On Saturday night, April 4, 2009, I drove downtown to the Indiana State Museum to hear visiting storyteller Megan Wells share the epic story of “Helen’s Troy.” This event was part of the Barnes & Thornburg Storytellers Theater series. It was presented by Creative Street Media Group and sponsored by Lewis & Kappes through Storytelling Arts of Indiana.
I am very grateful to all of the organizations and individuals who made this event possible because it was uniquely powerful, uniquely moving. I had to pull my car over on the way home because I had some delayed-reaction weeping in addition to the tears that I had shed during the telling! I welcomed the catharsis.
I had heard this piece once before, at the Going Deep Long Traditional Stories Retreat in Bethlehem, Indiana in 2008. It was even better the second time.
When I said this to Megan afterwards, she said, “I’ve grown up, too, as I tell it. Thank goodness it’s storytelling. If it were theatre, I’d be stuck” (in the younger version of her telling it.)
Earlier that day I had taken a workshop with Megan and around twenty other people at the Indy Fringe building. Megan introduced herself by saying that she had started out in theatre, completing a master’s degree and winning a “Jeff Award” for directing in Chicago. In other words, she had experienced a lot of success by doing theatre.
However, after several years she began to feel that something was wrong in her theatre work. She realized later that the problem was that she couldn’t touch the audience. “I knew art – plays, poetry, and so on – but I didn’t know these people.” At the time, though, she just knew she needed a change. She went into corporate communications work then, and did that for ten years.
In the corporate world, she started telling little stories to help people understand each other better. Someone from the oral tradition storytelling community saw her and said, “That’s storytelling. What you’re doing is the art form known as storytelling.”
She told us that she said, “Huh? Storytelling? What’s that?” and added to us that “That is still what we’re living in. People don’t get it.” People don’t get what oral tradition storytellers do unless they have experienced it for themselves.
In fact, Megan still didn’t really get it herself until she visited the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee and had a “spine-cracking alignment.” She began to realize that storytelling – what I call “oral tradition storytelling” or in other words live, face-to-face, in-the-moment, well-crafted-but-non-memorized, spoken storytelling – is “a perfect, perfect meeting of the highest of our images and the deepest of our intimacies.”
Megan has now been working as a professional storyteller for eight years. She told us that she recently had another big shift or crisis of confidence or whatever you want to call it. Suddenly she felt that in all of those eight years as a storyteller, “I’ve just been rehearsing in public!”
But then she realized that the nature of storytelling is that you improve all the time. You never really know you’re a storyteller. Storytelling guru Jim May sympathized with her when she talked to him about it. He said, “You don’t really become a storyteller until you die.”
Rather than overwhelm her, this realization freed her. She shared it with us, I think, so that we, too, could relax and stop having impossible expectations of ourselves, and feel free to learn and play and grow in her workshop and in life.
“It’s okay to lower the bar,” she said. “We’re all storytellers.”
I appreciated Megan’s humble attitude and her empathetic permission giving, and I did learn a lot(!) from her workshop about ways to keep playing and working creatively with my own stories, but her storytelling concert on Saturday night was nonetheless something very special. We may all be storytellers, but we do not all tell as effectively as Megan does. Her background in writing and other forms of communication, her background in theatre, and her commitment to continual freshness, all inform her storytelling in many rich ways.
Her command of language is exquisite, for example. In her workshop she urged us to not only create images in our listeners’ minds but to deepen their connections to the story by moving past “like” phrases to metaphors. A “like” phrase is better than offering a listener no image at all, but it still makes a pause in the rhythm of the story. It creates a little distance in the listener’s mind because he (or she) has to stop and remember what the thing is, and then figure out how the thing in the story is like that thing.
It’s the difference between saying “Cinderella was clever as a fox” and “Cinderella twitched and knew instinctively the smell of her stepmother.”
Megan told us that being able to do this without resorting to memorization is a skill that develops over time. “Keep working your language,” she said. “After a while, your mouth is doing the work for you. The turns of phrase are right there.”
Her ability to gracefully incorporate a lovely costume – a flowing peach and cream tunic belted with purple and worn over cream leggings and bare feet – and a few simple set pieces provided by the host venue – a folding screen, a bench, a couple of stools – and to use the whole stage as her telling space in a very natural way are examples of how her theatre training informs her telling. I imagine she made very deliberate decisions about how to “block” this piece, yet it is also flexible and portable enough to be shared just about anywhere – an outdoor stage, a classroom, a museum auditorium – with very little extra preparation.
Megan is always herself on stage, but she is also dozens of other characters. Of course she is the complex title character, Helen. Helen who was raped by Theseus and later blamed for so much tragedy because her face was beautiful enough to “launch a thousand ships,” but who also knew love and passion and motherhood. The beautiful, half-immortal Helen, daughter of Leda and the god Zeus, who seduced Leda as a swan. Helen, who loved two men equally: Menelaus and Paris. Helen who finally came to know that she was more than her beautiful face.
Megan is also Helen’s well-meaning but deceitful mother, Leda, and Paris’ mother, Hecuba, and several other women, including the goddess Aphrodite.
She is also Menelaus, Helen’s clueless but good-hearted husband, and Agamemnon, his war-hungry brother. She is also Helen’s loving brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, and irresistable Paris, the Prince of Troy, and Odysseus and Apollo and Prometheus and more.
All of these people with the hard-to-spell names from ancient times become real people, with names that are pronounceable and motivations that are understandable (if not always admirable) through Megan’s telling of all of their stories within the epic story of “Helen’s Troy.”
It is comforting to know that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that both male and female energies are important. But it is healing to see that something as horrible as a rape or an abandonment or a mistake or even a slaughter is not the end of the story, even though it feels that way at the time.
“Helen’s Troy” is in two parts, divided by an intermission. At the end of the evening on Saturday, when everyone in the audience was on their feet applauding, Megan bowed, held out her arms, and said, “You did that! You made the pictures in your head!”
Which is true. But still…it was Megan who had pulled the ancient story fragments together for us and showed us the way home with them as Helen finally found her way home from Troy with Menelaus to the Elysian Fields.
“Thanks, again,” Megan said, as we continued to clap. “And…and…may you find love at home, too!”
Megan Wells’ telling of “Helen’s Troy” here in Indianapolis was a one-night only event. However, the final event in the Barnes and Thornburg Storytellers Theater series is still to come on Saturday night, April 25, 2009.
The guest that night will be storyteller/folk musician John McCutcheon. He will share a piece for adults and teens called “Politics, Love and Other Small Miracles.” It will be presented by Storytelling Arts of Indiana in collaboration with St. Luke’s Methodist Church. The performance will occur at 7:30 pm at St. Luke’s, 100 West 86th Street. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. To order tickets or for more information, please call (317)232-1637 or visit www.storytellingarts.org/store/category/Tickets.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com