago Graduate Library School and is co-author with Augusta Baker of the popular textbook "Storytelling: Art and Technique," thinks the roots of the current revival in storytelling go even deeper. "We're saying that television and other forms of entertainment aren't intimate enough and aren't giving us the kind of inner nourishment we need."
Professor Greene is on the board of directors of the National Association for the Preservation and perpetuation of STorytelling (NAPPS), the crusading protector of the art that is based in the tiny historic town of Jonesboro, Tenn. The organization was formed in 1973, several months after some 200 enthusiasts gathered under a warm October sun for the first National Storytelling Festival.
Today NAPPS membership rolls have grown to 800, and a new offshoot of the organization is its National Storytelling Resource Center, a library and archive of videotapes and other recordings of storytellers throughout the US. The association also publishes an annual directory of more than 160 storytellers, and Yarnspinner, a monthly newsletter.
During the fall festival weekend, the numbers tell their own story. Last year 1,000 people showed up, stretching Jonesboro's four restaurants and one Dairy Queen to the limits of Southern hospitality.
But, says Miss Gillette, "It's still so loosely structured that even with all the spectators, the real connoisseurs know where to go to hear superb storytelling."
Fifteen professional storytellers are invited to perform at the festival in nonstop, simultaneous sessions. Another popular event is the ongoing "swapping ground," where stories are told and enjoyed by whoever happens by. But the biggest crowds usually gather in the cemetery Saturday night for bonfires and ghost tales.
On the West coast, there is yet another pocket of storytelling enthusiasm at the five-year-old American Storytelling Resource Center in Santa Cruz, Calif. The organization has a smaller membership than NAPPS, about 350 at present, and operates mostly as a referral service for people who want to findm storytellers or bem storytellers.
"We sponsor storytelling at bookshops and give workshops for historical groups and business executives interested in making their presentations more interesting," Ruthmarie Sheehan, director of the Resource Center, says.
Mrs. Sheehan has traveled widely in her 25-year career as a professional storyteller, often at the invitation of foreign governments, including Egypt, Iran, Greece, Jordan, and Mexico. Last year, sponsored by a state Artists in Schools program, she made a tour of the bush tundra in Alaska and shared tales with Eskimos living near the Bering Sea.
A storyteller's daily schedule can be a challenge, Mrs. Sheehan says. "Some days I get up in the morning, and I realize that first I've got to tell stories for librarians, then for a group of preschool teachers, then for some rabbis at a synagogue, and finally do a nightclub performance in the evening.All I can think is, 'I hope I don't get the stories mixed up.'"
But even with her largest audiences, she says, the key to telling a good story is always to tell it as she would to onem listener.
That kind of shared intimacy is something storytellers treasure as much as imagination. Laura Simms still remembers how she felt when she told her first "professional" story. "I realized that the connection between myself and the audience was very gentle and very strong," she says."I loved the fact that I could tell one story and everybody sitting there could imagine their own story. They weren't really watching Laura -- they were somewhere betwixt and between."
Like many storytellers, Laura began her career at a very tender age, in the backyard of her Brooklyn home. "I had a log from a tree my father had cut down and that was a river," she recalls. "On one side of the river was the castle of evil and on the other side was the castle of good, and I rode a horse between them. I was always very upset about Maid Marian not getting her fill of adventure, so I was both the prince and the princess. And I rode these adventures out to such a degree that I used to sing them, and my father would be slightly appalled, being a rather dignified gentleman.
"Everyone used to say, 'Oh, she'll grow out of it.' But surprise, surprise, I never grew out of it."
It wasn't until she'd finished college and was working with a group of young children that Laura was introduced to storytelling as a profession, however. "The children asked me to dom something one day," she says. "At first, I didn't know how to entertain them, but then I remembered having heard an old woman tell stories once. And I remembered a Russian fairy tale my mother had told me, and I told it.
"Oddly enough, there was another old woman sitting nearby . . . and she said to me, 'You're a storyteller. Would you come to the statue and tell stories?'"
"The statue" was the Hans Christian Andersen memorial in Central Park, a traditional site of Saturday morning storytelling for children. After a successful summer there, Laura got a weekend job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, telling stories about the life of Buddha in front of the Buddha statue and telling ancient Egyptian stories down by the tombs.
Since then, it's been nonstop "telling." In 1974 she co-created The Incredible Journey Inc., an ensemble of dancers, musicians, and storytellers, to explore myths. She has also founded the Oneonta Storytelling Center, created the first Storyteller's Residency at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and is currently on the faculty of the Rutgers University Summer Graduate School of Library Science.
Although statistics are not available on how many colleges and universities offer courses in storytelling, the number of conferences held on campuses each year gives some indication of the mushrooming academic interest. The past two months have seen the First Storytelling Conference, at Columbia, a storytelling workshop sponsored by Simmons college, boston, entitled "Old as the World, Fresh as the Rain," and a conference called "Creativity: Storytelling" at the University of Colorado in Denver.
As storytelling has gained an increasingly credible following, says Professor Greene, university administrators have begun to relax their sensitive vigil over course offerings and especially course titles.
"When I wanted to teach a storytelling course at Rutgers 10 years ago," she notes, "it had to be called 'Traditional Literary and Oral Narration.' Today at the University of Chicago, a school that's know as being very intellectual, we can simply call it 'Storytelling.'"
The course that Jay O'Callahan teaches at the Graduate School of Education at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., has only a slightly longer title: "The Art and Uses of Storytelling and Storywriting." What fascinates him, he says, is that the students come from so many different schools and professions.
Jay's approach to teaching storytelling is to draw out each individual's strengths of voice or movement, rather than trying to shape anyone into a particular style of "telling."
When Jay is telling stories for large groups of youngsters, say 200 or 300 third- and fourth-graders, he says it can still be an intimate experience. He sits on the floor and they all gather close around, staying just outside the masking tape he sticks to the floor to map out his stage.
"I use tales with lots of rhythm and repetition and fun and humor to create periods of laughter and silence," he says. "We go through the movements of the characters, and they have to dom the characters even though there are 200 of them. There's a group of ants in one story, and they have to march like ants. And then we do some bumbling bears called Wiggims and Woggums, and the kids get a sense of where the nasal voices come from and how motion affects the spirit. They all become wonderfully silly, and so do their teachers."
In a recent article for teacher magazine, Jay's advice to aspiring storytellers is to be alert for stories of all kinds.
"My son, a third-grader, comes home each day telling ordinary stories about his teacher. 'Mr. McCurdy is making Portuguese bread gain tonight.It's an egg bread and sticky. He had to anser the phone last night just when both hands were covered with a sticky mess. . . .' Or, 'Mr. McCurdy doesn't like New York City. His wife has to hold on to him on the sidewalk there' cause he gets terribly dizzy.'
"We are all humans -- and stories remind us of our humanity, our sense of fun and wonder and struggle. The stories you begin to collect can be personal, folk , adventure, mystery. It depends on you . . . but tell them, tell them, tell them."