On Saturday, March 13, 2010, I drove downtown to the Indiana History Center to see bilingual storyteller Peter Cook in “A Feast for the Eyes.” This event was presented by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society.
This was my third or fourth time hearing/seeing Peter share stories here in Indianapolis. He is based in Chicago, but he has shared his performance art all over the world and has been a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
I love his work.
Peter is a professional actor and poet as well as a professional storyteller, so his telling style is wonderfully physical and full-bodied (yes, like a good wine.) He has impeccable narrative timing and he brings a delicious bounty of specific images to the content of his stories. He uses his excellent improv skills to fully engage the audience.
He also brings (for lack of a better term) “high-level communication skills” to his storytelling programs. These, for me, are a little bit different than either performance skills or language mastery.
I mean, all good storytellers are good, at least partly, because they are able to “say yes” to whatever moment they’re in and because they love words and respect their power. All good storytellers also build community through the shared experience of their telling.
All good bilingual tellers do this, too, plus build bridges between communities. Peter does all of the above and more. He gently and humorously nudges people into moving past the boundaries of the communities that they live in every day and into feeling more comfortable with, and hopeful about, the diversity of the larger world. But he ALSO nudges people (me, anyway) into realizing that just because they are very comfortable with their preferred method of communicating (i.e., spoken and written English words) does not mean they could not also be good at, or at least competent with, other methods (e.g., nonverbal visual images.)
Peter has been Deaf his whole life. He was raised to be oral in English and now is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) as well. (ASL is different from signed English. It is a unique language, with its own sentence structure as well as its own vocabulary.) I think that the combination of this experience plus his training in, and dedication to, various aspects of performance art, plus “just” who he is as a person, is what makes his storytelling concerts such a treat.
How He Works – Signing, Voicing…
Whenever I have seen Peter perform, he has brought a specially trained, bilingual, hearing person with him. Peter is alone on stage, but his colleague sits in the front row, facing him and holding a microphone. She (or he) voices what Peter is signing, if necessary. She also signs to him the spoken English responses of hearing audience members whenever Peter asks them a question. The signing-impaired (hearing) members of the audience don’t always need voice interpretation, but sometimes it enhances Peter’s movements, gestures, signs, and facial expressions. He doesn’t always need to look at the signing, but it’s there if he wants to refer to it. Deaf members of the audience, of course, just watch Peter and sign their responses to them. The house lights are up, which is best for any kind of live storytelling.
All of the other times I have seen Peter perform, his colleague was Candace Hart. She was there in the front row this most recent time, too, but I think she was serving as an assistant coach for two interpreters-in-training. Peter teaches ASL interpreters at Columbia College when he is not on the road performing.
I’m just guessing, though, about the two interpreters at this show. In any case, both were excellent from my point of view (or ear, or whatever.) Brittany Foster was the signer and Kat Katona was the voicer. Brittany also stood on the stage at the beginning of the show and signed to the Deaf members of the audience what the Storytelling Arts of Indiana representative, Bob Sander, was speaking as he introduced Peter.
I guess I can’t truly assess the effectiveness of Brittany’s interpretation because I don’t know ASL. You’d have to ask some of the many Deaf people that were in the audience that night. However, I trusted Kat Katona because her voicing sounded authentic, not memorized. I am sure that she had practiced with Peter many times before the show and knew the stories he would be telling, so her voicing sounded fluid and confident and expressive, but it also sounded as if she were watching Peter in the moment and translating that, not reciting from a plan or putting her own spin on things. If he changed his mind about a sign, she changed the word or phrase she had started to voice.
She also knew when to shut up and let us hearing people have the pleasure of understanding Peter directly. I don’t know if that came from rehearsal or from being able to recognize which parts of his presentation were official ASL signs and which parts were artistic amplifications, but in any case, I loved that Kat knew when to get out of the way aurally.
