From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s Journey to Storytelling Took a Circutious Route
Unforgettable Nancy Duncan. The late actress, theater director, administrator, and professional storyteller was not someone you could easily dismiss or forget or walk away from unaffected. Her positive energy, whether her bright eyes, smile and laugh or her sunny outlook on life, swept over you like a cool breeze on a warm day. She made you feel good. Her intelligence and truth challenged you to listen and think. Her generous spirit reminded you of the gratitude you ought to demonstrate. Her humility reminded you that the world does not revolve around yourself. Later, when she got sick, I witnessed her courage in the face of a life and death struggle. Even then, she was still giving and sharing, using her battle with cancer to teach and maybe preach a little about how absurd and precious life is. You’ll find a number of stories on this blog that I did about Nancy and her passion for storytelling over the years.
I don’t go into it in the following story, but Nancy’s husband Harry Duncan was one of the world’s most highly respected fine book press printers. His Cummington Press earned he and the books he printed many awards and much praise.
The children’s theater Nancy led changed names from the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre to the Omaha Theater Company for Young People and its home changed from 35th and Center to 20th and Farnam in The Rose, a performing arts for children and families space.
Also, this story doesn’t discuss the long-running storytelling festival in Nebraska Nancy helped found and run and it barely alludes to her becoming a much-in-demand and beloved storyteller at festivals around the country. Some of my other Nancy Duncan stories do explore these facets of her work.
From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s Journey to Storytelling Took a Circutious Route
©by by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
Omaha actress-storyteller Nancy Duncan has always been an independent sort. Born In Indiana, she grew up a tomboy in Illinois suburbs and Georgia backwoods and chafed at her mother’s attempts to make her a debutante. Even after she became a successful performer years later Duncan couldn’t win her approval.
“My mother was a real Anglophile. She was never pleased with my theater work because she wanted me to do glamorous characters, and Baba Yaga was the antithesis of glamour,” Duncan said with her diaphram-rattlng laugh. Baba Yaga is a witch Duncan adapted from Russian literature to create the character she is most closely identified with. “She wanted me to do parts where I wore beautiful clothes but if there was a lizard part in a play I wanted it. It’s always frustrated me I couldn’t play Caliban,” she said, referring to the deformed, half-human slave of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The former executive director of the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre is now a full-time performer doing precisely what she wants and loving every minute of it. Duncan appears as Baba Yaga & Friends, the name of her theatrical enterprise, before school and community audiences across the nation. Much of her performing is done under the auspices of state arts council touring programs, including those in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. She recently joined the Mid-America Arts Alliance roster of artists touring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.
She spoke recently about her life in the theater at the home she and her husband Harry Duncan share in mid-town Omaha. Curled up cross-legged on a sofa, she was every inch the storyteller and actress with her attentive eyes, animated body movements and expressive hands and voice. She was still excited about a summer sojourn in the United Kingdom. Inspired by the stories of Scotland’s Duncan Williamson, she studied with him and his big family. She said she had written him asking “permission to tell his stories and to absorb th econtext the stories came out of and to get some feeling of what they meant to him and why he told them.”
She got permission, too, returning, she said, “with five more of his books – five you can’t get in the States. I’m well-armed for the next couple years to tell these great stories, and they are wonderful. They’re all stories of the supernatural. And really some of them are very scary,” she said in a hushed voice. “There are real confrontations with the devil.”
Duncan enjoys staying at people’s homes when touring. “Usually that turns out to be a really fun situation and I learn a lot and make friends, and I like to do that. For a storyteller, it’s a nice give and take situation. And I gather a lot of stories that way, too.”
Sponsors booking her may choose from her large repertoire of one-woman shows, whose stories and telling differ greatly. As Baba yaga she is a 600-year-old witch with the disposition to match her warts and fright wig. For “Good Old Crunchy Stories” Duncan appears as herself, yarning folk, fairy and other tales from a variety of cultures. Many stories are borrowed from literary sources. Others are taken directly from families’ history and lore, preserved by the oral tradition. Some are meant for children, others for adults.
An adult show is “Nebraska ’49,” in which she tells the stories of actual pioneer women in their own words, drawing from their diary accounts a portrait of the 1849 transcontinental migration. The trek by wagon train was arduous, often tragic.
“It’s the untold story about what women had to go through on that journey,” said Duncan. “It’s not the glamorized depiction of Little House on the Prairie. Liza (Wilcox) doesn’t want to go. There are things about it she loves but she goes into detail about a lot of the hardships. Liza’s son gets killed in Ash Hollow. The death of her son is just devestating and it was caused by an accident, which is how most deaths on the wagon train occurred. They weren’t caused by run-ins with Indians.”
