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Life Itself XIX: Set the Scene True Life Stories

September 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XIX:

Set the Scene True Life Stories

 

 

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-l…ad-trip-diary-ii

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-southern-road-trip-diary

Goin’ down the Lincoln Highway with Omaha music guru Nils Anders Erickson

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/01/goin-down-the-li…-anders-erickson/

 

Stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Elkhorn, Neb.

 

Leo Biga’s Journey in the Pipeline; Following The Champ, Terence “Bud” Crawford in Africa

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/14/leo-bigas-journe…awford-in-africa

The Champ Goes to Africa: Terence Crawford Visits Uganda and Rwanda with his former teacher, this reporter and friends

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/06/26/the-champ-goes-t…rter-and-friends

BIGA-JOURNEYS-815

 

Omaha history salvager Frank Horejsi: Dream calls for warehouse to become a museum

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/omaha-history-sa…-become-a-museum

Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/13/omaha-corpus-chr…n-draws-hundreds

Iraq War veteran Jacob Hausman battles PTSD and finds peace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/31/iraq-war-veteran…-and-finds-peace/

 

A Hospice House Story: How Phil Hummel’s End of Life Journey in Hospice Gave His Family Peace of Mind and Granted Him a Gentle, Dignified Death

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/27/a-hospice-house-…-dignified-death

Extremities: As seen on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” – Mary Thompson takes her life back one piece at a time

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/extremities

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Greg Pivovar, owner of the Stadium View shop, poses in his store in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, May 27, 2010. Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans. The Omaha attorney greets every (legal age) customer with a free can of beer and nudges them toward the barbecue, brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik) — AP

The Little People’s Ambassador at the College World Series

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/the-little-peopl…ege-world-series

The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home base

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/03/gary-kastricks-p…es-its-home-base/

The Bone Hunter: Paleontologist Michael Voorhies Uncovers Dinosaur Fossils

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/the-bone-hunter

Dr. Michael Voorhies

Dr. Michael Voorhies

 

Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/09/dream-catcher-lew-hunter/

After whirlwind tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser goes gently back to the prairie, to where the wild plums grow

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/after-a-whirlwin…-wild-plums-grow/

Keeper of the Flame: Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/keeper-of-the-fl…inner-ted-kooser/

ted-kooser.jpg

Verne Holoubek’s Road Less Traveled: How Harley Davidson, Printed T-Shirts, and the Counter-Culture Movement Helped this Former Nebraska Farm Boy Make Pop Culture History

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/09/the-road-less-traveled

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/goodwins-spencer…roaden-minds-too/

Freedom riders: A get on the bus inauguration diary

From the Archives: A Road Trip Sideways

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/21/get-on-the-bus-a…-ride-to-freedom/

Therman Statom works with children to create glass houses and more

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/glass-artist-the…kids-art-brigade

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    Linda Walker of Bay Shore, New York lifts her hand in prayer as President Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th president of the United States in Washington on Tuesday Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/ St. Petersburg Times, Martha Rial) ** TAMPA OUT. USA TODAY OUT. HERNANDO TODAY OUT. CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE OUT **

  • *
    Crowds gather on the National Mall in Washington for the swearing-in ceremony of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/polishing-gem-be…gem-of-the-ocean/

Back in the Day: Native Omaha Days is reunion, homecoming, heritage celebration and party all in one

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/back-in-the-day-…party-all-in-one/

 

photo

It’s a Hoops Culture at The SAL, Omaha’s Best Rec Basketball League

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/its-a-hoops-cult…asketball-league

Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/01/a-real-rootin-to…r-playing-cowboy

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/02/omahas-grand-old…-orpheum-theater

 

Alexander Payne’s Circuitous Journey to His Wine Country Film Comedy

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/28/from-the-archive…ntry-film-comedy

My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/my-midwest-baseball-odyssey-diary/

UNO Wrestling Retrospective – Way of the Warrior, House of Pain, Day of Reckoning

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/21/a-three-part-uno…day-of-reckoning/

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/04/the-downtown-box…se-of-discipline

Heart and Soul: Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter Keep it Real at the Downtown Boxing Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/09/28/heart-and-soul-k…town-boxing-club/

New school ringing in Liberty for students

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/new-school-ringi…rty-for-students

Bobby Bridger’s Rendezvous

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/bobby-bridgers-rendezvous

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/11/25/a-passion-for-co…ion-tara-kennedy

A Rosenblatt Tribute

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/19/a-rosenblatt-tribute/

 

ER, An Emergency Room Journal

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/16/er

Merciful Armies of the Night, A Ride-Along with Paramedics

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/16/merciful-armies-of-the-night

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/war-and-peace/

Bertha’s Battle: Bertha Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, struggles to keep the Great Plains Black History Museum afloat

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/berthas-battle

Favorite Sons: Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/favorite-sons-we…lse-little-italy/

Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/05/santa-lucia-festival/

 

Devotees hold fast to Latin rite

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/devotees-hold-fa…o-the-latin-rite/

Show goes on at Omaha Community Playhouse, where Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their start

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/04/the-show-goes-on/

From the Archives: Opera comes alive behind the scenes at Opera Omaha staging of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” starring Renee Fleming

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/26/from-the-archive…ing-rene-fleming

It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/it-was-a-differe…yards-remembered/

Separate Voices, Separate Lives: The Alien Abduction Chronicles

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/separate-voices-…ction-chronicles

Please join me for – Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light and buy new edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

July 15, 2016 2 comments

 

Cover Photo

Please join me for–

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light 

And buy new edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

Thursday, July 21 @ 7 p.m.
KANEKO, 1111 Jones St.
Tickets $10 General Admission. FREE for KANEKO Members

KANEKO hosts Academy Award winning director of photography Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career. Fiore’s filmography as a DP includes “Training Day,” “The A-Team,””Avatar” – for which he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography – and more recently “Real Steel,” “The Equalizer,””The Kingdom” and “Southpaw.” The Hollywood veteran is recognized for his skill with stylized light and realism. He’s collaborated with such major directors as Joe Carnahan, Michael Bay, James Cameron, Peter Berg and Antoine Fuqua. He and Fuqua have teamed on five features, the latest of which is the soon to release remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”

Fiore very much sees himself as a storyteller working in light and image to fulfill the vision of the writer and director.

The July 21 discussion will be moderated by yours truly. As an author-journalist-blogger I bring years of experience writing and reporting about film to the moderator’s chair. I am the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – a collection of my journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. I will be selling and signing a new edition of the book at the event.

The cost is $25.95.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16  FINAL BACK COVER 6-28-16

 

Strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” ––Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” charts the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s rise to the elite ranks of world cinema. Articles and essays take you deep inside the artist’s creative process. It is the most comprehensive look at Payne and his work to be found anywhere. This new edition features significant new content related to “Nebraska” and “Downsizng.” We have also added a Discussion Guide with Index for you film buffs and students. The book is also a great resource for more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.  The book releases September 1 from River Junction Press.

For inquiries and pre-orders, contact: leo32158@cox.net. Follow my work at–
leaoadambiga.com and www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light is a part of the Storytelling season at KANEKO June 3 – August 27. Learn more about the Storytelling exhibitions and programs at–
http://thekaneko.org/kaneko-programs/storytelling/

Hope to see you there.

