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Native Tongue: Storyteller James Bruchac. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

A STORIED LIFE
BY JOHN RODAT

The storytelling craft has been slowly and steadily reviving over
30 years, and it’s not just kid stuff

Kate Dudding drops colorful stories and fables into her conversation the way the stereotypical Valley Girl punctuates her sentences with “like.” Fragments of her own biography trigger recollections of stories she’s performed, which in turn spark similar tales originally told by others, which in turn recall traditional stories and their variants across cultures. Each is unfurled with enthusiasm and spontaneity—rather than intoned by rote—and Dudding hastens through some parts to get to the salient portion, the feature of the tale that best illustrates the point at hand, and there she lingers, allowing the listener to ponder the heart of the matter.

It’s not water-cooler talk, nor is it a guy-walks-into-a-punchline comedy routine. It’s a story. It’s a narrative with color, personality and atmosphere. For reference, comb through the faded memories of a parent at your bedside, lighting up the bedroom with “Once upon a time . . .” And though, Dudding makes clear, storytelling is a vital and rewarding art form for adults to practice and consume, her own origin as a crafter of tales began at just such a bedside.

“The first phase of my storytelling career began 13 years ago,” she says. “I can pinpoint it because it was when my son was 4 years old, and he’s now 17. At that time, he said he wanted a new story, not one in a book.”

Recalling the request, Dudding raises her eyebrows and adopts a bemused expression, recreating a moment of maternal pause, as if stalling: “Umm, OK, right . . .”

But she rose to the occasion, finding inspiration in biography: “Eventually, I came up with, ‘Why don’t I tell you about the time when I was a little older than you and I locked my parents out of the bathroom?’ It had a bathroom, and in it you got to do something mischievous to parents—so it was a big hit.”

Her son’s craving for originality and novelty was the impetus, and a similarly innocent—almost randomly fortuitous—instance introduced Dudding to the notion of craft in storytelling:

“My brother lived in Michigan, so we had these long car trips to visit,” she says. “I had a book catalog that had story tapes. I didn’t really know what a storyteller was; these were just amusements for the ride. But I really liked these people—Odds Bodkin, and these others—not realizing, at first, that they were telling the stories, they were not reading a script.”

Dudding’s familiarity with storytelling might well have ended there. Her involvement might never have progressed beyond parental indulgence or road-trip pastime. She would have remained a GE computer scientist by day, bedside yarn spinner by night. But an unfortunate accident altered her relationship with storytelling as a practice, and illustrated for her in a tragic light its potential for emotional and cathartic force.

“The thing that really propelled me into storytelling, and actually got me to my first guild meeting,” she reveals, “was when my best friend was killed in an automobile accident. That night I couldn’t sleep, and I knew that I had to speak at her memorial service. So, in good GE fashion, I wrote down the speech and practiced it, but it meant so much to me I didn’t know if it would mean anything to anyone else.”

Dudding’s attempts to wrestle her sadness into shape, to make some sense of her pain, led her to the Story Circle of the Capital Region, a group that meets monthly to practice storytelling in a supportive environment. In the years since that first meeting, she has developed her craft and her vocabulary, and from her present perspective she speaks of that experience as if recalling the chiseling of a sculpture as an apprentice to a master.

Telling Tales: storyteller Kate Dudding. Photo by John Whipple

She cites the instruction of one of her teachers, storyteller Elizabeth Ellis: “[She] says that when you’re a storyteller, you’re taking the people on a tour. And like any good tour director, you’re supposed to bring them back alive. . . . [The Story Circle members] were very kind and gentle, and one person said, ‘Once this story has a beginning, a middle and end, it will be very powerful.’ And I certainly didn’t have an end at that point, because it was only about a year after my friend’s death and I was just coming up from the depths of my despair. I was in no position to bring my listeners back alive.”

Dudding has managed to format that painful memory, but she has yet to perform it live.

“I’ve never told that story in a formal setting, because I’m still not quite over it yet,” she says. “But the written version, which is at my Web site [http://home. nycapp.rr.com/dudding], goes through how much in common we had and the things that we went through together, and how devastating it was when she died. And then the things that have happened since—and part of that is the gift that she gave me, because it was my attempt to deal with her death that propelled me into storytelling.”