…Miming and Improv
The fact that much of the show is not voiced is part of what makes it so empowering to everyone present. On Saturday night, Peter began by tossing a small, imaginary ball to someone in the audience. That person threw it back, and Peter threw it to someone else. He moved up into the audience in the raked (not flat) house of the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre space and interacted with people very directly and humorously until whole clumps of people were tossing a very large, imaginary ball to other clumps of people.
It was delightfully energizing. When Peter invited everyone to move down closer to the stage, most people did. Who wouldn’t want to be closer to this warm, funny, communicative man?
In the second half of the show, after intermission, Peter asked for three volunteers to help him “make a movie.” My hand shot up and yay! He picked me! He also picked Beth Millet, who is on the Storytelling Arts of Indiana Endowment Board and serves as webmaster for Storytelling Arts. He also picked a man whose name I did not catch. (‘Sorry!)
Peter led the three of us in a pantomimed baseball game that became more and more hilarious as the “movie” sped up. Oh, my goodness, it was so much fun to be even a temporary member of Peter’s mime troupe.
At another point he asked for a “hand shape” from the audience. Someone held up their hand pointed like a gun. Peter then asked for some people and places. People gave him “Batman” and “the Indy 500.” He improvised a funny story using those three elements. We played this improv game more than once and each improvised story was a hoot to watch.
My favorite part of the well-planned and well-seasoned evening, though, was the collection of fully-crafted narratives that Peter shared.
Let me first say another word or two about how he set things up:
Peter dressed all in black, with his long hair pulled back into a ponytail. He told us that his “name sign” is a gesture made behind one’s head, as if gently pulling a ponytail.
He joked early on about the traffic he experienced coming south from Chicago on I-65, thereby establishing us in the “here” part of here-and-now storytelling and introducing our common ground.
At another point early on, he asked for a show of hands of how many Deaf people were in the audience…how many hearing people…how many people who knew sign language. Asking a low-risk but obviously useful question is a classic, reliable way to engage and ground a live audience. Peter built on that by asking the signers in the audience (Deaf or hearing) to share with him some signs that they knew.
Someone signed “drink.”
Peter signed (and Kat voiced), “What kind of drink?”
“What kind of wine? What year?”
He made the point through this and other examples that American Sign Language is just as robust and meaty and nuanced a language as English is. This encouraged the hearing members of his audience (me) to watch him as attentively as they normally listen to hearing tellers.
With all of this good (and fun!) preparation, the story trance that came to me during Peter Cook’s more formal storytelling came via a different path than from hearing tellers, but it was just as deep.
One story was a hilarious, personalized variation of an urban legend. In Peter’s version, his principal kept a white ape in a cage in a tunnel under Peter’s school when Peter was a kid. The principal showed the white ape to Peter and a couple of his friends, but warned them to never, ever touch it. Of course, they had to sneak back on their own to see it again.
I’m not going to tell you what the surprise ending was to that story, but I will tell you that Peter’s telling of it was edge-of-your-seat exciting and suspenseful. Each character in the story was crisply delineated and the pacing of the telling was tantalizing. I am shivering with glee, again, remembering.
The final story had a different kind of universal resonance. It, too, was richly detailed. It had funny moments, but ultimately it was a more serious personal story from Peter’s real life. It invited everyone to make the effort to communicate, but it was not the least bit preachy. I loved the layers of meaning in it:
When Peter was a teenager, a hearing girl asked him to dance, and even kissed him. After the dance, he bribed his hearing younger brother to call her for him on the telephone. She agreed, through Peter’s brother, to meet Peter again at the next monthly dance.
But when Peter got there, she told him she couldn’t dance with him any more because he couldn’t communicate with her.
He told us how devastating that had felt and I bet everyone in the audience was right there with him. Who does not remember and wince at adolescent rejection?
