Storytellers Hone Their Craft in Front of Audience of Peers

Heeger is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

One recent Saturday, a stone's throw from the holiday creep of the Ventura Freeway, 10 people of different ilks and ages gathered before a cozy fire in Studio City. In a room scented with hot cider, they settled on couches, falling mute at their hostess' words: "Story time, dear ones."

A tall man in a camel-colored sport coat rose. "According to the philosophers of ancient India," he began, "this world is like a wide, deep, turbulent river. . . ."

The others relaxed into childlike expectation. Soon, with eyes wide and quick, and breaths held, they were following the adventures of a poor ferryman and a vain scholar as they crossed the river Ganges under storm-tossed skies.

Welcome to a Valley Storytellers' meeting, where the simple are rewarded, the wicked punished and yarn-spinners, pro and amateur alike, hone their craft before an audience of peers.

On his feet before the fire, storyteller Jay Kenny of South Pasadena mimed the smug scholar, piously lugging a holy book while puffing an English cigarette. He played the ferryman, hunched and steadfast at his pole despite criticisms of his ignorance.

Ferryman Triumphs

In the end, to the group's delight, the poor man triumphed when the storm sank the boat and the scholar, who couldn't swim, "was never heard of again."

"I loved that!" cried Marjorie Moran of Toluca Lake.

Betsy Brown-George, the gathering's hostess, offered advice. "Put some music behind it, Jay. Something soft and mystical would make it even better."

Kenny agreed and resumed his place on the couch. Brown-George took up a finger puppet. "Once upon a time," she said, "there was a little, tiny mouse. . . ."

One of the group's two storytelling professionals, Brown-George, a puppeteer, presented stories she had recently performed for children. Other members, whose daily jobs range from social work to fund raising to large-scale metal sculpting, told tales equally colorful and distinctive.

School Volunteer

Moran, a retired grocery clerk who volunteers as "the Story Lady" at Toluca Lake School, offered a Christmas legend from the American South. Arlene Simmons, a United Way fund-raiser from Sherman Oaks, told a Hanukkah tale from Yugoslavia. Victoria Quinn-Stephens, a Studio City business manager, related the real-life saga of a friend who had "lost her spirit" to a shaman. Beverly Weinger, a Topanga sculptor, invented an on-the-spot tall one concerning an imp, a meadow and a spaceship. From others, there were fanciful retellings of cherished fairy tales.

What unites the group, says Brown-George, is "our serious commitment to the storytelling art and its purpose--to share lives and feelings, to explain mysteries and to teach."

The folly of pride, the power of faith and the wisdom of age are familiar themes among the group, which is in its third year as a San Fernando Valley spinoff from the Community Storytellers of Santa Monica. Originally gathering at the Country School in North Hollywood, members moved to the Studio City Library before pint-sized chairs and strict library closing times convinced them to convene at home.

Home meetings "make us unique" among regional storytellers' groups, said Brown-George. "Being small and cozy, we can experiment and feel comfortable."

On Saturday, nevertheless, the bold went first. Martha Stevens of Studio City, a nine-year professional storytelling veteran, awed the group with her rising, falling voice, her expressive hands and her way of addressing each listener individually.

Sylvia Khan, a Los Feliz social worker, waited a while for her dulcimer-strumming sing-along. ("Actually," she demurred, "I don't really play the dulcimer. . . .")

Marcella Hill, a West Los Angeles artist, was equally shy and almost didn't perform.

"I need help with this story," she finally said, rejecting a fireside stool to sit cross-legged on the rug. "Sometimes, the more you want to do something, the less you're able to do it."

But, like the others, she gained confidence as she progressed, with a retelling of "The Red Shoes," until her hands fluttered, her voice rose and she lost herself in the story.

And, with each storyteller, the group itself relaxed. Late in the day, members swapped spontaneous, irrepressible tales from their places on the couch. Khan had one about a politician making a windy speech to savvy Indians. Stevens remembered another about a holiday truce between French and German soldiers.

Ownership Questioned

"That reminds me about the Pope and World War I . . . ," said Brown-George.

Amid this flurry of material, a question arose about ownership of stories. Are raconteurs proprietary?

"I am," said Weinger, "if I've made the story up."

Most members said they lift their stories from books or--justifying Weinger's fear--from other storytellers.

"But we feel we should ask," said Kenny, "before we borrow."

Added Moran: "You're always safe with fairy tales."

"Not always," said Khan. "There are articles and articles about that."

Khan's point suggests the current level of interest in a long-neglected practice.

Fifteen years ago, says Jimmy Neil Smith, director of the Tennessee-based National Assn. for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, "there wasn't much mainstream awareness of storytelling. We've seen a strong national revival as people realize its potency--as a tool of education, therapy, the ministry, the law--and not just as entertainment."

For Valley tellers, tales have a broad range of applications.

Illustrate Principles

Kenny, a swami of the Rama Krishna order of the Vedanta Society, uses stories when he teaches Indian philosophy. "American and European folk tales are wonderful for illustrating principles of Eastern wisdom," he said.

On a more personal level, Weinger tells stories to overcome shyness, Khan "to release my ham" and Moran "because children need them. Many don't get nursery rhymes anymore with both parents working."

As a group, the Valley Storytellers prove a simple truth--that children never grow too old, or too wise, for fairy tales.

Though most members declined to specify their ages, Khan, who admits to being 59, said that "inside, I'm only 7. I love to listen. It's enormously satisfying."

Added Stevens: "Stories make us laugh at ourselves and wonder. They make us visualize--unlike television--using our own feelings and memories."

This is why, she believes, storytelling is taking hold so firmly.

In her words, "When a story ends, everyone present has shared a common but strangely different experience."

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