Storytelling Review: “Disquieting, Disturbing, and Dreadful Tales”

Late on Saturday afternoon, October 9, 2010, I wrenched a leg muscle as I was leaving my day job.  Oh, man, did it hurt!  The last thing I felt like doing was going to a show.

However, that Saturday night was Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s second annual ghost story event for adults on the canal patio outside at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center in downtown Indianapolis.  No way was I missing it, so I hobbled on down.  I arrived just as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, storyteller Cynthia Changeris, was welcoming everyone.

There were, I think, more than one hundred people in the audience this year, probably because the weather was much more comfortable than last year.  The people filled all of the rows of chairs and spilled over into the umbrella tables at the side.  Some people had brought their own chairs.

I was mad at myself for being late, and in too much pain to look for an empty seat, so I just asked Storytelling Arts director Ellen Munds if I could sit with her and our friend Mark behind the candy and popcorn table.  She said I could. It felt good to sit down!

But you know what?  As soon as I let myself settle in to my environment – which included the close smell of the popcorn, the slightly more distant sounds of sirens and carriage horses and canal walkers, the layers of visual light from the purple and orange twinkle bulbs in the IHC’s trees to the office windows in the tall buildings nearby and, beyond them, very faint, the stars in the sky – as soon as I adjusted to all of that sensory input on top of my physical pain and focused on the stories being shared from the little stage within the IHC’s iron fence, I also felt very glad to be there.  Normally, having all of those distractions would drive me crazy, but the IHC’s canal patio is somehow a magical place where ordinary distractions don’t matter.

Part of the magic comes from good theatre lights positioned well on poles near the little stage, and a good sound system, AND a good person managing it all.  Don Drennen was the stage manager that night.  Icing was that he gave me a hug on his way around to check the sound quality from different points of the “house.”

The event was again called “Disquieting, Disturbing, and Dreadful Tales.”  Most of the tellers were the same as last year but told different stories.  One of last year’s tellers, Cynthia Changeris, was this year’s MC, as I mentioned earlier.  She had driven up from her home in Bethlehem, Indiana to be here.

The opening teller, Sandra Harris from Indianapolis, had just won the first (and I hope annual) Jabberwocky Ghost Story Contest, sponsored by Storytelling Arts of Indiana in cooperation with the Indy Fringe Theatre.  Sandra told her winning story again for the crowd at “Disquieting…Tales.”  It was a hilarious piece about a man named Aaron Kelly who refused to believe he was dead, even though his wife and her new beau repeatedly told him so.  Sandra’s relaxed, warm-yet-deadpan telling style and yummy southern accent (I think Sandra is originally from Alabama) gave this story an appealingly homespun quality.  The story itself was peppered with delightfully specific language:  phrases such as “like a bat out of Birmingham” and “they tumped the bones back into the coffin.”

Another teller, Sally Perkins, was completely new to me because unfortunately I missed the Frank Basile Emerging Stories event last year.  (More about the 2010 event in a moment.)  I can’t even tell you where in Indiana she lives.   I can tell you that her timing at “Disquieting…Tales” was impeccable.  I laughed out loud at the shivers literally running up my backbone from the suspense she built as she shared a psychological thriller about a certain piece of evidence that belonged to the condemned man in a London murder trial.  “It’s hard to say where in the mind fear begins,” Sally told us, “especially when (the source) isn’t visible like a bear or a fire.”   Sally’s telling style is elegant, even sweet, but when the main character in the story went from “nervousness to…fear to…terror to…pure horror…” Sally had me right there with him.

The other three tellers – Bob Sander, LouAnn Homan, and Celestine Bloomfield – had all been featured last year, too.  I very much enjoyed hearing a few more stories from their repertories. 

Bob Sander told his own extended, funny-creepy version of “The Ghostly Hitchhiker,” firmly and specifically (and therefore very believably) rooted in his 1970s college days travelling to and from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana to his mom’s home in Beech Grove, Indiana along “Killer Highway 37.”

