Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved to read stories. She traveled to a great university to study Chinese and heard in a nearby public library her first living storyteller. “That’s what I shall be!” she vowed, becoming the only one for miles around. She journeyed to far cities for workshops, and performed in schools and churches, and was spoken highly of in the local press. And as the years went by, she met other storytellers and trained many more until she decided to spin a mountain of paper into tax-exempt gold. With 10 other storytellers, she formed a non-profit corporation and together they set off on a new quest: to get funding for storytelling projects in New Jersey schools, daycare, hospitals, and prisons.
That is the contemporary tale of Susan Danoff, the doyenne of Princeton-area storytellers. She is now the executive director of Storytelling Arts Inc., to her knowledge the first non-profit storytelling corporation in the country. Four of its charter members , Danoff, Helen Wise of Princeton, Sheila Truncellito of Lawrenceville, and folksinger David Brahinsky of Roosevelt , will perform their first benefit evening at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Saturday, September 27, at 8 p.m. The church, a Princeton landmark that has figured in Richard Ford’s “Independence Day,” served as the site for Micawber Books readings, and overheard countless parables and gospel stories, will now host Celtic mysteries and delightful Southern yarns.
For Danoff, the partnership is most welcome. Raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, she graduated from Princeton University with a degree in East Asian Studies. After stints in Taiwan and New York, she received her certification to teach writing from the University of California at Berkeley, working as a writing instructor for three years at Rutgers University while she obtained a master’s degree in English. She then served as an adjunct writing instructor at Princeton University for nine years until the birth of her son in 1992 , all the while performing as a storyteller and holding intensive summer storytelling workshops. But “it’s lonely being a freelancer,” she admits after 17 solo years on the storytelling circuit. “Two heads are always better than one, and eleven are even better.”
According to Wise, collaborating with other storytellers is “as good as it gets,” with the added bonus of a corporate entity to serve their professional needs. “The hard part of any art is being your own promoter,” she says. “We didn’t get into art because we thought selling ourselves was great fun. It’s wonderful to work with people who are struggling with the same issues.”
Their non-profit status is crucial for the ambitious role they envision for Storytelling Arts. “The projects we’d like to do are long term, and the places that really need us can’t afford us,” says Danoff. All 11 storytellers are based in New Jersey, and all will focus exclusively on projects within the state. They
already have collectively clocked many story miles in hospitals and correctional facilities , and member Paula Davidoff is already working with the Morris County Youth Detention Center , but the golden apple of their corporate mission is school-age and preschool children, particularly in the cities.
“The inner city schools have so many demands on them,” says Wise, who has worked in Trenton public schools and with Head Start programs since 1990. “Storytelling teaches many values, especially for inner city children. The inner city school child is often not familiar with language read or written, but she does use language as a speaker. Storytelling , listening to and creating their own, helps children process and express information in a form with which they’re very comfortable.”
“Storytelling feeds into literacy,” Danoff explains. “If we can work with a group for an entire year, the impact on their language skills will be significant. Stories are a bridge between oral tradition and written language, and they affect children’s whole attitude to learning.”
Truncellito, who, like her fellow corporate members, works with many school and children’s library groups, agrees. “Children need stories, they crave them,” she says. She cites different school populations with varying levels of being able to listen. Students at Princeton Friends School, which holds its own two-week storytelling festival every fall, may be able to follow complex plotlines. But many children, Truncellito claims, come to storytelling with the stunted attention spans and superficial focus engendered by 70 TV channels and flashing video graphics. For those children, storytelling is remedial, helping them become familiar with narrative complexity over time.
“It can be discouraging for a new storyteller to cope with children’s lack of focus at the beginning,” Truncellito says. “But once children realize that stories aren’t 30-second commercials, they find them very satisfying.” And memorable. “The first year I worked in Trenton schools, I told 21 stories over six weeks to two different groups of fourth graders,” Wise recalls. “When I asked the students to name the stories they’d heard , just for fun , one class remembered 19 and the other got 23, double-naming two of them.” It was a graphic reminder of how powerful stories can be. “They make meaning out of information.”
Surprisingly, the Information Age is witnessing a renaissance of storytelling.
As children’s publishing continues to mine the mother lode of ethnic folktales, the oral tradition is alive and well. The granddaddy of jamborees, the National Storytelling Festival held in Jonesborough, Tennessee, October 4 to 6, will draw close to 10,000 people , including Truncellito. Celebrating its 25th year, it is the oldest of more than 200 storytelling get-togethers being hosted this year throughout the country by different guilds and associations. Many of the storytellers appearing in Jonesborough have their own World Wide Web sites.
