By Maureen E. Moran '89
Reprinted from Holy Cross Magazine, 2003
Even in casual conversation, Jay O'Callahan '60 speaks with the same lilting tones that he uses when weaving together the threads of a story for an audience.
As a storyteller, O'Callahan is a master craftsman who uses the raw materials of language and words - and the tools of tone, expressions and movement - to create worlds of substance and depth where there are none. When telling a story, he uses little beyond his voice and his body to conjure people, places and images in the minds of his listeners.
Storytelling, O'Callahan says, "is where I can create best. I've always been drawn to writing, but also to sound and voice and rhythm and acting. I discovered storytelling could combine all of these."
Whether drawing from his own life, spinning a new tale or reshaping a familiar story, O'Callahan practices an art that is as old as the spoken word. He challenges individuals who live in a world that has the immediate pictures provided by TV and the Internet to reach within themselves, tap their imaginations and take a journey into the mind's eye where O'Callahan is the navigator.
Now a resident of Marshfield, Mass., O'Callahan began learning his craft as a teenager, spinning stories for his younger brother and sister. "It was very natural," he recalls. "I'd be in the backseat of the car, and I'd take their hands and look at the palm. I discovered any line might look like a red river or might look like the line of a woman's cheek. I didn't realize it, but I was working with images, and they would be the hero and heroine."
The stories he wove for his siblings were very personal; when O'Callahan began telling stories, it was just for children. The decision to restrict his audience was a conscious one.
"I think what I wanted was a listener - a sense of awe and play and wonder. Many adults are unable to wonder. Instead, they say, 'Well, you know, it would be better if you had this character'," he says.
Even before he was an English major at Holy Cross, O'Callahan was exposed to thought-provoking discussions. His parents' home in Brookline, Mass., was a 32-room edifice; famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead had designed the grounds. O'Callahan recalls many nights when his parents' friends gathered at their home and music, political debate and literary discussions filled the air.
It was the 1950s, and these evenings introduced a teenage O'Callahan to new thoughts and perspectives. "I think that was very important: a sense that life is dramatic and words are part of life - a very important part," he recalls.
A family connection was one reason O'Callahan came to Holy Cross. His uncle, Rev. Joseph O'Callahan, S.J., taught math and physics at the College. He was also the first chaplain to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor after World War II. Fr. O'Callahan was serving as chaplain on the aircraft carrier USS Franklin in 1945, when the Japanese bombed the ship.
"When I knew him, because of the stroke and the seared lungs, instead of being this extraordinary athlete, he was very much a crippled man. But a wonderful teacher, which I didn't realize until I created the story (Father Joe - A Hero's Journey)," O'Callahan recalls.
Once at Holy Cross, O'Callahan encountered Fr. Joseph Scannell and Professor Ed Callahan. "Those two people made a terrific impression in terms of creating, using language and being dramatic," O'Callahan says. They also planted a seed in O'Callahan's mind, that he, too, could use language and create.
Becoming a storyteller
Despite O'Callahan's passion for language and his love for weaving stories, his life took a different turn after Holy Cross. He went to law school for a year and then spent several years as a supply officer in the Navy. O'Callahan's next stop was to work at a school his parents had established, the Wyndham School in Boston. He ultimately left, not really understanding why, but knowing it was the right decision to make. "I assumed that would mean being a novelist or writing something or other." he says.
O'Callahan and his wife moved to Marshfield, where he worked as a caretaker at a YWCA. "It was those six or seven years of telling stories to my children that made it clear that I wanted to write, but I wanted to write for performance," he says. "At the end of that time I became a storyteller."
Once he made the decision to describe himself as a storyteller first and a writer second, "things really blossomed," O'Callahan recalls.
"I wanted to explore and see what this art could do," he says.
O'Callahan's journey has taken him across the country and around the world. In the years since his decision to make storytelling his life's work, O'Callahan has performed in New York, Dublin and London. Lehigh University commissioned him to write a story about the steel industry in Bethlehem, Pa. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Parents' Choice, and the National Education Film Festival.
For O'Callahan, the creative process of bringing a story to life involves being drawn to something; he often begins with an image that means much more than itself. in The Labyrinth of Uncle Mark, for example, the main character has a room filled with newspapers about World War II; the room, however, is also intertwined with the man's heart and soul.
"In any story, who is the narrator? That's a huge question to be answered," O'Callahan says. "In many of my stories, it's another character . . . I guess the most important part is living with [the story] and trying to live with the images and let go of the fear - the fear that it might not work, the fear the critics won't like it, the fear you can't finish it."
In crafting a story, O'Callahan allows nothing to fall through the cracks. He refines his voice, develops his images, chooses his details, selects a place, decides on a timeframe. "The structure comes out of the work," he says.
As O'Callahan has evolved as a storyteller, he has learned to trust his instincts when it comes to images that attract him. "I have more confidence that the craft can shape something that's difficult," he says.
O'Callahan's stories are like onions - layer upon layer of meaning comes together to form a whole. His characters are more than names within a tale - they are real beings to him. "They're very important to me," he says. "I expect they will be real, and my job is to have people be as moved by them as I am."
Continuing the Creative Process
Even as he continues to craft tales for performance, O'Callahan is directing his creative energies in new directions. He is working with Richard Kuranda, from the Actors Studio in New York City, to mount an off-Broadway production of Father Joe: A Hero's Journey. O'Callahan is also writing a novel, a different type of challenge for him.
"It's been fun to work on the novel, to see if I can bring a character alive through just print," he says. Storytelling is a musical medium, O'Callahan adds. "That's where my real talent is, but it's fun to try the silence of print."
Holy Cross also fits into O'Callahan's creative future. He'd like to expand upon work he has already done that has touched upon Holy Cross, offering a flavor of his time on Mount Saint James, as well as introducing others to the characters that he knew. It's time, O'Callahan says, to revisit those years.
"There were vivid characters at Holy Cross, there were a lot of friendships, a lot of dramas," he adds. "There was a lot of discovery, and there was a lot of growing time because of people and teachers and struggles. It was a very full four years for me and since it's my work, I don't want to let that be. I want that to be part of the work, too - the simplest moments, the people."
O'Callahan's office teems with the characters who populate his tales, and he has many stories yet to tell. "I love being able to give shape to these emotions and these ideas and these images. That's what the work does," he says.
Maureen E. Moran is a freelance writer based in Mansfield, Massachusetts.