 

MAURO FIORE: WRITING WITH LIGHT – Yours truly interviews Oscar-winning cinematographer live on stage at Kaneko


Mauro Fiore is Nebraska’s best-kept secret cinema success story:

The native of Calabria, Italy is one of three Oscar winners residing in Nebraska.

This A-list director of photography is married to an Omaha gal he met on set.

He works with leading Hollywood directors.

He has been the cinematographer for James Cameron on Avatar, Michael Bay on The Island, Joe Carnahan on The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, Peter Berg on The Kingdom and Wayne Wang on The Center of the World.

His collaborations with director Antoine Fuqua extend over five films, beginning with their breakout project, Training Day, followed by Tears of the SunThe Equalizer, Southpaw and coming this fall – The Magnificent Seven. Their work together is one of the longest-lived and most successful collaborations between a director and cinematographer in contemporary American cinema.

The art and craft of cinematography is the focus of the July 21 program at Kaneko in the Old Market. I will be interviewing Mauro live on stage for this Inside the Actors Studio-style event featuring clips from his stellar body of work.

Mauro’s journey in film encompasses 30 years. It began with a long apprenticeship. He paid his dues on low budget exploitaion films as a key grip, dolly grip, electrician and gaffer. He crewed on some make-wave films in the early 1990s, such as One False Move and Schindler’s List. His move into camera operating led to doing additional photography on a pair of Michael Bay mega-hits, The Rock and Armageddon. That led to Mauro getting the DP job for Bay’s The Island. He has sometimes worked with his close friend, mentor and colleague Janusz Kaminiski.

Mauro will discuss his approach to lighting sets and photographing scenes as an integral part of the storytelling process. He will also touch on his mentors, collaborators and inspirations. My conversation with Mauro will offer a rare, personal, behind-the-scenes look at how films actually get made and at what goes into capturing the arresting images, performances and physical action bits that entertain or move us and that in some cases become imprinted in our memory and imagination.

Link to my 2009 Reader cover story about Mauro at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

Link to a more recent Omaha Magazine piece i did on Mauro and his wife Christine at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/omaha-couple-mauro-and-christine…/

For event tickets, go to–

NOTE: Earlier on that same day, July 21, I will be presenting about my trip to Africa with world boxing champ Terence Crawford for the Omaha Press Club Noon Forum. For details, visit–
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/29/come-to-my-presentation-about-going-to-africa-with-terence-crawford-july-
MAURO FIORE: WRITING WITH LIGHT – Yours truly interviews Oscar-winning cinematographer live on stage at Kaneko, Omaha’s Old Market
Thursday, July 21, 2016,
KANEKO | 1111 Jones Street, 7:00 p.m..
Here is how Kaneko is touting the program:

KANEKO will host Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light on July 21 at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $10 for General Admission and FREE for KANEKO Members.

KANEKO will host Academy Award winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career as a filmmaker. Fiore has worked on numerous films including Training Day, The A-Team, and Avatar, for which he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. A veteran of the Holly film industry, Fiore is recognized for his skill with light and realism. The discussion will be moderated by professional writer and storyteller Leo Adam Biga, author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light is a part of the Storytelling season at KANEKO June 3 – August 27. Learn more about the Storytelling exhibitions and programs HERE.

 

Coming Home: Watie White’s public art installation tells stories of North Omaha home and family

February 7, 2013 1 comment

Art assumes the roles of anthropology, archaeology, and novelization in Omaha artist Watie White’s new public installation that features 30 magic realism narrative paintings adorning the windows of an abandoned North Omaha house.  Each image is based on artifacts left behind by the family that lived there to tell the stories of the home and its former residents.  The site of the project is a house at 2424 Emmett Street, smack dab in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  As soon as the installation is taken down plans call the house to be razed and a new one built in its place.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Home: Watie White‘s public art installation tells stories of North Omaha home and family

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On its face Watie White’s new public art project at an abandoned North Omaha house could be construed as a privileged white guy coming into the black community to impose his perceptions on that place and its people.

But that’s not the case with his All That Ever Was Always Is outdoor installation at 2424 Emmet Street. Enlarged digital prints of 30 narrative paintings he’s made cover the home’s windows. The house serves as a two-story, three-dimensional, wrap-around canvas for his true fiction portraits of the home’s former occupants. He invites viewers to bring their own interpretations to bear.

“I’m really interested in what the people who live next door or live down the block will think when they happen upon this big emotional and intellectual investment in an object that probably most people in this neighborhood don’t feel has much value,” he says. “Each perspective on this house tells its own story of what this house is.”

Don’t wait too long to see it though. Habitat for Humanity will raze the house in March and a Habitat-built new home will go up in its place. Before the century-old house is demolished he’ll disassemble the installation – windows, siding and all – for a future gallery show that he says “will be far more a rarified art experience.”

 

 

 

 

 

White’s paintings draw on interviews he did with neighbors, public record searches he and assistant Peter Cales made and a trove of personal artifacts harvested from the home, whose last residents were a black family named Smith. He and Cales also fashioned planters and benches from found objects there. The artists discovered a vast assemblage of strewn items inside that represent a tableaux of lives interrupted. In that suspended animation space White became the anthropologist his parents were.

“It’s like walking into somebody’s life,” says White. “This clearly was not cleaned up, not presented, not edited in any way, and so you walk in and you see all this stuff that feels unvarnished and truthful. They’re things that seem profound because we are reading something genuine about this person’s lived experience here, not things we were intended to see or a character they were playing, which for me makes it all the more intriguing. It becomes something you can trust a little bit because it’s not being catered to or tying to come across in a certain way.”

“All this trash and left belongings became really an incredible generator of content for the paintings themselves.”

He says the ephemera made the house an “active participant” to inform the narrative. Birth certificates, family photos, letters, journal entries and divorce papers helped him piece together four generations of history. He discovered the grandfather, Nathaniel Ware, was a Pullman Porter who moved the family up north from Mississippi. His daughter Janet Ware married Leonard Smith, an Omaha policeman. Janet was active at Salem Baptist Church. A daughter, Candice, followed her heart to Memphis. A son, Michael, may have been the last family member to reside at the Emmet address.

“He appears to have just left and walked away from everything before selling the house to Habitat,” White says of Smith.

What the materials didn’t reveal to White he extrapolated with the help of live models acting out back stories in his studio.

“I got a feeling for who I believe these people were, what they were like, but they’re more fictional characters. It’s more like writing a novel than doing a documentary.”

 

 

 

 

White purposely didn’t contact the Smith family to avoid being overly influenced. He has many questions for them, however. He’s inviting them to the opening, when he plans presenting them a chest made from recycled materials in the home that will contain the personal artifacts he salvaged.

His work also addresses urban legends attached to the house. For example, he says some neighbors “view it as a shameful place where bad things happened.” Allegedly it was crack house, though he found no supporting evidence. He hopes his project overturns neighbors’ own “narrative that they live in a shitty place to they live next to a place that has the potential to be an amazing thing.”

Viewers have no choice but to see White’s whimsical, soulful images in the context of the structure and its environment. Cales expects viewers to have triggered “that voyeuristic instinct in themselves to wonder what’s on the inside and to wonder about this community.”

“That curiosity breeds curiosity,” says White. “You interrupt the regular flow of life in an area by addressing creatively something that seems like a flaw or a blight and you shift it to make it not that. You change the perception of what that thing is or can be.”