A new show called “Why the Chicken Crossed the Road” is a humorous children’s hour with characters taken from David Macauley’s book of the same name. It’s one show were laying an egg is part of the fun. Like most of her performances “Why the Chicken” contains simple morals and truths about who we are and “how we live,” she said.
Like our chicken natures.
“At the very beginning I ask the kids if they’ve been called chicken, and most of them have. Then I say, ‘Are you a chicken?’ And they say, ‘No.’ At the end I tell them, ‘I hope you go home and find a way to celebrate the chicken in yourself’ because essentially that’s what the show is – a celebration of my chicken nature, which is the opposite of Baba Yaga, who is, you know, Aaargh…”
Baba Yaga has been a sensation since Duncan first played her in 1981 at the Emmy Gifford. She said kids deluged the theater with letters and phone calls wanting to talk to Baba Yaga. Some even sent breath mints. Although the old hag is still a hit Duncan said Baba Yaga often elitcs disruptive opposition from some Bible-thumpers.
“Fundamentalists picket me all the time because Baba Yaga is a witch and they don’t want their kids exposed to Satanism and witchcraft,” she said sarcastically. “They don’t want their kids to hear fairy tales either. They only want them to hear Bible stories. Not too long ago in Lee County, Iowa the sheriff had to meet me at the county line and escort me to the school. I was flanked by two policemen to protect me from these five crazies.”
Such incidents are not confined to rural areas. Duncan said a Des Moines school turned down her doing residency there “because of flak over Baba Yaga. Just crazy.”
She expects similar protests against her new “Spooky Stories” show populated with witches, wraiths and pranksters.
To needle her adversaries Duncan’s promotional brochure bills “Why the Chicken” with this zinger: “If you are not brave enough to book Baba Yaga and risk losing a few pin feathers, this is the show for you.” She said, “It’s not only me who’s chicken, but the sponsor,” and laughed up a storm.
Duncan does leave audiences spellbound – but with stagecraft, not witchcraft. “In traditional storytelling circles they talk about this sort of hypnotic effect you have on your audience. You look out and see people staring with these slack faces, mouths hanging open and eyes frozen, like they’re daydreaming. It’s kind of nice to see kids or adults totally transported,” she said of the experience of holding a crowd in rapture.
Her charmed audiences range from those at elementary and secondary schools to colleges and universities to libraries, community centers and festivals. She is doing more adult work than ever but whatever their age she always prefers “a captive audience. I don’t like situations where people come and go and eat. I like to be where an audience makes the commitment to come and be there for a while. My goal is to transform it into a give and take situation where they become partners in the telling. It’s the same in the theater. You want to get that audience in cahoots with you. Every audience is different because they listen differently. That give and take transforms your telling.”
She said when she and an audience really connect “it becomes a mystical experience and is very moving. Something is happening, both of you are changed because of it, and that’s really, really exciting. That’s what I’m always seeking. It doesn’t always happen.”
Duncan said storytellers are “very much in touch with their audience all the time. It’s like having a good conversation with somebody. It’s not a lecture, you’re there listening and giving back.”
A good audience response, she noted, “may be a special kind of silence or the way they laugh. It’s all in the little things they pick up on. There are certain places where they can’t avoid laughing unless they’e asleep. But there are other many more things they’ll get if they’re really with you. Beyond that, if they give themselves to you, then you discover new things in the performance and telling.”
That happened last October at a Philadelphia area high school. “I was doing a show about self-esteem, and that’s a great theme for that age level. They really went with it and I discovered a bunch of stuff that I didn’t even realize was either moving or funny.”
Duncan first developed an appreciation for storytelling on the lap and at the feet of her grandmother. “She shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until she died when I was 16. My two brothers and I spent a lot of time with her. She was great. She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories. She loved the B’rer Rabbit stories and could do them with a great dialect. And my father was a great storyteller. He liked to perform the story.” She said her father’s animated telling was more like her own than her grandma’s.
As a girl Duncan indulged in rich fantasy play, assuming different identities like so many hats. “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer. My friend and I made leopard suits and claws. We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends.”
When the family moved from Illinois to north Georgia Duncan found a fertile place for her imagination to run wild in the woods near their home. She and her playmates learned the outdoors on “safaris,” she said. “We built little houses and became primitive people living there as long as we could. Our mothers never really had to babysit us – they had a hard time getting us home. It was a safe place. Now, I don’t know whether children could do that.”
The only close call was when moonshiners ran the girls off.