The ability of story to transform heartbreak to strength, pain to power, confusion to clarity, is something which obviously benefits children. Folklorists and child psychologists—not to mention doting parents—have for years used imaginative tales both to amuse and soothe their fretting or questioning tykes. But, Dudding says, the force of myth, tale and fable can work wonders for adults as well:

“Most people think that storytelling is just for kids,” she explains. “I have a bumper sticker that says, ‘Storytelling is not just for kids.’ And it wasn’t just for kids until the 1800s, 1900s. That was how societies taught their values. . . . All those Grimm’s fairy tales? Those were for adults. That’s why there’s such brutal stuff. Each person puts a spin on the story that makes it relevant to them, but that these stories have survived thousands of years means there’s something relevant for each generation. . . . Since becoming involved with storytelling I think I’m much more actively curious about the world around me, and when bad things happen to me, I process it differently: I think, ‘Maybe this would make a good story.’ ”

The crowd gathered in the Egg’s small theater for the capstone night of the first annual Riverway Storytelling Festival was—we’ll say—experienced. A quick scan of the 90-or-so heads revealed a preponderance of gray. You could count the kids on two hands (and the 20- or 30-somethings on one). Storyteller Fran Yardley was up first, telling the audience about her late father, a taciturn jazz drummer. The story was tightly constructed and poignant. It flowed like a memoir excerpted in The New Yorker—though it was given non-textual appeal by Yardley’s sound effects. Relating a gently comic episode during which her dad tries to teach her to play the drums, she reproduced the sound of a snare: “Zta! Zta-Zta!”

A spoken reproduction of a drum’s sound was the last bit of the story, as well. It was used effectively as an emotional evocation of the teller’s now-dead father. It’s a device that could only work in a spoken format, and the audience responded favorably. (As they did to her following tale: an earthier, comic story relating the scatological revenge of an Adirondack camp cook on his blustery fellow hunters.)

Yardley was followed by James Bruchac, son of famed Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac. Bruchac’s approach was looser, more immediate than Yardley’s. Where she stood at the mike stand to deliver her stories, he wandered the stage’s edge, mike in hand, speaking in a hushed voice and leaning forward toward the audience to emphasize points and muted punchlines. He told an American Indian tale of the mythic ancestor of the Raccoon, in which Raccoon’s selfishness and betrayal of some cooperative “ant people” robs him of his fleetness, leaving him the rotund and plodding creature we know today.

The audience followed along attentively, laughing easily and adhering to Bruchac’s instruction to call out “hey” each time he calls “ho.” (An old American Indian storytelling trick to keep the audience alert and involved, we’re told.)

The evening’s headliner was Laura Simms, a renowned Manhattan-based storyteller and teacher. She presented traditional stories from the diverse cultures she has researched and explored first-hand: an Indian cautionary tale, a Bedouin folk story, a fairy tale from Romania. The stories were traditional, but Simms is sharp and has the recognizable caustic wit of a borough resident. She referred back to a Bruchac comment about taxidermy by ribbing, “I grew up in Brooklyn, and what do we call someone who mounts animals? A pervert.”

She told of a prince from a fortified “kingdom of rules,” and his circuitous route to find his true love, of his mistakes and disappointments, of his struggle to overthrow arbitrary behavioral proscriptions and obligations, to accept risk, to sacrifice in the name of faith in love. It was an epic and involved tale with wise men, a charming merchant, scheming ladies-in-waiting, a helpful doppelganger, a warrior queen and a grand battle. Simms told it with vigor, and obvious enjoyment—cracking herself up at moments, even stopping the story to point out, about a silly quip, “I made that part up.”

By story’s end, the prince has—of course—found his true love, as we knew he would. But, far from being pat, the resolution of the story (which is also a resolution of the evening) was heartening and provocative. All the stories presented—from different traditions, of different materials and styles—told of transformation and a shift in the balance of power. The small overcame the large, the victim became the victor—and strife resolved in concord.

When Simms pronounced finally, “May everyone go home, make love, eat well, and care for their children,” it was a grace note that could only have rung among adults for whom those simple and wonderful goals sometime seem buried under all-too literal trials and distractions.

‘I was relieved when I started storytelling and I heard this idea that you hear the story though the filter of you own life,” Kate Dudding says. “I said, ‘You mean, there’s no one right answer?’ That was very liberating for me.”

Liberating, she explains, because it allows the listener to draw from the story the most relevant, most necessary message, and to derive the greatest satisfaction and benefit from the greatest range of material.

“Not every story is for every person; not every storyteller is for every person,” she allows. “But I like hearing all kinds of stories because it might be a story I needed to hear—even if it wasn’t a story I would tell.”

And in a world increasingly reliant on non-verbal means of communication, Dudding believes others will find their way into the story circles and that the movement will continue to thrive and expand.

“My guess is that as we become even more filled with technology that the personal is going to become more important,” she says. “That people are going to have to stop and smell the flowers and listen to the stories.”


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