“I think it’s important to bring people to the neighborhood to see the work in this context,” says Cales. “This is an area of the city that’s relegated to, ‘It’s a dangerous part you should never come to’”

“When you stop treating it as a place you have to shun or fear or stay away from then it’s a little less fearful and a little more welcoming,” White says.

Engaging at-risk populations with public art is something White learned under Chicago conceptual artist and radical educator Jim Duignan, whose Stockyard Institute White has a long association with. In preserving everyday people’s stories White does in images what the late iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel White did in words/ White. who moved to Omaha in 2006, often shows his work in Chicago.

For more about the artist visit watiewhite.com.

 Related articles

From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous route

April 1, 2012 1 comment

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.

NOTES: 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.

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

Nancy Duncan

 

 

From the Archives: Nancy Duncan’s journey to storytelling took circuitous 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.”

photo This former movie theater was the home of the children’s theater when Nancy led it.  It’s now an auction house.

 

 

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.

A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

March 31, 2011 3 comments

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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

©by Erin Reel from her blog site, The Lit Coach’s Guide to the Writer’s Life (http://thelitcoach.blogspot.com/)

The best blogs serve a purpose greater than sharing miscellaneous tid bits about the blogger’s day – they educate, inform, inspire, humor, enlighten – they share a unique perspective.

Today’s Blog That Works spotlight shines on Leo Adam Biga, Omaha‘s most prolific award-winning cultural journalist. Biga’s eclectic body of work spans from Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne (SidewaysAbout Schmidt) tofashion and film making to Warren Buffett and just about everything in between. Rather than collect his published pieces in files, unexposed to new readers, Biga collected his published work and archived them on his blog. Why? To gain new readers and showcase his body of work to prospective clients.

Here’s what Biga had to say:

“My blog is primarily intended as a showcase of my cultural journalism. I want the visitor to the site to experience it the way they would a gallery featuring my work. This exhibition or sampling quickly reveals my brand — “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” — as well as the scope of my work within that brand, which is quite broad and eclectic. The home page features 10 of my stories, each in their entirety, and those front page stories, which change every few days or weeks, consistently reflect the wide range of interests, subjects, and themes found on the blog. The blog is set up so that whether the visitor is on the home page or clicks on to any page featuring an individual story the entire inventory or index of stories on the blog is always accessible, organized by tags, categories, et cetera. Visitors can also search the site by using key words.

The blog is not monetized. So why do I repurpose my work in this way? Well, every writer likes to have his or her work read, therefore on one level I do it in order to find a new, perhaps larger audience for the stories. The blog is an excellent way for me to have an expanded Web presence. In addition to it, I have a LinkedIn site, a Google site, and a Facebook site, among others, most of them linked to each other. I also use the blog as a portfolio I refer contacts and prospective clients to.” 

And Leo tells me showcasing his body of work blog style has allowed those interested in hiring Biga for new writing gigs has allowed them to get a good feel for his writing. He’s received more offers to write than if he hadn’t set up the blog as his massive online writing brochure.

Leo goes on to say, “The real satisfaction I suppose comes in having a public gallery of my work, even if it only is a small sampling of it, that I can refer or direct people to or that people can discover all on their own. In fact, it appears as if the vast majority of visitors to my site end up there by virtue of Web searches they do and their finding links to my blog as part of the search results that come up. Because I have so many stories out there on so many different topics my blog shows up as part of an endless variety of searches. It’s also kind of fun to have people I wrote about, in some cases years ago, find stories I did about them and contact me, reliving old times or bringing me up to date with what they’re doing today. ”

Check out Leo’s blog. There really is something for every reader.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan: Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

 

 

Harry Duncan

 

 

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

 

Image result for nancy duncan story

    Image result for nancy duncan story

 

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction Explores Moral Struggles


Seated man reading a book

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

Word for word, phrase for phrase, thought for thought, there may be no better American writer of the last quarter century than Ron Hansen, an Omaha native whose body of work is impressive for its breadth and depth.  He is perhaps best know for two of his earliest novels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy.  I’ve had the pleasure of reading those and other novels by Hansen, who has graciously given me a handful of interviews over the years.  As time goes by I will post other Hansen stories I’ve written.  This one appeared not long after the release of his Hitler’s Niece and while he was adapting an unproduced screenplay of his into a book, Isn’t it Romantic?.  His sheer command of language is astounding.  His research and detail overwhelming.  He’s also a fine storyteller.  Then when you add to this the spiritual themes and currents that occupy him in real life, and you have a rich reading experience.

My story appeared in the Omaha Weekly, one of at least three different publications that’s published my Hansen work.

 

 

 

 

Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction RExplores Moral Struggles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Whether exploring the worlds of saints or sinners, real moral questions and struggles swirl at the heart of author Ron Hansen’s work, which reflects this devout Catholic’s abiding interest in faith. His novels are explorations in the ethical choices characters make and the consequences that ensue. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Knopf, 1983) Hansen essayed the kinship and treachery of an outlaw family. In Mariette in Ecstasy (Harper-Collins, 1992) he chronicled a young novitiate’s ardent love for God growing so intense that it overwhelms her mind, her body and the convent she becomes a curiosity and outcast in.

 

 

 

In Atticus (Harper-Collins, 1996) he brooded on the legacy of a strained father-son relationship, the futility of ever fully knowing someone and the nature of forgiveness. In Hitler’s Niece (Harper-Collins, 1999) he examined the brewing evil of Hitler in the 1920s and early ‘30s through the prism of the only woman the despot ever loved — the fuhrer’s young and innocent niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal, who was destroyed by her uncle.

In his life and in his work, Hansen, an Omaha native, seeks the spark of some connection with the sacred and the ethereal. It gives him sustenance and constitutes his muse. “Some of my favorite moments are late nights with other people talking about miraculous experiences in their lives or times when they felt the hand of God or the solace of God and they learned more about themselves or about God’s benign mercy,” he said in an interview during a recent Omaha visit to deliver the William F. Kelley, S.J. Endowed Lecture at his alma mater, Creighton University. “Those things are kind of ways of inspiring you and bucking you up. It’s a way of becoming aware of another world that’s totally unseen.”

It was while struggling with Atticus that Hansen felt the healing presence of God.

“I’d been working on Atticus and it was going badly,” he said. “This was back in 1985. I’d written like 120 pages that were rotten. I was in Cancun — throwing rocks into the ocean late at night as the waves were crashing in. I was really angry about my book and about the hard time I was having finding a teaching job. I was feeling really awful. I was full of self-pity. And I thought, What’s going to become of me? And then I just had an incredible sense of God laughing. It was a sense of Him saying, If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so worried. And I realized it was all going to come out all right, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. I just had this feeling of calm. Almost everybody has the same experience when they have this kind of God moment. You just feel at ease about things. So, I put the book away and started other books.

“I went back to it and it was terrible still. And I just kept going back to it. And then, finally, when Mariette was published I had one book left on a two book contract and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to this one (Atticus).’ It took me a long time to rewrite it. I kept trying to use the words I used already. But it was almost like somebody else had written that. I was not that person anymore. I finally gave up on that and started writing totally new words, and then it worked fine. I found that sense of God smiling and saying — Take it easy, kid — made me take it easy.”