LouAnn Homan, from northern Indiana, shared a couple of stories.   One was quite chilling, based on a newspaper clipping about a new person in a small town and his tragic contribution to the volunteer fire department’s annual spookhouse fundraiser.  It was chilling not because of the plot but because of the details.   The other story was a powerful, theatrical rendition of the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  LouAnn incorporated recorded heartbeats very effectively at the end with Don Drennen’s help.

Celestine Bloomfield, a teller from “da region” around Gary, Indiana, but who is now based here in Indianapolis, wove several disquieting bits and pieces from her own family history across several states into a tapestry that included the darkness of demonic possession but which also sparkled with the gold of Celestine’s singing.  She only sang a few lines, more as transition to the second story than as a full song, but the gorgeousness of it took my breath away.  I don’t think I had ever heard Celestine sing before.  I hope I get to hear her sing again, and often!  Her second story was “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” a literary tale about a club-foot slave, but I didn’t catch the author’s name.

Cynthia Changeris is always a joyful, healing presence, whether as MC or featured teller.  Simultaneous translation of the stories into American Sign Language was provided on stage by another beloved performer: Joyce Ellinger.

Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship

Each of the tellers at “Disquieting…Tales” has been a recipient of a wonderful, wonderful story development grant that is funded annually by Frank Basile through Storytelling Arts of Indiana to encourage the development of new, long (45 minute) storytelling pieces for adult audiences by Indiana storytellers.  Sally Perkins wrote about her Frank Basile Emerging Stories experience last year for the Storytelling Arts of Indiana blog (read it here), but I bet every single one of the recipients over the years would tell you that they were equally grateful.  I am one of them!  I received the Basile in 2006 along with Bob and Kathi Myers. 

I would never have developed and performed my 45-minute “Hoosier in Tokyo” piece if it weren’t for the Basile grant.  That experience, in turn, led to Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society commissioning me to develop and perform a 90-minute “Of the People: Stories and Images of Abraham Lincoln” piece.  It premiered last year.  I have been taking a little break from telling this year and who knows what the future will bring, but I will always treasure those two story development opportunities and count them among the most important experiences in my life.

This year’s Basile winners are Celestine Bloomfield and Jennie Kiffmeyer.    They will premiere their new pieces on Saturday, November 6, 2010 from 7:30-9:30 at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center.  I don’t know anything about Jennie Kiffmeyer, but that is part of the fun of going to a premiere: being introduced to a new performance artist!  The other part of the fun is seeing a new piece by a teller whose work I already know and love.  I.e.,  Celestine Bloomfield!

Here is a little more about this year’s winning storytellers and their new pieces from the Storytelling Arts of Indiana website:

Jennie Kiffmeyer will tell The Rivertown Dispatch, a series of interconnected stories set on the banks of the Ohio. Through her stories, we’ll meet such residents as a single dad and his daughter who discover a Civil War tombstone, a young jazz singer trying to make a go of it at her family’s winery, and a third-grade teacher who reaches out to a troubled former student – all ordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell. Sponsored by Ted Parkhurst.

Celestine Bloomfield has always been a fan of the folkorist and author Zora Neal Hurston, who is well known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God. In Zora and Me, Celestine will share a few of the lesser known short stories and folkore of Zora Neal Hurston. Sponsored by Beatrice Cork and Leslie Williams.

Buy tickets online through www.storytellingarts.org or by calling 317-232-1882.  They are $10 in advance or $12 at the door.

The Frank Basile Emerging Stories Premiere is the first event in Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s 2010-2011 season.  The next event will be “Ancestor Tales: The Old Stories of Ireland” told by Niall de Burca from 7:30-9:30pm on Saturday, December 4, 2010.  I don’t know anything about that teller, either, except that he is coming here from Ireland, but I trust the artistic judgment of Storytelling Arts of Indiana director Ellen Munds completely, so I’m looking forward to this event as well.  Here is a photo of Niall de Burca:

All storyteller photos in this post were given to me by Ellen Munds of Storytelling Arts of Indiana.  The photo at the top is called just “7.”  It is part of an Indianapolis “Canal” series taken by shrff14 (Nick) and made available through the Creative Commons area of Flickr.com. 

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

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