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The Lively Arts

Tell Me a Story

The Storytellers of Las Cruces have been spinning yarns for 85 years, making the group the community's oldest continuously active nonprofit. But that's only part of the story.

by Karen Ray

 

 

Want to hear a good story? Throughout history, storytellers have been valued members of society, passing on creation stories, cautionary tales and life lessons as well as entertaining with stories of love, terror and humor. Travelers would often circulate stories of far-off people and places. According to the website Storytellingday.net, "The oldest surviving tale… is the epic, 'Gilgamesh,' relating to the deeds of a famous Sumerian king. The earliest known record of the origin of storytelling can be found in Egypt, when the sons of Cheops entertained their father with stories."

storytellers
Pat Gill, president of the Las Cruces Storytellers League since 1971.
(Photo by Jean Gilbert)

In Las Cruces, the origins of formal storytelling are a bit more recent. But still, Storytellers of Las Cruces was started by Jennie Curry (1892-1992) in 1927 — making it the community's oldest continuously active nonprofit group. An annual Jennie Curry Storyfest is held here every February. This year, in honor of the New Mexico State Centennial, a proclamation signed by Mayor Ken Miyagishima was presented at city hall to members of the Curry family and the Storytellers of Las Cruces. The proclamation honored the founding of the Storytellers group and her fostering of "an appreciation for our cultural heritage." This summer, Las Cruces hosted the 2012 National Storytellers League Convention, with a theme of "The Great Southwest."

Next month, Las Cruces storytellers will join other storytellers around the world in the 16th annual "Tellabration," just before Thanksgiving. The international storytelling festival was conceived by the National Storytelling Network (NSN), based in Tennessee.

The conference in July was sponsored by another, complementary group, the National Storytellers League (NSL), which boasts 400 members. About 30 storytellers from seven different states attended. The NSL, whose motto is "Service Through Storytelling," aims to bring both traditional and original stories to people of all ages.

The league began in 1903 through the efforts of Dr. Richard Wyche of Tennessee. It is the oldest national storytelling organization, according to president Carol Satz, who says, "Story is at the heart of the whole human experience."

Gwendolyn Jones, founder of the Garden State Storytellers League in New Jersey, agrees: "Technology is great, but there is nothing quite like the eternal triangle of storyteller, story and listener." That being said, one of the league's goals is to make the art of storytelling relevant to a technologically savvy younger generation.

Members of story leagues here and across the country tell stories at a variety of places, including schools, museums, bookstores, churches and civic groups. The NSL's aim, says Satz, is "to spread all that is good in literature and life through storytelling."

The oral tradition of storytelling can take many different forms, from folk and classical literature to personal storytelling. An unabashed goal of the storytellers is to keep the art of storytelling alive. Many believe storytelling should be considered a fine art, noting that there have been major storytelling performances at the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center. Since 1983 the NSL has been actively petitioning the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to issue a stamp honoring the art of storytelling.

The NSL has two special projects to help spread the word (literally). One is a partnership with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation's national "Adopt a Whisker Campaign." According to the NSL website, "Local story leagues will feature 'telling' of the children's picture book Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers, by Karen Winnick. This is the true story of 11-year-old Grace Bedell and her letter requesting presidential candidate Lincoln to grow whiskers." He did, then later stopped by to personally thank her. The league emphasizes that this shows the power of a child to change the face of a nation.

The other project involves junior storytelling. Satz is passionate about educating children about the power of stories. She taught reading and English for 40 years and both encouraged and facilitated her students' involvement in telling stories in their community.

The link between individual story leagues nationwide is the quarterly Story Art magazine, which contains district and league news and articles as well as stories and poems submi

tted by storytellers across the country. The magazine also sponsors an annual short story contest, open to non-members and students. In a recent editorial, Satz wrote, "We continue to extend our hands of friendship through the stories we tell each other and to the members of our communities." She added that the "NSL storytelling organization has stood the test of time for 109 years because of the dedication… and friendships… of the members."

 

Pat Gill, president of the Las Cruces Storytellers League since 1971, is a widely recognized catalyst in keeping the local group active. She became involved in 1960 when she was first invited to a storytellers group. She says the three principles of good storytelling are "like the story you're telling, be prepared and animated, and have a good time."

Another key to successful storytelling is repetition, often used in children's stories. This is especially important in cumulative tales in which a character develops over time. This storytelling technique has been around since Adam learned to tie his shoes. For example, in Homer's Iliad, composed as an oral epic, predictable repetition such as "he fell thunderously and his armor clattered upon him" helped to provide structure to the tale and involve the audience. Many people, decades after their student years, still recall this line with humor.

Gill says, "I like stories where the people have a problem to solve and get it done by various ways. I like the ingenuity that people have." She points out that a lot of stories around the world are told with gestures and repeating refrains.

Asked what she enjoys most about storytelling, she replies, "Meeting marvelous people and telling stories to children! I enjoy knowing the story and sharing it with other people.

"Sharing our heritage, values and history is important," Gill goes on. "As a human race we are not that different… There are similar themes in stories and people do the same things over and over in different ways. We are more alike than we are different."

Storytellers often have a specific focus or trick of the trade that identifies them. Local storyteller Loni Todoroki, the "Lady with the Hat," brings hats, props and costumes to her storytelling.

Other local storytellers are involved in a variety of ways. Gloria Hacker and Florence Hamilton meet monthly at the Good Samaritan Retirement Village to tell stories. Jean Gilbert, a retired teacher, presents stories through a Humane Society program called "Critter Connection." Recently, she conducted a workshop dealing with the subject of bullying entitled "How Rattlesnake Got His Fangs," using a snake puppet as a visual aid.