According to Hansen, the writing process itself is a somewhat mysterious and metaphysical experience that finds the writer drawing on resources he is not always fully aware of or in control of. “Writing well is a form of a waking dream,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that happens when you’re in a dream state. Images start to occur. You don’t know where they come from. And you try and fit them together. Often, you have a mental picture of something and you see characters in relationship to each other, but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say to each other. And sometimes that’s where the zest comes — when you hear something surprising and just right that comes from one of them. Part of it is because it’s really your subconscious that seems to be writing the novel at its best. It’s your conscious mind that revises it, but it’s the subconscious that supplies all the scintillating details — the colorations you could not have thought of yourself.”

Whether it’s the spirit or the subconscious moving him, Hansen said, it is no accident these voices speak to him because he is open to the possibility of such a communion happening in the first place. “Partly, I think it’s because I want these things to happen, and some people don’t want them to happen. They might get spooked by them. It’s part of the writer’s equipment to seek out those experiences and to live them fully. And other people are maybe more guarded and maybe necessarily so, so they can’t be as available to that sort of thing. I always describe a writer’s life as being different from others in that some people kind of have venetian blinds that are closed and the writer’s are open, so that everything can come in. And that’s what makes writers go crazy. That’s what makes them obsessive and everything else. But it’s also one of the things they need to do.”

If creative writing flows out of some deep well fed by intuitive streams, then it is easier to appreciate how something like a novel comes into being as a complex and coherent whole from a seemingly disparate and random collection of ideas, themes, issues, preoccupations, incidents, places and characters. The way Hansen sees it, a novel only reaches its final shape after the novelist has played a game of sleuth with himself and all the narrative threads dangling from his imagination. He said for most of the writing process the novelist is only aware of bits and pieces of what the book will eventually comprise — discovering the contents as he goes along. During that creative journey, the writer must be ready and willing to go in many directions and to follow many leads, some of which may be dead ends. It is only in searching out and sifting through the many loose story strands, that the nut of the novel is finally revealed and its elements tied together.

“Well, it’s as if an alphabet exists and you don’t know all the letters to the alphabet,” he said. “You might know A, J, L and Z, and with that foundation you then have to fill in all the rest. It’s like when scholars tried to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had a few words that they knew and then they’d go from there. I think the same thing is true with writing a novel. You know, for example, certain things about it and then you have questions about other things, and then the questions will reveal things as you write the novel. Knowing a few things gives you the confidence that you can actually lay it all out there.

“But you’re still kind of writing in the dark no matter how well you plan. There’s all kinds of spontaneity that comes into the novel. There’s all kinds of surprises and wrong turns that you can take. So, you have to be disciplined enough to kind of say, This is tangential or doesn’t belong, or, I did this badly, or, Maybe I don’t need this scene after all, or, This character doesn’t belong in this novel — he belongs somewhere else. All kinds of changes happen in the process of writing. It’s part of the fascination but part of the drudgery as well.”

Now that Hansen has created a fairly large body of work, he finds himself running up against the same dilemma a writer friend of his faced a while ago. “I don’t think it’s legal anymore, but a friend of mine got a tax write off by claiming his creative ideas were being diminished year by year. He was actually able to depreciate his intellectual capital. And, he was right. How many ideas can you have, you know? In my own writing, there’s all kind of metaphors I can’t use anymore because I’ve used them already. Characters I can’t have. Situations…Certainly, Stephen King has shown you can exhaust your own ideas.”

For Hansen, “part of the interest” and the challenge of writing is tapping his inner being to better understand himself and the world he inhabits and interprets. It is an ongoing search for answers — much akin to the spiritual journey that Hansen, who has a master’s degree in Spirituality, has taken. It is a journey, he said, that has no end. “Yeah, I don’t think anybody ever reaches a stopping point or, at least, they shouldn’t. I mean, God isn’t knowable but you learn a little bit more and more and you learn a little bit more about yourself. I guess I don’t really know myself very well. I think I know who I was 10 years ago and I can look back at the past and understand everything about myself, whereas in my present circumstances I’m just poking around like everybody else.”

As far as injecting himself into his work, he avoids drawing closely on his own life. “I’m not very good at autobiographical writing,” he said. “The only time I ever really write autobiographically is when I write nonfiction (as in his new book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Harper-Collins, 2001). I want to have my anima come through in my fiction rather than who I am right now or who I seem to be.” He also knows himself well enough to shy away from certain projects that are not a good fit. “In terms of my strengths and weaknesses, there are some types of writing I wouldn’t attempt and some kind I know I have a propensity toward. There’s certain novels that won’t ever suggest themselves to me because I know I’d do them badly. Among the genres I could never do are fantasy and science fiction because I just don’t have that yen to do them. On the other hand, I like historical writing.”

In much of his historical writing, which ranges from the misadventures of the Dalton gang in Desperados (Knopf, 1979) and the machinations of the James gang in Jesse James to the unholy union of Hitler and Geli Raubal in Hitler’s Niece, Hansen has been drawn to outlaw figures. He said a beguilement with practitioners of left-handed forms of human endeavor is a natural for writers, who share an outsider’s perspective with the lawless, the rebellious and the fringe dwellers of the world.

“Outlaws are in some way marginalized, but also they live outside the world of convention. I think most writers, too, feel marginalized in some way and they feel they live outside conventional rules and boundaries. It doesn’t mean they’re all breaking windows. I think what it means is that the way most people live their lives is unfamiliar to the writer because it has to be,” he said. “I think most writers begin wanting to be writers because they feel like, Oh, I’m different, and they feel somehow they don’t fit into the normal pattern of things, and so consequently they have a sympathy toward outlaws. There’s a tendency among writers to feel like these guys (outlaws) are just misguided writers. Also, I think a lot of outlaws are really control freaks in their own way. And I think writers are, too. They want to form their own world and have complete control over all the characters in it. That’s what happens to a lot of outlaws, and that’s why they keep running up against the law.”

In his literary sojourns Hansen plumbs the depths of his conflicted characters’ souls, whose shadows and secrets are revealed in a world come unhinged by sudden shifts in the terra firma. Hansen said his own world view has taken on certain fatalistic shadings as the result of dramatic losses and reversals he has observed in people’s lives. “A good of friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a kid and another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was older,” he said. “And you realize it all can change in an instant.” He feels literature is fertile ground for playing out in the mind’s eye how one might react to such dire events in real life. “I think writing is a way of being precautionary,” he said. “It’s a way, like in dreams, where you kind of forecast a situation you wouldn’t want happen and see how you would respond to it. So, in some ways, it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for tragedy. You have some kind of preparation and a sense of calm at a point where you otherwise panic.”

In the case of writing Hitler’s Niece, Hansen was compelled not so much by a desire to imagine himself struggling in the web of evil but by a desire to weave an historically-based story that offered up a cautionary tale about the dangerous lure of evil. He explained how and why he came to devote months of his life to researching the book. “I was reading a biography of Hitler and in there the author said that Geli Raubal was the only woman Hitler ever loved or would ever consider marrying and that Eva Braun, who we know much more about, was just a kind of mistress he had sex with. Hitler used to say to his secretary that Eva was ‘a woman I have at my disposal.’ And, of course, it’s symptomatic of Hitler that he would commit suicide the day after his wedding.”

