Just a few weeks ago, I had the honor, the privilege, the “everything else that makes one feel warm, fuzzy, and thrilled” to perform at the National Storytelling Network’s Conference, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Making it all the more exciting was that I had been nominated by my fellow New Jersey Storytellers, and then selected over numerous other performers, from various other states, to represent the entire Mid-Atlantic Region.
This was the first national conference I had ever attended, much less performed at, so the experience was a tremendously rich one for me. So much so, that even though I knew I would write about it, I didn’t know which part of that weekend to talk about.
My actual performance was a highlight, of course. I got to stand on a stage in front of A LOT of people – many of whom are well known storytellers – and tell a tale that moves me in a way few others do (if you want to know more about that story, go to the “notes from the field” called “A Story About a Story”) I also got to meet people whose work I’ve known for years, through their books, CDs, and appearances at large national festivals throughout the country. I heard fellow professional tellers talk about their work – the real everyday joys, and pains in the booties, that come with this wacky profession called storytelling. And, in another case of science discovering what the wise folk of old always knew, I learned how stories actually transmit information to the brain far better than any power point presentation ever would. I saw tellers of all different ages, shapes, colors, and styles. I renewed friendships, and made some new ones. And the towns of Gatlinburg, and it’s neighbor, Pigeon Forge are worthy of several essays each (one word about Pigeon Forge – DOLLYWOOD!!!!!!).
So what to write about? Unfortunately, I got my answer through the one thing that none of us will ever be able to avoid – death.
The night after the Regional Concert, which I performed in, was the National Conference – or as I thought of it: “The Big Guns on Parade”. The line up for this was a “Who’s Who” of storytelling – people who had toured the festival circuit for years, who had loyal followings, and could pack theatres. Among them was a name I had heard of, but had never seen tell – Doc McConnell.
Doc started off that evening with what, I was soon to learn, was a crowd favorite, about aspects of running, or more specially, non-running. As one who spends a great deal of her time happily sprinting to nowhere on a treadmill, I laughed as I recognized myself in the people Doc parodied. But as wonderful as the tale was – and it was superb – what left the deepest impression on me was the reception Doc received as he stepped on, then off the stage. Making his was to the stool, and microphone that awaited him, the audience stood on its feel, and let off a cheer that was both warm embrace, and groupie howl, all at the same time. As he shared his thoughts about his “Non-Run Run”, I could see torsos eagerly pitched forward, faces illuminated with smiles, and lips moving as they recited some of their favorite lines, right along with Doc. The audience adored him, and he adored them right back. Now, I’ve had the AMAZING opportunity to see two of my personal idols, Tina Turner and Bette Midler, perform live, and let me tell you here and now, Doc McConnell worked that audience every bit as well as those divas vamped a concert hall. The love the crowd felt for that man was palpable, and that, above everything else that weekend, was what I will always remember.
We live in a society that tends to honor some pretty weird stuff. The fact that I am well acquainted with the status of Britney Spear’s child custody arrangements, simply by glancing at a magazine rack while paying for my Diet Peach Snapple, tells you A LOT, about who gets glorified in this country. So, sitting there watching this group of people – storytellers, and story listeners pay homage to Doc, and to the oral tradition, moved me. It made me proud to sit amongst these folks who saw the specialness of storytelling and storytellers. Was it Groucho Marx who famously said that he’d never want to be part of a group what would have him as a member? Well, Groucho, in this case I disagree with you 1000000000000000000%. In that moment – watching what would be Doc’s final appearance on the National Storytelling Conference stage, I was floored to be part of this group of people that cold take in, and appreciate the ART that is storytelling, and the ARTISIT that great storytellers like Doc are. An art that can look so very simple, that a lot of folks say, “What’s the big deal? Where’s the sets? The costumes? The car crashes?” to be amongst people who truly honor their own – even when the rest of the world would probably pay no heed to an elderly man on a stool, talking into a mike – made me proud.
I didn’t get to meet Doc after the show, as I left I saw he was swarmed by admirers. Thoughts of his performance, and the audience reaction drifted through my head every now and again during the almost 12 hour drive home the next day – but then it all shifted to the “been there, done that” file in my mind. But then, a few weeks later, I go the news that Doc had died. Like warm shower water pouring over me, the memory of the Conference came back, as did the pride I felt that night.
So here’s to Doc McConnell, and all the souls who appreciate him, and love tales, and their tellers: You are a special, beautiful people, and I am honored to be one of you!!!!