The revival, says Danoff, is part of a search for personal connection.
“It’s such an intimate form of communication; that’s one reason why people respond so strongly. What storytellers do is not media, which is mass-produced and doesn’t put you in touch with the artist behind it. The storyteller is right there with you sharing an event that can’t be repeated.”
Research indicates that narrative is a critical component of memory, speaking to many more levels of the human psyche than the bulleted information and database statistics with which we’re now beset. “Narrative is based on metaphor,” Danoff says, “so it doesn’t speak directly to, `This is the problem right here.’ It’s not a rational way to deliver information, but seems to bypass those parts of ourselves we’re always using. When I tell stories, I see people’s faces change, their breathing slow, as if all the things they hold up to the world drop away.”
And stories reveal different landscapes to each listener. “The metaphors in a story get interpreted differently by everyone who hears it,” Danoff says. “There is no right answer to what a story means."
The awareness of cultural diversity is also adding momentum to the storytelling movement. “Any time you have a group that is conscious of itself as a cultural unit,” says Wise, “whether it’s Southerners or cowboys or African-Americans, there is a pool of stories that gets developed , or fished out of a greater pond
and re-shaped.” Falling under the spell of each other’s tales is important, Danoff claims, in a society where so many cultures come together. “It gives great value to a culture to tell its stories, and children in particular take that to heart. A lot of us disrespect our own cultures,” she says, a circumstance which stories can help to change.
And as economic and other forces scatter us far from hometowns and families, the need to reclaim personal sagas , confirmed by the rash of memoirs currently topping the bestsellers list , becomes more acute. Truncellito counts herself among the first generation of TV kids. “Electronic entertainment displaced the people who would have told us stories,” she says. A recent trek home to Indiana
farmland with her five-year-old daughter led to a storytelling fest with her great Aunt Mabel and her parents’ granting what they considered a most unusual wish.
“They asked me what I’d like to do while I was home and I said, `Listen to you.’ I think they felt a little silly at first, but they spent the evenings telling stories around their table.” Many of her own tales about growing up on a farm get woven into Truncellito’s performances. With a background in musical theater, she often tells stories that include songs or ballads, accompanying herself on an autoharp or the bodhran, a Celtic drum. Her repertoire runs from ancient folktales through contemporary ones, and “I tend to pick stories that have melody and rhythm and real tonal variations.”
A teacher, a tutor, and the mother of six, Wise grew up in Virginia listening to her grandmother. “I was in high school before I figured out Shakespeare’s plots didn’t originate with her.” Now her measured Southern drawl delivers humor as dry as a late summer creek. “Humor is apparently what I’m best at; that’s what people tell me. I enjoy the humor in stories, and I don’t necessarily need a funny one.”
The stories she performs are culled from wide stretches of reading and listening. “When I read a story and hear my voice in it, that’s the one I pick. I’ll hear in it my own pacing, inflection, and breath.”
Danoff credits two New York storytellers, Diane Wolkstein and Laura Simms, for setting her on a professional course. Most of her performances draw on four rich folk traditions: Jewish stories, for their “combination of humor, wisdom, and mysticism;” Native American stories, with their “great wisdom about the natural world;” Middle Eastern folklore with its intricate story lines; and East Asian tales which, “like Native American ones, don’t build to a climax and then resolve, but are much more linear.” But regardless of a story’s age or setting, its boundless appeal remains.
“We have a tremendous hunger for stories and heroes,” Danoff says. “We have this desire to see the story unravel. It’s the same need we always had, except now our heroes are world-wide.” For Wise, today’s storytellers are a natural evolution from the wise women and griots. The specialization that characterizes all modern professions, she warns, shouldn’t diminish the status of modern storytellers.
“We tend to compartmentalize our tasks,” says Wise, “and there has arisen this group of people who tell stories very self-consciously. I don’t know if it’s any better or worse to hire storytellers to come into our schools than to live way back when a storyteller sat on a bench and everybody came by.”
And does Wise feel her trade threatened by the dragons of mass-media and Web-surfing? “No, I don’t,” she answers, “because whether my audience is 5 or 95, I know that when I open my mouth and say, `I’ve got a story to tell you!’ , I get their attention every time.”
Inaugural Benefit, Storytelling Arts Inc., Nassau Presbyterian Church, 609-430-1922. Storytellers Susan Danoff, Sheila Truncellito, and Helen Wise, with folksinger David Brahinksy. $15. Saturday, September 27, at 8 p.m.