A word for storytellers and actors about
storytelling—telling stories on and off
By Kevin D. Cordi, Ph.D.
Storytellers are the first actors. Before there were set designs, lighting plots, or directors, storytellers were telling stories. Skillfully
positioned words handled by a crafty raconteur steered the audience’s attention. An African Griot might use stories to warn
children to use common sense. From the foolish antics of the wild spider Anansi, children learn to think more about
their choices. From the dynamic and vibrant tones of a master bard, the epic tale of Beowulf chilled the fires. It,
too, was because of the storyteller‘s voice and deliberate actions that Grendel was able to strike the warriors. This
talented epic teller recounted the battle as though it was occurring as the listeners heard it. He set the
scene. From the Seannachai in Ireland to the Jack teller of the Appalachian Mountains, storytellers are rooted within our
culture. The nurse at the bed side often became a storyteller to soothe the pain of unhealthy or scared soldiers. Often times, storytellers were the community
elders. In fact, becoming a storyteller was seen as a rite of passage. As an African proverb suggests, one would never die if you told his or her story
because storytellers were positioned to keep the tales alive.
Today, there are thousands
around the world who call storytelling their profession. I, too, am a storyteller and for the past
twenty five years, have studied storytelling both from the oral tradition and through
formal study as well. My first storytelling influences were my parents who shared Appalachian tales and personal
stories from their homes in West Virginia. I sat spell bound, mesmerized as our living room became the theater for
myself as well as my five brothers and sisters. My mother would recount each tale, without props or scenery, of how
grandfather killed the giant black snake and we hung on the words as much as the dead snake hung at the end of the pitch fork. Stories were my theater. I wanted to learn more. I then earned a Master’s degree in Storytelling and Education combining work from the University of Akron and East
Tennessee State University. With the guidance of Dr. Flora Joy and countless others, I learned to soak into what noted teller Jay O’Callahan calls “theater of the mind.” We learned how to unfold each story so that it was heard by the audience. We explored the importance of silence, transitions, and effect. Most importantly, we began to understand storytelling that this art, like acting, was a practiced discipline.
During this time, I
also learned the formal art of theater. I
was also able to train as an actor at Kent State University and working at The
Pioneer Playhouse, a summer stock program in Kentucky. At Kent, I learned to position myself so
that I could physically open up to both the actors that I worked with and to in
scenes. The way I was blocked could have
a dramatic effort on the play. I had to
physically stand so the audience had an inside view of what was going on the
stage. I learned how to focus the work
so that one could see the scenes in connection to the play. My summer stock experience further trained me
to value objectives and obstacles that are inherent in character and scene
work. Every night that we perform, the
audience reacted differently to our choices.
I learned that a good actor needs to learn from these reactions as they
develop the work of the character in relation to the play.
As a storyteller, I
value the characters that I create for my audience. As an actor, one must find a way to tell the
story of your work, no matter how small the role. Each character is always in connection with
the experience of the play.