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Look Who's Talking

Three Decades Ago, Storytelling Was All but Dead in America, a Casualty of the Modern Age. Today the Art of Spinning Yarns Is in the Midst of a Full-Blown Revival. Can We Just Sit Back and Enjoy It, or Will It Be Sacrificed to the Gods of Mass Marketing?

July 27, 1997|Berkley Hudson

Shortly after I was born, Aunt Laura came to live with us. She was, in reality, my great-aunt, Daddy's Aunt Laura Henry. She had lived, unmarried, with her sister-in-law, my Grandmother Henry, until Grandmother died the same year I was born. . . . Aunt Laura was the oldest living thing I had ever seen. She wore long dresses which came down to the floor, bonnets on her head, whether indoors or out, and thick rimless glasses which turned into mirrors when she looked at us. . . . Her skin, the few places we could see it, was the color and texture of wadded-up grocery bags. I often thought that if all the wrinkles could be stretched out of her skin, it would be big enough to hold a person at least twice her size.

So goes the start of "Listening for the Crack of Dawn,' which Donald Davis is telling in a lakeside lodge full of producers, directors, writers, actors and entertainment lawyers who have traveled to Santa Barbara County for a retreat. An Amblin vice president is there; so are a vice president of Oliver Stone's company and a Paramount Pictures story editor. * The idea behind the retreat--called "Hollywood Goes Back to Story'--is to remind these executives that good movie-making comes down to good storytelling. And Davis, a former Methodist minister and among the most popular figures on today's storytelling circuit, is their guide. While flames dance in a rock fireplace and mist from Zaca Lake shrouds nearby saw-toothed mountains, Davis asks them to tell tales about a bygone pet or something they did one night in high school but never told their parents about. For three days, he has them in stitches and in tears. * "They all talked about how a story was an idea you came up with, that you invent,' Davis recalls. "But a story is something you find. After I got them telling their own stories--stories that had never been told before in the whole world--they realized that stories are already there, are something you discover. Somehow they'd lost that experience.' * After the retreat, a producer telephoned Davis to express interest in buying the rights to a Davis story. "We can electrify this, do special effects, make something really good,' the producer insisted. "Storytelling is primitive.' Later, another executive implored Davis to fly cross-country to help with a rapid rewrite of a screenplay. Then Davis, along with "Seinfeld' sidekick Jason Alexander, appeared at a fund-raiser to benefit the Hollywood Literary Retreat. If you'd told Davis in the 1960s that one day Hollywood would be calling, he'd have said your mind was playing tricks on you. Three decades ago, storytelling in America had all but died, except in places like Appalachia. The modern age, it seemed, had killed it--first with radio and movies and finally with television, air conditioning, freeways and shopping malls. There was no time to spin meandering yarns that pass down everything anyone ever needed to know about living; and no one was at home to listen, even if there was someone who could tell. * This all changed in 1973 when Jimmy Neil Smith, a high school journalism teacher from Jonesborough, Tenn., tuned his car radio to a country-music station and heard Mississippi fertilizer salesman Jerry Clower tell a raccoon-hunting story. Smith got the chamber-of-commerce idea to hold a festival. It'd be fun, he thought, and might boost the coffers of his hometown. For the first National Storytelling Festival, Smith invited Clower and a half-dozen other storytellers. Hundreds congregated at the school gym and outside the courthouse to listen to stories told from atop hay wagons.

Twenty-four years later, storytelling is experiencing a full-blown revival. Venues from Vegas to Vienna host storytellers. They've shown up at New York's Tully Hall, President Clinton's inaugural, L.A.'s House of Blues, the Atlanta Olympics and on "Rabbit Ears' radio and KCET's "Storytime.' This year will see 100 U.S. festivals with such names as the Bankoh Talking Island Festival in Hawaii, the Ghost Story Gala in Illinois and Corn Island in Kentucky. And there's an international circuit, from Austria (Die Lange Nacht Der Marchenerzhler/The Long Night of the Storytellers) to Indonesia (The Jakarta International Storytelling Festival).

Three publishing houses that specialize in storytelling churn out an estimated $6-$7 million a year in recordings and books; millions more are generated in performances. Physicians, lawyers, the women who run with the wolves and the men who drum with the myths--all tell stories. One hundred or so storytellers--an elite group--crisscross the United States, making as much as $5,000 an appearance, some earning $75,000 to $100,000 a year or more.

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