The Storyteller

Hometown Heroes, People
on March 11, 2001

Brian Ledgers class at the Reynolds Arts Magnet School appears to be running amokthough it isnt really. Changing seats every few minutes and chattering with their neighbors, these fifth-graders are engaged in a game teaching them to develop a characterthe kind found in a storybook tale.

Playing at what looks like musical chairs, the students repeat a description of their central characters, each time embellishing their details. Thus, the fat snake becomes the shy, fat snake and the armadillo becomes the armadillo who is always afraid.

(Dramatic events) dont make a story interesting, says the white-haired woman leading the class. A storyteller wants a story to be so interesting that people listen to it over and over, and your character will make your story memorable.

Jeanne Donato of Westerly, R.I., (pop. 18,100) is not a regular teacher at this school. Shes a professional storyteller invited to teach creative writing through storytelling. Donato, after all, composes many of the stories she tells from nuggets of information shes pulled from universal folk tales or plucked from historical records.

In a sense, shes come full circle, having taught school 20 years ago before becoming a balloon-maker, a telegram-singer, a magician, and eventuallyafter studying storytelling at colleges in Connecticut and Tennesseea storyteller.

Stories have always been there for me, Donato says. Everyone in my family told stories, so it was natural.

Nancy Kavanaugh, director of the 3,500 member National Storytelling Network, says storytelling is enjoying a turn-of-the-century revival. I think it has to do with our need for community, she says. Through storytelling, we connect with others one-to-one.

While many of the tales Donato collects show strikingly similar themes, others begin as bits of local lore and blossom, after hours of research, into full-fledged yarns. Having heard of Westerlys infamous 18th-century vampire, Mercy Brown, Donato wove a story of mysterious death and perpetual youth thats a favorite at Halloween parties.

Being a storyteller is going back into your culture, says Donato. There are over 500 versions of Cinderella; the oldest is an Egyptian Cinderella. But theres also the Algonquin Little Firefly, the Chinese Yeh-Shen and the German Princess Furball. The motif running through them all is the slipper.

Donato takes her stories to day-care centers as well as elder hostels, customizing her presentations to her audiencesand sometimes changing direction in mid-story if she senses theres something they need to hear. Her oldest audiences will frequently hear what she calls fairy tales for the second half of life.

One of her favorites tells of an elderly Japanese man, relegated to tending rice fields one muggy summer day while the younger men prepare to take to the sea to fish. His grandson, annoyed that he must stay behind to keep an eye on the old man, is horrified to see him set the rice fields afire. Spotting the fire, the young men return to shore to battle the blaze, and moments later a tsunami (tidal wave) rams the shore, destroying the boats. No lives are lost because of the old mans memory of a long-ago tsunami on just such a day.

These kinds of stories empower the elderly, Donato says.

Like most storytellers, Donato is carving a niche within the profession; for her, storytelling is a literacy tool. A book she recently co-authored, Storytelling in Emergent Literacy: Fostering the Multiple Intelligences, explores the engagement of both sides of the brainthe left for technical understanding and the right for creativityduring storytelling.

But it isnt the complexity of the brain that keeps Donato looking forward to her next storytelling date. Its just so much fun to tell a story, especially when you realize people are right there with you, she says. Its like driving a stick shift. Once you get those two gears to mesh, youre really cruising.

Her Reynolds School students would agree.

She really captures the kids, says their teacher. They sit there with their mouths open, listening to her, and they always clap when shes finished.