A story is worth a thousand pictures

While grown-ups commonly associate being told a story with childhood, they are increasingly realizing that stories, like Rice Krispies treats, are not just for kids.

Most people never outgrow the love of hearing a good story, whether it is an anecdote from a friend, an essay on National Public Radio (NPR), family lore passed down at the Thanksgiving table, or a more theatrical tale woven by a performer.

Although it is one of the oldest forms of informal entertainment, storytelling as an event has been revived over the past generation. Libraries, colleges, and coffee shops are hosting story hours for adults, hundreds of storytelling festivals draw big crowds, story programs on the radio elicit appreciative fan mail, and theaters are embracing stripped-down monologues.

"People are attracted to a human being in a room, telling it to you in a simple way and just for you," says Mark Russell, executive director of Performance Space 122, a cultural center in the East Village of Manhattan. "It's an antidote to the over-hyped, pumped up media world we live in today, and people are hungry for that."

The experience of listening to a story as opposed to merely reading one can be as different as leafing through Gourmet magazine versus sitting down to a meal.

"It warms everyone, melts everyone, and the masks are taken off," says professional storyteller Jay O'Callahan (see story, previous page).

The comfort of the voice, the eye contact, the gestures, and the dramatic pauses all weave the listener into the story in a way that the written word does not.

"A book can be cold, but a human being, that's something special," says John Corcoran, a retired policeman in New Jersey who is a recent convert to listening to stories. He tells of listening to stories told to a community of farmers in Ireland who gathered every Saturday night. "These were big men, hardworking and fearless," he says. "But I tell you, after they heard a ghost story, they would hold their wives closer when they walked home."

Even stories that are memorized sometimes change in the telling. "Unlike with a traditional theater piece, the story gets shaped based on your response," says Doug Lipman, a storyteller in Medford, Mass. "So it's like the storyteller is talking right to the listener, and the listener feels the personal impact of that."

Hearing stories in a group setting has a way of bringing people closer together. "Whereas reading is a solitary act, storytelling creates a community wherever you are," says Jill Johnson, a storyteller in Jonesborough, Tenn. "You're stuck on a plane, and you've got three kids crying, you start to tell a story and suddenly the people across the aisle are listening, and behind, and standing up on the other side to hear."

At a popular series at Symphony Space, a theater in New York, actors stand alone on stage and read short stories. Katherine Minton, producer of the series, called Selected Shorts, says the program is the best of both worlds: hearing a written work and going to a good play.

The shows attract bookworms by combining literature with socializing. Regulars herd into the theater and cluster together at an informal cafe during breaks and afterward. A couple runs into their neighbor at intermission and introduces the woman to their group of friends. "This is her first time at Selected Shorts!" the wife announces to the group. "Oh! Welcome!" the smiling friends reply in unison. Rather than small talk or awkwardness, the conversation naturally evolves around the stories that were just heard.

During the show, the theater is filled with collective sighs, laughs, and the silence of anticipation.

The series is also broadcast nationally on NPR. In the theater's mailbag recently was a letter from a UPS truck driver who listens on the road. "I don't think most people ever get too old for a good story, huh?" she wrote. "Your readings make me smile when I'm alone; they create lots of mental pictures to color my dark nights driving until sunlight." Others have written of listening to the stories while mopping floors or folding laundry, while plowing fields, driving the children to hockey practice, or reclining in a college dorm room, where a young fan wrote, "I would rather listen to these stories than watch television."

A growing phenomenon is the organized storytelling event. Festivals are somewhat of a subculture, and people who have never attended are often skeptical. "Our biggest hurdle was educating people; when they hear 'storytelling' they think kids at the library on Saturday morning," says Marguerite Chandler, who last year founded the Heritage Trail Storytelling Festival in Somerset County, N.J. "So we came up with 'Stories for Grown-ups.' "

The unofficial storytelling capital is Jonesborough, Tenn., host of the National Storytelling Festival in October. The festival got its start in the early 1970s. Jimmy Neil Smith, who was teaching journalism at the time, was driving into town with his students to print the school newspaper when they became engrossed in a story on the radio.

"It was a hilarious story about coon hunting in Mississippi, and I said to the students, 'Wouldn't it be nice to bring people to tell tales in Jonesborough?' " Mr. Smith recalls.

He got the support of the town's leaders, and at the first event, five storytellers sat on a wagon outside the courthouse and lit up imaginations in an audience of about 60 people. Now in its 28th year, the festival has grown into a storytelling extravaganza with crowded tents, fully booked hotels, and hours of tales that draw 10,000 people from all over the world. "It became a sparkplug for an interest in and a revival of storytelling around the country," Smith says.

"Years ago we would sit around a fireplace or a stove and cook our food and sing and dance and pray and tell stories," he says. "But sadly we don't sit around the central fire like we used to, and consequently we've been disconnected from one another and relationships have eroded. We want to rekindle the central fire."

Some people are fans of going to hear a story, even if they don't recognize that is what they're doing. Spalding Gray, an actor who is much better known for his autobiographical monologues, tours in sold-out theaters several months of the year. He sits at a table with a notebook and a glass of water and spills out stories of what has been going on in his life. Audience members feel as if they are sitting on the other side of that table, in Mr. Gray's kitchen.

While Gray, now in his third decade of baring his soul on stage, was one of the first to make a commercial success out of a one-man story, monologues are becoming a trend in theaters.

"Plays are expensive to mount," Mr. Russell says. "Storytelling gets down to the basics of theater, which is all about storytelling. For that all you need is the shirt on your back and a good memory."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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