For Hansen, the real attraction to telling Geli’s story, which is also pre-war Germany’ story, was that she “knew Hitler when all his evil and his power was incipient — when he was just a failed politician and a guy who made his money from giving speeches, but did nothing else. That he was a person she really couldn’t imagine doing all the things he ended up doing was fascinating to me. And, also, it became a kind of moral lesson of how we get sucked in by evil. Of how a poor girl becomes a groupie, essentially, to her uncle. And how he sucks her in and imprisons her with blandishments and how for awhile she tries to turn away from the bad side of her uncle. But then she realizes that this isn’t just a cranky guy with terrible ideas about Jews, but that he’s crazy and dangerous and she tries to escape, and that’s how she dies.”

According to Hansen, part of what he tried to do with Hitler’s Niece was help readers understand “how Germany could fall for” Hitler’s repugnant diatribe and help turn his doctrine of hate into a nationalistic movement. He hopes that lesson gives us pause in considering our leaders today. “As a famous quotation goes, ‘The only reason to write history is to give lessons for the future,’” he said. “So, all we can do is identify those qualities in a political leader that could lead to a Hitler. I think people like Hitler make a deliberate choice for evil, but they disguise it as well as they can. So, Hitler would come across to most people who knew him as incredibly charming and suave. People get deluded. I think we have politicians today who are like that. If you met them you would say, Oh, what a wonderful guy, yet you know down deep there’s a kernel in there that in many ways is opposed to what is right.”

A moral universe filled with choices pervades Hansen’s thinking and writing. How his faith colors his work is something he frequently addresses in lectures and essays. In his April 7 talk at the Alpha Sigma Nu Dinner at Creighton University, he delivered a lecture entitled “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real — The Catholic Way,” part of whose title he took from a quote by another famous Catholic author, the late Flannery O’Connor, who said it is the obligation of a writer to be in hot pursuit of the real. On the eve of his talk, Hansen explained what he hoped to convey: “I’m trying to talk about not only how one finds one’s vocation as a writer, but how being a Catholic that might be somewhat different than it is if you were a Jewish writer or a Protestant writer. I’m trying to identify those kinds of characteristics. I talk about my faith and how it affected me. For instance, growing up with the Catholic liturgies, the reverence for saints, the sacramentality, the sense of God being imminent but being distant — all those things helped my formation as a writer.”

Outside his faith, among the strongest influences on his writing have been the teachers in his life. While attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he came under the sphere of noted American author John Irving, with whom he lived. “I learned from him how to live the life of a writer,” Hansen said. “How to keep on producing books, how to be focused, how to be disciplined, how to manage a life while writing.” Over a period of four summers at a writers conference in Vermont, Hansen found a mentor in the late John Gardner. “I really liked him as a teacher. He was a very generous person with his time and with his intelligent reading of your manuscripts. I kind of modeled myself as a teacher after him.” And at Stanford University Hansen became a devoted student of John L’Hereaux’s, who years before as a fiction editor at Atlantic Monthly gave Hansen “the first sign I had that maybe I could do this (write professionally). He was the person who helped me with my first novel, Desperadoes.”

Teaching, which is how Hansen has supported his writing the last couple decades, enriches his work as well. “There’s that old saying, How will I know what I think until I see what I say. And teaching gives you all kinds of opportunities to say things that you might not normally address,” said Hansen, a tenured professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University. “Just as writing workshops allow  students to see all the different ways a story can go wrong, which will help them avoid those mistakes, the same is true for the teacher. I’ve read thousands of stories in class, and so I’ve seen the ways stories go wrong — so I don’t make those mistakes.” He said for some writers teaching “can have a stultifying effect in that you expend so much of your energy addressing other people’s writing problems that you feel like you’ve written yourself and you don’t do a lot of writing. But that’s not true for me. I do all my work for school at school and all my own work at home, and I don’t let them infiltrate. And dealing with young people who are full of energy about the writing process can be energizing as well.”

Hansen, who never signs a contract until a book is done (“It gives me more freedom.”) is now adapting an unproduced screenplay he co-wrote into a book. “I don’t know if it’s a novella or a novel. I know the dialogue works and the situations are funny, but I don’t think the tone is exactly right. It’s about a French couple who have the bad idea of traveling through the United States as tourists on a bus. They get waylaid in a small town in Nebraska where they’re taken on as kind of mascots for the festival held there. It’s full of misunderstandings and sliding doors and French farce.” Nebraska has figured prominently in several Hanson short stories, most notably in the collection of stories published as Nebraska. He said having some distance from his roots helps him write about them. “I don’t think I could write about Nebraska while living in Nebraska. It’s easier when you’re away from home, partly because it becomes the Nebraska of your imagination, which is much more interesting than the real thing.”

Storytelling


Debbie reading to children during Lapsit Story...

Image by San Jose Library via Flickr

The late Nancy Duncan had such a passion for oral storytelling that I felt compelled to write about this form she was a master practitioner of time and again. Nancy was a professional storyteller who was active in various storytelling circles locally, regionally, and nationally.  On this same blog you can find my article about Nancy, Her Final Story, which details her use of storytelling to chart her dying process.  As time allows I will eventually add to this site an earlier profile I did of Nancy, as well as other articles I did about the storytelling festival she helped organize in Omaha.  The following piece is about that storytelling festival and about the art and craft of storytelling itself.  I couldn’t have written it without Nancy’s input and expertise.  Reading it, you’ll get a sense for her boundless energy and passion. The story originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, which is no longer with us.  Although Nancy is gone, too, her spirit very much lives on.

Storytelling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

How subversive can you get in this digital-electronic age? Well, consider storytelling festivals, where tellers from near and far gather to recount real-life dramas, chronicle fanciful deeds and spin chilling ghost tales, all without aid of sets, video images, recorded music, computer graphics or special effects. When the yarns start unraveling, an ancient oral tradition is rejoined in an unadorned celebration of the spoken word made story.

More than a diversion for children, storytelling is a traditional art and craft, a communal form of heralding, a personal means of expression and a life-affirming educational/healing tool. Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.

Once upon a time, telling stories was the primary means for people to interpret and pass-on their heritage. “Everybody used to tell stories, but within each oral society or culture one person was designated to be the story carrier and that person would be someone like Homer who memorized it and kept it all inside of them. That role was primarily given to women, but then, when it became a sacred role, men co-opted it. The priests became the storytellers,” said Nancy Duncan, a storyteller in Omaha, Neb. She is an organizer of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival and a Pied Piper for the art form in the state.

With the advent of publishing, storytelling became proprietary. “When stories were oral, they belonged to everybody,” Duncan said, “but then along came the printing press and stories then belonged to authors, so there became this distancing.” Still, the oral tradition flourished in pockets, especially the American South, where Duncan, a native Georgian, grew-up spellbound by her father’s and maternal grandmother’s tales. Today, the oral tradition survives, but only for special occasions, like family reunions or festival, or in designated places, like schools or libraries, or in reconfigured forms, like talk therapy.

 

 

 

 

The Nebraska Festival, along with similar events in other states, have sprung up amid a general storytelling revival sparked by the success of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people are starved to hear stories again or for the first time. “Some come because they just miss the stories in their lives. It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories. Some never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear. They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are. They validate us. It’s like identity maintenance.”