 

These and other local storytellers got to share with a national audience at the convention in Las Cruces, whose events gave a glimpse into the current state of the art of storytelling. The kickoff was an interactive session by Las Cruces storyteller Douglas Jackson, who involved his listeners in a traditional story about Pecos Bill. This tale required the audience to hiss like snakes and growl like cougars at different prompts during the story, which they delightedly did. Wry laughter erupted from the group as he introduced his second story by saying, "A lot of stories evolve because parents lie to their children. You know, answering questions like, 'Why is the sky blue, Daddy?' or 'Why does (something) happen, Mommy?' So the parents make up stories."

Douglas caught the storytelling bug from a lifetime of listening to family yarns. He also analyzed Bill Cosby records, paying special attention to how the comedian's stories were structured. He particularly enjoys sharing stories from his childhood — "The more outrageous the better, kids love it!"

Each evening during the convention the group gathered at the Hotel Encanto for a time of informal storytelling. Jennilyn Weight from Spokane, Wash., told a humorous story about farm animals visiting a library. She was followed by local storyteller Judith Ames, who cut out a colorful paper butterfly chain as she told a Native American story about a lazy coyote and his interaction with those resourceful insects. Others told jokes, ghost stories and traditional African tales. In the open, friendly atmosphere, the storytellers showcased their abilities to draw their audience in, to delight, to thrill, to make listeners think, maybe even to scare on occasion.

Barbi Willey of Norfolk, Va., told one of her favorite narratives about the Witch of Pungo, based on the true story of a beautiful woman who in 1706 was falsely accused of being a witch by jealous women in her Virginia community. She survived the dunking trial, was imprisoned for over five years, and then released. She was exonerated some 300 years after her death. Willey, who began incorporating clowning and puppetry into her tales at the encouragement of a friend, attributes her love of storytelling to her Irish mother.

During an opening-day lunch at the Double Eagle restaurant in Mesilla, the tables were turned and the storytellers got to listen. Jerry Harold, the general manager, provided historical background on the elegant building and shared a humorous story on the background of the gold ceiling tiles in the main room. Next time you visit, notice that they are two different colors and ask your waiter why.

Then Weight captivated the audience with a dramatic telling of the story of Inez and Armando, the ill-fated lovers of the Double Eagle. She wove a chilling tale of the events surrounding the murdered pair in the old hacienda. During the presentation, sitting in a velvet chair off to the side was a petite ghostly figure in white, face hidden. The light from the window illuminated her figure and added a deliciously spine-tingling element.

Penny Tennison, editor of Story Art magazine and member of Washington's Fireside Storytellers, shared the Native American story of "The Old Owl Witch" who turned pesky kids into mice. Eileen Beckowitz, also of Washington, told two historical ghost stories set in Columbus and Silver City.

The next day, spent at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, was on the theme of "East Meets West." After a private tour, a cooking demonstration (with, appropriately, a story by chef Carol Koenig) and a concert by members of the Voz Vaqueros choir, Gwendolyn Jones took the stage. Although now a New Jersey storyteller and retired college professor, Jones grew up on a small poultry farm in Lincolnshire, England. Her glamorous demeanor and trace of English accent delighted the toe-tapping audience as she gave a syncopated rendition of "Ragtime Cowboy Joe." One listener recognized the tune as the University of Wyoming fight song and sang along.

 

Visiting during meals and down times with many of the convention attendees provided a fascinating array of personal stories. Roswell grandmother Andrea Jordan told of being stranded with a Brazilian tribe during a medical missions trip in the 1980s. A love-story collecting ex-priest, Fred Quinn (incoming National Story League president), attended with his charming wife, an ex-nun, and shared hilarious and poignant anecdotes.

Local storyteller Sarah Addison, aka "Juba" ("Born on a Monday"), works at Memorial Medical Center. Her grandmother passed on the art of storytelling to her as a young girl growing up in rural Kansas, telling her she "had the gift of gab." She varies her voice as her grandmother taught her to set the mood for different types of stories. Often she will tell a story from a different perspective — such as telling the tale of the three pigs from the wolf's point of view. She often uses a "storycoat" with objects hidden away in the pockets during her tales.

Another of Addison's techniques is to personalize the story, incorporating names of the children in her audience and setting the story in a familiar place. She prepares by reading the story three times before she actually tells it in front of an audience. This way she is equipped and has the flexibility to customize the tale. As attendee Douglas Jackson noted, "You have to prepare to be spontaneous" in good storytelling.

Addison gave a "storymat" workshop, demonstrating how to involve the audience using fabric and small items as props. Fabric is used to create the setting of the story; different colors and patterns stand in for sand, mountains, structures and fields. This method works well for both youngsters and older people. The interactive nature of the workshop provided many additional ideas for customizing this approach to different audiences and ages. Quinn commented that when he works with the elderly he brings a lot of articles from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as memory prompts. During one memorable storytelling session he discovered that among his listeners was the dentist who had made jazz musician Louis Armstrong's teeth.

Interested in telling a story or two yourself? The National Storytellers League website (www.nslstorytellers.org) offers these tips on how to be a better storyteller: "Voice control. Dramatic effect. Funny noises. Interesting facial expressions. Selecting the perfect story for a situation and audience. Uncompromising preparation." The league says, "Good storytellers aren't born, they're made. They work hard at their art, and it shows."

To learn more about the Storytellers of Las Cruces, contact Sonya Weiner, Western District President, at sdcallr@aol.com. Members perform on Saturday mornings at 10:30 at both COAS Books locations in Las Cruces, 1101 S. Solano and 317 N. Water St.

 

Karen Ray is a nearly lifelong resident of Las Cruces, who grew up here, attended NMSU, then returned 17 years ago to finish raising her family. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.

 

 



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