MASSEY: The Art Of Storytelling | Local News

Rivai H Tukimen

I often make mention of our living in the information age, a time when knowledge is at our fingertips. But in the days before social media, the internet, television, radio, photography, telephone, telegraph, and newspapers there was storytelling.

Cultures used storytelling to communicate, to educate, and to pass down their oral history long before they developed a written language. Yes, storytelling evolved into all those mediums of communication I listed above. Yet storytelling has transcended them all in terms of it still being a popular medium. Whether it’s one of the professional comedians who make us laugh, yes, they are storytellers, or a grandmother telling her family about life in the Great Depression, or about her grandparents, it’s storytelling.

The first documented storytelling was recorded 30,000 years before Christ on cave walls depicting hunting and rituals. Yes, cave drawings tell a story, so they are storytelling. The Greeks told their stories in murals and mosaics. Then later civilizations carved their stories into the walls of towns and on buildings. Just look at ancient Egyptian cities. The books of the Bible are some of our earliest written histories. Many of Jesus’ recorded stories would have been humorous in the time written. Yes, he was a storyteller.

Why does storytelling still resonate with us today? Because our most used form of communication is our voice and our hearing. We like to talk, and if nobody is around to listen, we will talk to ourselves.

I have written about enjoying theater and the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of our most brilliant founding fathers, enjoyed theater. Theater is storytelling. In our time we may see it as entertainment, but theater tells a story.

One writer recently wrote, “William Shakespeare was an English-speaking writer, actor, and poet born in 1564. Although his life was short by today’s standards, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays during his lifetime including Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was a huge steppingstone in building storytelling because his work was so expansive and was relatable to everyone. To this day, Shakespeare is still the most performed playwright of all time and is continuously adapted for film and is a cultural phenomenon.”

The stories we know today as “fairy tales” started in France with an objective to teach children right from wrong, those basic life lessons. An example, the story of Hansel and Gretel was meant to scare children from wandering off in the woods. We all know from childhood that to not tell the truth is “telling a story.”

The first newspaper was published and distributed in 1690 and was little more than a piece of paper, but the first modern newspaper, as we know them today, came about in 1709. In 1732 Philadelphia newspaperman Benjamin Franklin published “Poor Richard’s Almanac” as an aside for him to publish stories not exactly intended for newsprint, ones that might be held on to instead of ending up in the bird cage. It included a calendar, long term weather forecasts, poems, sayings, along with astronomical and astrological information that a typical almanac of the period would contain. It was also a repository of Franklin’s aphorisms and proverbs, many of which live on in American English. These maxims typically counsel thrift and courtesy, with a dash of cynicism, what came to be known as “Franklinisms.”

While the invention of the printed word was undoubtedly no small achievement, the printed photo would be even more impactful. The gift of photography in the 21st century is impressive, although if it weren’t for a man named Joseph Nicephore Niepce, we wouldn’t have photography. He was the first person to take a photograph and have it shown to the world.

So why did I throw in photography? Remember the axiom “A photograph is worth a thousand words”? Yes, photography is storytelling, because a photo tells its own story or brings clarity and understanding to the written word. It can stand alone, or add to, or tell its own story.

As I write this column, I am telling a story. I do not consider myself a storyteller, and by no means am I any good at it. For several years I was one of the lead storytellers of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) annual march to Kings Mountain. That should tell you one thing, they were hard up for storytellers!

To improve my limited storytelling abilities, as well as learn and experience new things, I attended a storytelling seminar over the Memorial Day weekend. It was sponsored by the National Park Service for members of OVTA. It was held at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough.

I must admit that I was not real keen on attending a seminar on a holiday weekend, but when opportunity presents itself, you must grab the cow by the tail and hang on. I too must admit that other than speaking there once I had never been to a program at the storytelling center.

This program had been planned to take place three years ago but the virus situation had postponed it until this past weekend. The Friday evening session began with Kiran Singh Sirah the president of the International Storytelling Center. I must admit my initial reaction was what does this guy know about teaching Appalachian-Americans to tell stories to Appalachian-Americans.

Sirah opened the session telling the story of his himself, his own family’s journey from Africa to England then to America. His father was from India and his mother east African. He told about Idi Amin taking control of Uganda and ordering millions of people to leave the country or be killed. His parents left with only what they could carry and that was stolen before they reached England. He talked about being born in England and having no knowledge of being different or of racism except for other children calling him names. It is a moving, incredible story.

The main speaker for the evening was Darci Tucker, who was born in California. She and her husband were visiting Williamsburg, Virginia, when she decided she was born in the wrong time and wrong place. She announced to her husband they had to move to Williamsburg. There she has followed her passion and for 14 years has been a presenter, a living historian.

When she returned to the stage Friday, she was Elizabeth Thompson of Charleston, South Carolina. Mrs. Thompson seemed a bit hurried and was concerned that she might have missed her coach. She was to sail home to England where her husband Joseph was. She explained to us that her husband was loyal to King and country, that he had been a friend to many Charleston inhabitants though his dry goods business, and as a community leader.