In an era when so much human exchange occurs in isolated, impersonal ways, Duncan said storytelling provides an intimate and interactive experience that is part organic and part mystical. “You don’t tell stories into the wind. You tell stories to people. Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen. It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience. The audience makes the story in their minds. They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives. So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story. And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding. It’s like going on a journey together to a different place. It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny. It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging. It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.” When a teller connects with an audience, she said it is practically transcendental. “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or into an event that they are trance-inducing. The audience goes off with you. You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces. They’re eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack. It’s as though they are dreaming.”

The enduring appeal of storytelling may be rooted deep inside us: “It seems genetically programmed into human beings to think in story. We story everything that happens to us and, if we don’t, we forget it. Storytelling is the most efficient way to think about anything and to not just think about it but to help us understand our experiences. So, in that way, it’s the essence of history. It’s also a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem. It’s very healthy,” she said.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in March Duncan (who had a mastectomy and is now undergoing chemotherapy) has been crafting a story dealing with her illness. “I want it to be a very funny story because breast cancer is very funny, really, and very tragic, but at the same time transformational. I mean, I can feel already changes happening in me because of this. And it’s all based in the community of people out there, like me, with cancer. We have a relationship other people don’t have.” Frankford, Mo. resident Gladys Coggswell, a national teller at the Nebraska Festival, was plagued by nightmares from a childhood assault and only found peace in the stories her great-grandmother and, later, her husband told her. “Stories helped me survive some of the crises in my life by making me feel connected to the world and helping me know I was not alone in my pain,” she said.

In addition to healing qualities, there is anecdotal evidence storytelling is an effective medium for captivating students as learners and readers. Both the International Reading Association and the American Library Association advocate storytelling as educational tools. This spring and summer Nancy Duncan is conducting workshops with Omaha Public Library children’s librarians and media specialists to develop their storytelling skills. A workshop participant, South Omaha Branch Children’s Librarian Linda Garcia, said, “Children’s response” to storytelling “is unbelievable. Once they’ve tasted one or two stories, we get them hooked” on reading. Storyteller Lucille Saunders, a retired Omaha Public Schools teacher and a part-time media specialist today, said, “I’ve discovered that by using the techniques of storytelling  — voice, gestures, eye-contact — I can more easily engage students in the lesson. It’s more interesting for them. It gets their attention.”

 

 

 

Not all stories are welcome. Duncan said she is banned from performing in two area school districts by fundamentalist-controlled school boards who fear her sometime storytelling alter ego, Baba Yaga, a cranky but wise witch adapted from Russian literature. “A lot of people are afraid of any stories dealing with the dark side. But the consequences they talk about are important for young people to learn.” To gauge what audiences might accept or reject, she tells test stories. “If they’ll go with me on those stories, they’ll go anywhere.” Duncan, who conducts school residencies, finds some youths today lack the active listening and imagination skills stories demand. She feels these “lost kids” are overweaned on TV. “Their bodies and brains are programmed for something to go either bleep or bloop every two minutes. They’re jittery and wiggly. They look away. They show no affect during the story. They don’t even have the ability to visualize. It’s tragic because if they can’t imagine, how can they make moral choices?” She is encouraged, however, by how well most kids respond, including some budding young tellers now performing in public. Among them is Sarah Peters, 13, a student at Platteview Central Junior High School. Peters, who will be telling at the Nebraska festival for the fifth time, enjoys creating stories based on real-life incidents — like fishing outings turned survival tests by flooding river waters — only embellished a little. What does Peters like best about telling? “I like coming up with stories of my own and knowing when I tell one of my stories to people they can pass that on to other people.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more reverberation it has. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students (“thinking rebels”) to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors. To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.” Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives. “This time, the adults were in tears. The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection. They wanted to known each other better.” Unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller. According to Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story. You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling. You can’t separate the teller from the story. That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”

Among the featured tellers at this weekend’s Nebraska Festival: diminutive Don Doyle, of Mesa, AZ, tells stories from the Celtic tradition; Kentuckian Mary Hamilton draws on folktales from her family’s deep roots in the Blue Grass state; Bill Harley, a Seekonk, MA resident and commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, is known for his humorous children’s tales and songs; Denver’s Pat Mendoza finds inspiration for his stories and songs in his eclectic adventures as a Vietnam veteran, exp-cop and Kung fu teacher and his Irish-Scottish-Cuban-East Indian background; and Corrine Stavish, of Southfield, Mich., is a noted teller of Jewish folktales. Other scheduled performers include a state senator, a family counselor, a poet laureate, a high school student and several mother-daughter teams. Anyone with a hankering to tell can weave a yarn during the swapping session and anyone wanting pointers can attend workshops and coaching sessions. Perhaps the most popular program is Friday’s 9:30-11:30 p.m. Ghosting on the hillside facing the Administration Building.

As far as Duncan is concerned, “storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world. It’s not just for children. It’s for anyone. We all have valuable stories to share.”

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

June 19, 2010 8 comments

Mark Twain

Image via Wikipedia

Roger Welsch is a born storyteller and there’s nothing he enjoys more than holding sway with his spoken or written words, drawing the audience or reader in, with each inflection, each permutation, each turn of phrase. He’s a master at tone or nuance. New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt and I visited Welsch at his rural abode, and then into town at the local pub/greasy spoon, where we scarfed down great burgers and homemade root beer. All the while, Welsch kept his variously transfixed and in stitches with his tales.

On this blog you’ll find Welsch commenting about his longtime friend and former Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett in my piece, “Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett.” Welsch shares some humorous (naturally) anecdotes about the talk show host’s penchant for showing up unannounced and getting lost in those rural byways that Welsch lovingly describes in his writing.

 

Author, humorist, folklorist Roger Welsch tells the stories of the American soul and soil

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

It’s been years since Roger Welsch, the author, humorist and folklorist, filed his last Postcard from Nebraska feature for CBS’s Sunday Morning program. Every other week the overalls-clad sage celebrated, in his Will Rogersesque manner, the absurd, quixotic, ironic, sublime and poetic aspects of rural life.

That doesn’t mean this former college prof, who’s still a teacher at heart, hasn’t been staying busy since his Postcard days ended. He’s continued his musings in a stream of books (34 published thus far), articles, essays, talks and public television appearances that mark him as one of the state’s most prolific writers and speakers.

In 2006 alone he has three new books slated to be out. Each displays facets of his eclectic interests and witty observations. Country Livin’ is a “guide to rural life for city pukes.” Weed ‘Em and Reap: A Weed Eater Reader is “a narrative about my interest in wild foods, a kind of introduction to lawn grazing and a generous supply of reasons to avoid lawn care,” he said. My Nebraska is his “very personal” love song to the state. “I believe in Nebraska. I love this place for what it is and not for what people think it ought to be,” he said. “I hate it when the DED (Department of Economic Development) tries to fill people full of bullshit about Nebraska. Nebraska’s great as it is. You don’t have to make up anything. You don’t have to put up an arch across the highway to charm people.”

In the tradition of Mark Twain and William Faulkner, Welsch mines an authentic slice of rural American life, namely the central Nebraska village of Dannebrog that he and artist wife Linda moved to 20 years ago, to inform his fictional Bleaker County. Drawing from his experiences there, he reveals the unique, yet universal character of this rural enclave’s people, dialect, humor, rituals and obsessions.

