Monday, May 5, 2008

Notes from the Field (IX)


“Run and run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!!” Those words, and the story that they come from, are familiar to a great many people. But what isn’t as well known, is that “The Gingerbread Man” is a type of story called a chain tale. In these simplest of stories, there is a brief opening sequence that, once set, keeps repeating – adding on additional characters like links on a chain.

The Gingerbread Man runs away from the Old Woman who created him, then escapes from a series of animals who each ask the exact same question (can I eat you?), and each receive the exact same reply (you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man). The “chain” finally ends with the fox, who makes a meal out of the sprinting cookie.

I love telling this kind of story! The repetition of the situations makes for a delicious rhythm that small children adore; and, as the “chain” grows longer, there is a natural escalation that brings the excitement level to a fever pitch. Kids love that they can begin to predict what the various characters will do or say, and quite often, these stories give me a chance to do something I love – to me unabashedly physically silly!!

But as much as I cherish these stories for these qualities, this month I found yet another reason to love them. I realized that as a storyteller, I was dab smack in the middle of a real life chain tale. I discovered that I am a link in a very long and hopefully growing chain.

About twelve years ago, following my relentless creativity seeking nose, I attended a storytelling performance at the newly opened New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street. This wonderful theatre’s mission is to provide quality, affordable theatrical events for family audiences (and they do – brilliantly. If you’ve never gone there – go immediately, and check out their website). I had never really seen a storyteller, and knew nothing about the oral tradition, but I said, as I always say, “Hey, it it’s an art form, I’ve got to check it out!”

Well, all I’ve got to say about what I experienced is – Wow! No, that’s wrong, I mean WOW!!!! Onto that stage walked Carmen Deedy, a Cuban American storyteller from Atlanta. She told an hour’s length story called, “The Peanut Man”, and as I sat there awestruck, I remembered the words of Bette Midler, one of my personal heroes. I read once, that the Divine Miss M said that when she saw Janis Joplin onstage she was blown away by her talent, of course, but also, that something inside her said, “I can do that.”

And that is what I heard, after I stopped clapping and cheering for Carmen, that is. I knew I had found IT. The way I could use my dancing, acting, clowning, energy, love of imaginative “out of the box” theatre. I had stumbled onto a wealth of tales that could take me around the world without me ever packing a single bag. I wanted to do to an audience, what Carmen Deedy had done to me – move them, and without fancy sets, lights, or costumes. And in that instant, I reached up and grabbed on to the storytelling “chain”. Carmen Deedy is my link to the enormous line of storytellers who have held audiences captive with their tales for years.

Now, I hadn’t really thought of things that way until this month, when, for the first time in twelve years or so, I saw Carmen perform again. Prior to her show, I told EVERYONE I knew about her affect on me, and that she was the reason I became a storyteller.

I was both nervous, and excited to see her perform. Suppose she wasn’t as amazing as I remembered? What if, when I went up to speak with her, she was a DIVA? Well, she was (as great as I remembered) and she wasn’t (a DIVA). I felt a bit like a groupie finally getting to go backstage with THE BAND!!! I told her of how she had inspired me, and how I was grateful to have a chance to tell her what seeing her had led me to – in short, I thanked her for being the link that had “hooked” me. And as I stood there, grinning like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, a teacher/storyteller I know, Ken Karnas came up to both Carmen and I.

“I wasn’t originally planning on coming today,” Ken said. “But from the way Julie talked about you, I just knew I had to see you.”

Now, at this point, I’d have to say that I was at a pretty high level of happy – what with actually meeting Carmen (who had grown rather mythical in my mind), and having other people I know get turned on to her, but then Ken said something that I may never forget. “Julie’s the first person I ever saw really tell a story – I mean REALLY tell it!!”

I looked at him, and I thought of the wonderful stories I had heard him tell at the New Jersey Storytelling Festival last summer, when we shared a time slot. I felt a sense of pride that teachers must be oh, so familiar with, and I realized that I was the “chain” that Ken had “hooked” onto. Standing between Carmen and Ken, is when I realized that I was living a chain tale that I was part of something that was at once ancient, and ongoing. I am, like every storyteller before me, and hopefully all the storytellers that are to come - a link in a very long, long chain.

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