By high school she had years of private art and elocution lessons behind her but she was still a tomboy at heart. When forced to choose between playing basketball and acting, for example, she opted for sport. She played four years.
Her thespian days began at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, a private women’s school. “I was always frustrated there. I wanted to go away to college but I didn’t because my father was ill. He died after my first year.”
Still, she said, she enjoyed school and did very well majoring in English and minoring in art and theater. The 1958 graduate was an aspiring writer and earned a full tuition fellowship to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She “hated” the experience. Intimidated by more aggressive students and kowtowing to her advisers she finished the workshop without doing much writing. She then focused on theater and soon met Harry Duncan, who taught journalism and hand printed fine press books at the university. He taught her typography. Student and teacher fell in love and married in 1960.
After earning an MFA in theater she taught at a Quaker school in Iowa. “That was a wonderful laboratory in experimental theater because I did six plays a year for about eight years – productions which I could not do in Omaha.” One was a German language version of Mother Courage.
By the early ’70s she and Harry were raising a family of three children and Nancy was getting restless. To her rescue came the news that Harry had accepted an offer to teach and operate a small press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is how they both ended up here.
“I was thrilled because Omaha is a big enough city where we could be two totally independent people. In a university town like Iowa City you’re always a faculty wife, and I didn’t want to be a faculty wife anymore.”
She went through a period questioning whether the theater was her true calling, taking classes at UNO with the notion of pursuing a medical career.
“But I realized I’d invested eight years training myself to be in the theater and it was ridiculous to start all over again when my children were teenagers and needed to be home. So I recommitted myself to theater.”
Her start here came as associate director of the Omaha Community Playhouse (1973-’76), where she staged experimental work. Then the Children’s Theatre entered her life through its founder and namesake – Emmy Gifford – whom she met at a Playhouse awards night.
“We sat on the stage afterwards and talked and we got to know each other that evening. Emmy designed shows for me, too, so we got to be really good friends. She kept asking me to come to the Children’s Theatre but they didn’t even have a building at the time and I didn’t want to start all over again.”
Gifford and two other friends on the Children’s Theatre board kept after Duncan until she said yes, but only if certain conditions were met. Namely, Duncan wanted the amateur organization to become a professional theater that would commit to hiring a multiracial staff and to do color blind casting. She also asked for support of the modern dance company she had started. To her surprise, they said yes on all counts. “It was an amazing commitment that I think very few places would make,” she said.
By the time she joined the theater it had moved to its present site at 35th and Center Streets. But major hurdles remained. “It was very hard work because there were only two of us and we had a budget of $24,000. It was just a mess the first three years.”
When she left in 1986 to go it alone as a professional storyteller the Gifford had “transitioned,” she said, “into a professional theater with a budget of $550,000.” The turning point came in the form of three large CETA grants. “Without that money we wouldn’t have been able to make that transition.” Another key was getting the Omaha Public Schools to sanction class trips to the theater. “Once we got OPS approval it just snowballed.”
The theater board also kept its promises, giving many minorities and dancers opportunities lacking elsewhere. Along the way the Gifford became a success story on the burgeoning children’s theater scene nationally. Today, it’s the fourth largest children’s theater in the U.S. and Duncan is proud of that.
As it grew, however, she had less time for performing and the artistic side. Instead, she found herself saddled with fundraising and marketing duties. “I really burned out on the fundraising. I think that was the part of it I came to hate most. I hated seeing people as dollar bills.”
After deciding to leave she found it hard to let go. “I thought I would have some say in what decisions were made and when I realized that, no, nobody wanted to listen to what I had to say that was really painful. Now I realize it’s absolutely essential that people who take over reject everything that went before because they have to find their own way.”
She feels her messy exit served her well. “If it had been a comfortable, easy departure I don’t think I would have been spurred ahead to do my own stuff as much as I have.” Life as a freelance artist “was kind of scary that first year,” she said, “because my income dropped about a third. That whole business of starting out and adventuring into something new is pretty scary but after the first year it’s really grown. I’m pretty well booked up for this coming school year.” She just returned from a storytelling festival in Wyoming.
But the lean days are not so far removed that she can’t appreciate what an Alex P. Keaton clone said at a Wisconsin grade school she played that first year: “A sixth grader asked, ‘Nancy, would you be able to do what you do if you were not heavily subsidized by your husband’ she recalled with a whoop. “I said, ‘No,’ and I told the teacher he should get an A-plus for ‘heavily subsidized.’ I still don’t have to, you know, pay my rent because my husband does that,” she said with a wink.
- Storytelling: Community through . . . Competition? by Katie Knutson (gracewolbrink.wordpress.com)