Roger Welsch on his beloved farm

 

 

He’s also stayed true to his own quirky sensibilities, which have seen him: advocate for the benefits of a weed diet; fall in love with a tractor; preserve, by telling whenever he can, the tall tales of settlers; wax nostalgic over sod houses; serve as friend and adopted member of Indian tribes; and obsess over Greenland.

The only child of a working class family in Lincoln, Neb., he followed a career path as a college academician. His folklore research took him around the Midwest to unearth tales from descendants of Eastern European pioneers and Plains Indians. He lived in a series of college towns. By the early ‘70s he held tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then, he turned his back on a “cushy” career and lifestyle to follow his heart. To write from a tree farm on the Middle Loup River outside Dannebrog. To be a pundit and observer. People thought he was nuts.

“I walked away from an awfully good job at the university. People work all their lives to get a full professorship with tenure and…nobody could believe it when I said I’m leaving. ‘Are you crazy? For what?’ And, it’s true, I had nothing out here,” he said from an overstuffed shed that serves as an office on the farm he and Linda share with their menagerie of pets. “I was just going to live on my good looks, as I said, and then everybody laughed. That was before CBS came along.”

Before the late Charles Kuralt, the famed On the Road correspondent, enlisted Welsch to offer his sardonic stories about country life in Nebraska, things were looking bleak down on the farm. “We weren’t making it out here,” Welsch said. “I told Linda, ‘The bad news is, we’re not making it, and the even worse news is I’m still not going back.’ And about that point, Kuralt came along.”

No matter how rough things got, Welsch was prepared to stick it out. Of course, the CBS gig and some well-received books helped. But even without the nice paydays, he was adamant about avoiding city life and the halls of academia at all costs. What was so bad about the urban-institutional scene? In one sense, the nonconformist Welsch saw the counterculture of the ’60s he loved coming to an end. And that bummed him out. He also didn’t like being hemmed in by bureaucratic rules and group-think ideas that said things had to be a certain way.

His chafing at mindless authority extended to the libertarian way he ran his classroom at UNL and the free range front lawn he cultivated in suburbia.

“I was a hippie in the ‘60s and I really got excited teaching hippies because they didn’t give a didly damn what the bottomline was. They just wanted to learn whatever was interesting. You didn’t have to explain anything. I never took attendance. I’d have people coming in to sit in on class who weren’t enrolled, and I loved that. I hated grades. Because I figured, you’re paying your money. I’m collecting the money and I deliver. Now, what you do with that, why should I care? It’s none of my business,” he said. “The guy at the grocery store doesn’t say, Now I’ll sell you this cabbage, but I want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

Welsch said the feedback he got from students made him realize how passionate he was about teaching. On an evaluation a student noted, “‘Being in Welsch’s class isn’t like being in a class at all. It’s like being in an audience.’ I asked a friend, ‘Is that an insult or a compliment?’ ‘Well, Rog, actually being in your class isn’t like being in a class or in an audience. It’s like being in a congregation.’ And I thought, Oh, man, that’s it — I’m a preacher, not a teacher. It really is evangelism for me.”

“By the ‘80s they (university officials) wanted to know how they were going to make money out of the popular classes I taught. I said, ‘I have no idea. It’s not my problem. All I’m doing is telling them (students) what I know.’ So, there was that.”

Then there was the matter of UNL selling out, as he saw it, its academic integrity to feed the ravenous and untouchable football program, which he calls “a cancer.”

“I was and still am extremely disillusioned with the university becoming essentially an athletic department. Everything else is in support of the athletic department. And that breaks my heart, because I love the university. There was that.”

But what really set him off on his rural idyll was the 1974 impulse purchase he made of his 60-acre farm. He bought it even as it lay buried under snow.

“So, I bought it without ever really seeing the ground, but it was exactly what I wanted. I loved the river. I loved the frontage on the river. Then spring came and the more the snow melted…it was better than I thought….There are wetlands and lots of willow islands. The wildlife is just incredible. We’ve had a (mountain) lion down here and wolves just north of here.”

 

 

 

 

He used the place as a retreat from the city for several years. Each visit to the farm, with its original log cabin house, evoked the romantic in him, stirring thoughts of the people that lived there and worked the land. “That’s what I love about old lumber…the ghosts.” By the mid-’80s, he couldn’t stand just visiting. He wanted to stay. “I told Linda, ‘One of these days you’re going to have to send the highway patrol out, because I won’t come home. I can’t spend the rest of my life wanting to be here and living in Lincoln.’” Their move to the farm “really wasn’t so much getting away from anything as it was wanting to get out here.”

Then, too, it’s easier to be a bohemian in isolation as opposed to civilization.

“My life is a series of stories, so I have to tell you a story,” he said. “In my hippie days, I really got interested in wild plants and wild foods. As part of my close association with Native Americans, I was spending a lot of time with the Omahas up in Macy (Neb.). I was learning a lot of things from the Indians and, well, I was bringing home a lot of plants that I wanted to see grow, mature, go to seed and become edible. Milkweed and arrowhead and calimus. I got more and more into it. I loved the sounds and flowers and foods coming from my yard.

“One day, I come home to find a notice on my door that my lawn’s been condemned and I have six days to remove all ‘worthless vegetation.’ So, I invite the city weed inspector over to show me what’s worthless. He said, ‘OK, what about that white stuff over there?’ He didn’t even know the names of the plants. And I said, ‘Well, we had that for lunch.’ ‘How ‘bout that?’ ‘That’s supper.”

Welsch said, “As I started looking at this, I found out people were nuts. Anything over six inches high in Lincoln was a weed. The county weed board was spraying both sides of all county roads with diesel fuel and 24D. That’s essentially Agent Orange. They were laying waste to everything. Strawberries, arrowhead, cattails. So, I ran for the weed board on a pro-weed ticket. About this same time, Kuralt was coming through Nebraska. He asked somebody if anything going on in Nebraska might make a good story for his On the Road series. And whoever he asked, God bless ‘em, said, ‘Yeah, there’s a crackpot in Lincoln…’ So, Kuralt called me up and came over to the house with his van and his crew, which eventually became my crew. We sat down and had a huge weed salad and walked around and talked about weeds. And he had me on his On the Road. Well, then over the years every time he came through Nebraska he stopped. I kept a file of any stories I thought were interesting that he might use. That was my way of luring him to Lincoln.”

 

 

Charles Kuralt

 

 

The two men became fast friends and colleagues.

“We always went out to eat and drink. He loved to drink and I do, too. We would just have a good time. He used me for six more On the Road programs, for one thing or another. I tried to then steer him to other things — the jackalope in Wyoming and stuff like that. We got to be really good friends. When he started hosting Sunday Morning, he asked me to watch the show. He called me up and told me he wanted to bring the culture of New York City to towns like Dannebrog.”.

By the time Kuralt next passed through Nebraska to see Welsch, the author was giving a talk before a gathering of the West Point, Neb. chamber of commerce. What Kuralt heard helped him change the course of Sunday Morning and Welsch’s career. “He walked in the back of the room and listened to the program. We drove back to my place and he said, ‘You know, you said about 13 things we could use on Sunday Morning. What we need to do is to take the culture of a little town like Dannebrog and show it to New York City. So, that’s essentially how we got together. He originally thought about doing Postcards from America, where he had somebody (reporting) in every state. It got to be too expensive. I had six or seven years all by myself (with Postcards from Nebraska) before they added Maine. Then, by the time he went off the road, he gave me his old crew. They were like family. It was a great 13 years I was on that show. We had an awful lot of fun.”