He told us that he could have done several things to try to convince her that he could communicate with her – he could have written her a note, or whatever (and I thought he had already proven a lot about his resourcefulness and willingness!) – but what he did was kiss her goodbye on the forehead, walk away, and try to get on with his life.
Years later, she came up to him at a party or a storytelling event or somewhere. (I forget.) He felt shame and humiliation again “because that was the last feeling I had had with her and those feelings stay in our bodies until something replaces them or we do something to release them.”
But then she signed to him, “The problem was not that you couldn’t communicate with me, it was that I could not communicate with you.” In the years since he had last seen her, she had learned ASL!
I bet everyone in the audience – hearing or Deaf – could relate to that validation, too.
At the end of the story, Peter said to the audience something like “It takes two to tango…May I have this dance with you?”
Everyone applauded “Yes!” either by clapping their hands (hearing people) or by making jazz hands over their heads (Deaf people.) It was a wonderful story and it had been a wonderful evening.
I enjoyed the evening very much, but I left the theatre thinking about the two times that I had taken ASL classes here in Indianapolis at the Indiana School for the Deaf, and tried another time on my own using videotapes from the library…and failed miserably each time. My cousin Heather is a professional ASL interpreter and I have always admired her skill.
“Hopie, maybe you just like the sound of your own voice too much,” I told myself sadly as I drove home after Peter’s storytelling concert.
But now, as I am writing about that final story several days later, I realize that the point of the story for me is not whether or not I am capable of learning sign language. There are many right ways to communicate if one wants to badly enough. For me, the more important message is that there comes a point in every relationship where you ask two questions: “What am I willing to do to make this relationship work? (I.e. – Do I really only love the sound of my own voice or do I also love this other person’s as well?)” AND “Is this other person willing to meet me half-way? (I.e. – Is this person worth the trouble?)”
I also wonder what unreleased humiliations I am carrying in my own body and how to release them. Hmm.
Yup, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening.
Storyteller Peter Cook was only in Indianapolis for that one day, but another professional storyteller, Anne Shimojima, will be here next Saturday, April 10, 2010. She, too, is well known and respected among storytelling fans but unfortunately I have never heard her tell before.
She is giving a workshop on Saturday morning as well as a storytelling concert on Saturday night. Both will be at the Indiana History Center.
Here is the Anne Shimojima press release I received from Ellen Munds at Storytelling Arts of Indiana:
Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society proudly present storyteller Anne Shimojima, for a workshop at 10 a.m. and a performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 10, 2010.
In 2006, Anne interviewed her 91-year-old aunt, who experienced the difficult days of the war and living in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. This blossomed into a family history project which she will share during her workshop presentation, Hidden Memory. Learn how you can preserve family memories using photographs and interviews. This workshop was presented at the National Storytelling Conference in 2008.
Anne has delighted audiences of all sizes with her graceful and spirited tellings of folktales from her Asian heritage and around the world. For us, she will tell, Tales of East and West where listeners will travel the pathways of the human heart with folk tales centuries old and yet as timeless and current as the human race. “One of the most compelling storytellers to be heard anywhere, Anne Shimojima is mesmerizing! Like a gifted sculptor, Anne has a talent for cutting away all that is extraneous, leaving only the essential story in all its glistening beauty behind.” Rives Collins, McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, Department of Theatre, Northwestern University.
Anne has a rich knowledge of story and a keen ear for performance. She has performed at the JustStories Storytelling Festival in Chicago, the Wild Onion Storytelling Festival and the Illinois Storytelling Festival. This is her first appearance in Indianapolis.
Both events will take place at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, located at 450 W. Ohio Street. Tickets for the workshop are $30. Tickets for the Saturday night performance are $15 in advance or $18 at the door. To order tickets or for more information, call the Indiana History Center at (317) 232-1882 or (800) 447-1830 or purchase tickets on-line, www.storytellingarts.org. Free parking is available at the Indiana History Center in its parking lot at the corner of West and New York streets.
‘See you at the theatres!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.