All that changed with the advent of the American Revolution. The Sons of Liberty had pulled her husband from their house and stripped him naked, then poured hot tar over him, then feathered him before parading him down the streets led by the rope they had around his neck. He was forced on a ship bound for England leaving her behind to settle their affairs before she could join him.

As she concluded she curtseyed and bid us a good day. She turned her back to us as she opened her travel case and began to dig through it. She put on a men’s hunting frock, and a man’s tricorn hat. She then dropped her skirt right there in front is us to reveal a pair of men’s knee britches. She turned and introduced herself as Deborah Sampson.

Sampson dressed herself as a man and joined the Continental army during the revolution. She believed that she was as good as any man and could shoot just as well. Deborah’s plan worked for 16 months until she was wounded in the thigh. She feared she could be shot or hanged when her secret was revealed but it didn’t happen that way. Her captain recognized her contribution as a soldier and made sure she received her pay before being sent home.

After the war the officers worked through President Washington to make sure she received a proper pension for her service. She began touring, telling her story to paying audiences until being booed off a stage in New York. After this incident she would never publicly tell her story again. She would receive her army pension the rest of her life.

What Tucker did was to give us two differing views from two totally different individuals, reflections of the conflict and how it affected their lives. This presentation was very informative, and I would gladly take the opportunity to see it again. This was a great way to end the Friday evening session and set the stage for Saturday morning.

By 8:30 Saturday morning we were again assembled in the International Storytelling Center where we were greeted by all sorts of sweet treats, fruits, and plenty of coffee. We enjoyed a nice half hour of fellowship time before delving back into our learning experience.

Darci began the morning presentation by giving us a handout, “Storytelling in Museums.” It was crafted for us and reflected that “good interpretation is storytelling” and that “good stories don’t just happen.” She also has a book she wrote, “Embodying the Story through Character Interpretation — a step-by-step guide to becoming someone you aren’t.” After her Friday evening presentation there was no question that she knew what she was doing and a master of her craft.

We were discussing what storytelling is and how we should prepare for a presentation. Steve Ricker made the point that, storytelling is “painting a picture without a brush.” David Doan added that while it is painting a picture, “don’t paint the whole picture, let the audience paint their own picture.” That made me think of one those little paint sets with the picture drawn and one just colors the blocks. My take is giving them a picture and let them color it.

Following on this lead, Darci said “That is the reason the old movies show a lead-up but not the details, they were leaving it to the imagination of the viewers.”

Most of the morning was spent discussing character development, telling stories like it happened to you. To do this one must know their character better than they know themselves. It takes imagination, preparation and most importantly, research-research-research-research.

We broke for lunch, which was catered to the center for us. The afternoon was dedicated to personal character development, learning to tell the story of the person represented in our persona. We moved to small groups to share our personal experiences. Chad Bogart and I had discussed having “An Evening with Sparling Bowman” at Sycamore Shoals. This gave me an opportunity to develop that story idea. Darci reminded us that while being fluent in 18th century language is important, there are a lot of words we may take for granted that our audience may not understand. An example is “housewifery,” what today a “stay at home mom” does.

We took a break at 2 p.m. to go hear the storyteller in residence for the week, Andy Hedges, a Texas cowboy who shared his (and others’) poetry and songs. It was a nice break and a chance to enjoy the storytelling center doing what they do best.

Back in our session, Darci gave us the opportunity to give a presentation that she would critique. Tom Vaughan, one of the longtime leaders of OVTA told the story of Evan Shelby and his “hot headed son” Isaac in the persona of the elder Shelby. His presentation of Shelby staying home while his son leads troops down to Sycamore Shoals and the eventual battle of Kings Mountain was tremendous. This was a well thought-out, well-presented story of how the elder Shelby might have felt being too old to lead his own troops and sending his son in his stead.

The elder Shelby had immigrated from Wales to Pennsylvania then moved to Maryland before arriving in current day Bristol. Son Isaac was one of the heroes of Kings Mountain and was the first governor of Kentucky.

The program was concluded with Darci recommending resources to help us with our storytelling. She and I did have some one-on-one discussions about Williamsburg and my favorite place of all, Mount Vernon.

I must admit that I am very impressed with the International Storytelling Center and their programs. Even Jonesborough seemed exceptionally charming on this magical day. As everybody’s photographer, I had my camera and took advantage of the light catching the magnificent architecture that makes Tennessee’s oldest town so unique. I even caught a few cowboy program shots for program administrator Krystal Hawkins.

Jonesborough is close by, and the International Storytelling Center has programs almost daily. They have an incredible webpage, check them out. Jonesborough has their act together with everyone supporting everyone else. Take some notes Greeneville. Remember, while waiting on our downtown to rise from the debris, take a “staycation” trip just up the road to Jonesborough. Storytelling, too, is a part of trailing the past.

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