Two years into Postcard, Welsch said Kuralt confided, “I thought we’d be lucky to get six stories out of Nebraska.” Ultimately, Welsch said, “we did over 200.”

What Welsch found in the course of, as he describes it, “my rural education,” and what he continues discovering and sharing with others, is a rich vein of human experience tied to the land, to the weather and to community. He’s often written and spoken about his love affair with the people and the place.

When friend and fellow Lincoln High classmate Dick Cavett asked him on national television — Why do you live in a small town? — Welsch replied: “In Lincoln academic circles everybody around me is the same. They’re all professors. In suburbia, everybody pretty much has the same income. But in Dannebrog, I sit down for breakfast and converse with the banker, the town drunk, the most honest man in town, a farmer, a carpenter and my best friend.” What Cavett and viewers didn’t know is Welsch was talking about his best friend Eric, who’s “been all those things. That private joke aside,” Welsch added, “the spirit of what I said is the truth.”

In his book It’s Not the End of the Earth, But You Can See it from Here, Welsch opines: “I like so many writers…have come to appreciate the power of what seems at first blush to be some pretty ordinary folks doing some pretty ordinary things. There is a widespread perception that small town life moves without color, without variety, without interest…but that has certainly not been my experience. My little town is like an extended family. There are my favorite uncles. A mean cousin or two. Some kin I barely see and do not miss. And some I can never get enough of.” It took leaving the city for the small town to find “the variety I love so much. The American small town seethes with ideas and humor, with friendship and contention, with wit and warmth, with silliness and depravity.”

He finds among the people there an inexhaustible store of knowledge to draw from, both individually and collectively, whether in the stories they tell or in the jokes they crack or in the observations they make. “It amazes me how much people out here know,” he said. “I came to love the land and its river so much. I was drawn inexorably to this rural countryside. But the land was the least of it. The real attraction…is the people. As I got to know the people in town, it just really blew me away. I love the people. It’s a cast of characters.”

“When I did It’s Not the End of the Earth I got mail from everywhere, with people saying, ‘I know what town you’re talking about…I live there in Pennsylvania,’ or, ‘I was in that same Texas town you write about.’ It’s the same cast of characters everywhere.” His characters may be fictional, but they’re extracted from real life. “There is no CeCe, no Slick, no Woodrow, no Lunchbox…and yet, I hope you will recognize them because they are not only people I have known, they are people you have known…In fact, if you are at all like me, they are people you have been.”

As he found out long ago in his folklore studies, there is a beauty, a charm and a value in the common or typical, which, as it turns out, is not common or typical at all. Like any storyteller, his joy is in the surprises he finds and gives to others.

“It’s not just me being surprised, but the pleasure I take in surprising other people,” he said. “I like to tell them, ‘Hey, guess what?’ And there are so many surprises. Every week out here when we turn on television to listen to the weather, there’s a new record set — record highs, record lows, record change, record snowfall, record draught. That means we don’t know anything yet. We haven’t the foggiest notion what this place is like. We still don’t know what the parameters are of this place. And as long as it keeps amazing me like that…”

The amazing stories he compiles keep coming. Like the woman who left an elegant life behind in Copenhagen to keep house for two bachelor farmers in their dirt-floor dug-out. Or the American Indian who witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. Or the children that perished on their way home from school in the Blizzard of ‘88.

By now, Welsch is not quite the oddity he was when he first arrived in Dannebrog, an historical Danish settlement of about 265 today. Ensconced at a table in the Whisky River Bar and Grill, he’s just that loud, funny fella who cultivates stories.

“Up here at the bar, whenever people start to tell stories, I start doing like this,” he said, gesturing for a pen and napkin, “because they know I’m going to jot them down. Eric, who used to run the bar, said, ‘Welsch, everybody hears these stories, but you’re the only one who writes them down, takes them home and sells them.’” Welsch likes to tell the story of the time he and Linda were bellying up at the bar with a couple locals, when they asked, “‘How do you make a living writing?’ And I said, ‘Well, Successful Farmer pays me for the article and Essence pays me $2 a word…’ And one of them said, ‘You mean, each time you say — the — they pay you $2? And Linda said, ‘Well, he can use the same words over and over, but he has to put them in a different order every time.’” That’s when it dawned on Welsch, “Oh, God, that’s all I’m doing. Same damn words — different order.”

He remains a suspect figure all these years later. “To a lot of people in town, I’m still the professor, writer, outsider, eccentric. There’s still people that say, ‘Is that all he does is write?’” He’s used to it by now. This son of a factory worker and grandson of sugar beat farmers long ago set himself apart.

 

 

 

 

His initiation as country dweller was complete once he fell head over heels for a tractor. A 1937 Allis Chalmers WC to be precise. Many vintage models sit in a shed on his farm. He tinkers, toils and cusses, refurbishing engines and discovering stories. Always, stories. He’s penned several books about his tractor fetish.

“On an Allis, there’s a piece of braided cloth between the framework and gas tank to prevent friction and wear. I was taking apart a tractor and it was obvious somebody soldered the gas tank before and hadn’t put back the cloth. What they had done was take a piece of harness and put it in there. What that meant was a farmer working on it looked on the barn wall and made a decision: ‘I’m not going to use that harness again; horses are done; you’re now in the tractor age.’ To me, it said a world of things, and tractors are that way. I’ve still got the harness.”

Welsch feels he only gained the respect of some townies when he “admitted total ignorance” as a tractor hack. “No longer was I Professor-Smart-Ass. I was the dumb guy who didn’t know shit. I’d bring in my welding. I’d ask how to adjust a magneto. They were showing the professor…the guy from the city. That put me in touch with people here in town I never would have known. There was a connection…”

Perhaps no connections he’s made for his work mean more to him than do his ties with the Omaha, Pawnee and Lakota tribes. He said his experiences with them have “changed my life. What amazes me is that the culture is still alive. They’ve maintained it in the face of unbelievable pressure and deliberate efforts to destroy it, and yet it’s still there and they’re still willing to share it. That, to me, is astonishing. It’s being able to go to another country and another world within striking distance of Omaha that has different ideas about what property is and what time is and what generosity is and what family is.” His adoption by members of the Omaha and Lakota tribes has given him large extended tribal families. He treasures “the brotherhood and the closeness of it. Maybe because I was an only child.”

A trip to Greenland gave him a similar appreciation for the Innuits. He hopes one day to write a book about his “love” for the Arctic country and its people. It used to be he wrote books on contract. Not anymore. “You’re really obligated then to write the book the publisher wants. The books I’m doing now are so idiosyncratic and so personal that I want to write the book I want.” Besides, he said, “everybody loves to hear stories,” and he’s got a million of them.

Welsch knows how rare and lucky he is to be doing “exactly what I want to do. So much of my life is just unbelievable fortune. My daughter Antonia said I belong to The Church of Something’s Going On. I really believe there is. That’s about as close as I come to dogma.”

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