An ancient art with modern uses; Storytelling, where the stage is your imagination

We are seated in a castlelike basement on a college campus. A dozen or so theologians and philosophers listen intently to a thin slip of a man wearing a polo shirt and a beard.

Legendary storyteller Jay O'Callahan is telling ''The Herring Shed,'' a tale that merges the best qualities of theater and literature. A simple enough story about a young girl who discovers that her brother has been killed in World War II, ''The Herring Shed'' is laced with an urgent humanity. And O'Callahan tells it with transparent strength. In this tale, he has woven together the threads of his various personae: former novelist, luminous story-actor, and careful student of human nature.

The combined tapestry amounts to something more than the sum of its parts. For its deft characterization, nuances of plot, and artfully described scenery, ''The Herring Shed'' deserves to be compared to some of the best one-act plays and short stories.

This fact puts O'Callahan at the cutting edge of storytelling's struggle to find its own identity as an art form. Storytellers interviewed at conferences and elsewhere frequently complain that the craft is not taken seriously as an art. The complaint finds some corroboration in the fact that articles about storytelling tend to appear in life style or crafts-oriented sections of newspapers and magazines. And, indeed, storytelling seems to be viewed as more of a folk-art novelty than one of the great art forms.

Before this situation changes, however, a fundamental question remains to be answered: Can storytellers come up with material that is provocative and relevant enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with theater, film, literature, painting?

The answer lies buried somewhere in the mountain of ancient lore that storytellers continually explore.

While the fortunes of the craft have moved steadily forward in the last several years, storytellers themselves seem to be gazing intently backward. There are a number of notable exceptions, but most storytellers seem to immerse themselves in the fables and songs of distant times. This fixation on ancient magic and fairy tales threatens to stunt the recent growth the craft has been enjoying.

The North Atlantic Festival of Storytelling in Maine, for instance, this summer offered abundant evidence of this danger. The event was notable for its display of virtuosity and lack of substance. During three intensive days storytelling devotees heard tales of how sister moon and brother sky formed the earth and how the tides came to be.

Such information can be charmingly presented and colorfully crafted (and so it was). But after an hour or two the charm wears off. The experience of attending a storytelling congress in Cambridge, Mass., last spring was warmer and the performing far more spirited. But the talent on display often seemed smothered by the irrelevance of the material.

It is only fair to add that, sprinkled throughout both conferences, there were tales and tellers that had moments of nobility and beauty. Judith Black's strongly felt parable about a grove of rootless trees symbolizing the Jewish people evoked feelings of shared humanity. Doug Lipman's rendering of a Hasidic tale touched deeply with its unpretentious grace. There were a number of other outstanding performances.

But the overall effect of these conferences was numbness - a feeling that one had swallowed whole volumes of arcane lore. Somehow, I found myself disconnected from the whole thing. I also felt as though I had watched a brilliantly trained musician pick up a Stradivari violin, only to play old nursery tunes.

This is a pity, because storytelling has so much more to offer. At its best, the craft draws major strengths from both theater and literature: Storytelling can make you see the world entirely through the eyes of its principal characters , as literature can; and it offers the tangible presence of theater.

When it concerns itself with tales that resonate with humanity and with issues that concern people's everyday lives, storytelling becomes an art all its own. This is what it needs to fulfill its potential, and it is the vital element that O'Callahan is laboring to perfect.

His labors, and those of a handful of similarly minded storytellers, are crucial to the future of the art form. At their best, they do seem to be reaching for the probing, universal art one finds in the best literature and theater.

In a Cambridge eatery one evening, O'Callahan's conversation was peppered with names like Melville, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. He brought up these authors in discussing his recent commission from the New London Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut to create a story that would reflect the struggles that city went through as the whaling trade slipped from its grasp.

Characteristically, O'Callahan chose to humanize the story, centering on the relationship between an archetypal whaler and his son, who is searching for his own identity. ''I have a father, and I have a son,'' he observes, adding that the tensions, despair, and triumph in both relationships have absorbed his creative interest for years and also contribute to the telling of this story.

''The Barber of New London,'' a 40-minute-long tale worked up by O'Callahan for the commission, is not as gripping as ''The Herring Shed,'' but it grapples with the story material in such a way that one feels the limitations of storytelling being pushed and tested. O'Callahan explores the frontiers of his craft in the same way that so many practitioners seem to study its ancient boundaries.

I have come across storytellers with similar ambitions, such as Jackson Gilman, a New England teller, and Estelle Condra, a South African woman who works out of Nashville. Several of these storytellers will appear during the season at Storytellers in Concert, a series of performances in Cambridge, which began last Saturday.

Gilman spun a tale that harked back to biblical times but seemed to stand poised in the timeless present. One of his fellow New England storytellers, Doug Lipman, is presenting a work-in-progress about Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek composer and freedom fighter, and this undertaking is struggling to bring storytelling into the present. In the midst of her colorful ethnic tales of Africa, Condra occasionally drops a gem of pared-down storytelling that relies more on the direct emotional impact of the tale than the enchantments of ancient lore.

No one I've seen has ever worked O'Callahan's particular magic. But some tellers seem to be turning from the past and grasping for the present potential of the art form.

The results with O'Callahan, and the handful of tellers who seem to be bringing storytelling into the present, are something more than either theater or literature. The effect is, for a frozen moment in time, the shared glimpse of who we are and why we are - the common ground on which we all walk.

And that is a present well worth seizing.

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