David Brooks Andrews/Daily News correspondent
Reprinted from Metrowest Daily News
To hear master storyteller Jay O'Callahan talk about his upcoming p`erformance of "Peer Gynt" is to feel as if you've been captured by trolls yourself.
He said the word "biting" with such vigor during a recent phone interview that you could feel the teeth of young trolls sink into Peer's leg. He sang musical notes from Edvard Grieg's "Suite for 'Peer Gynt"' as they swell with wildness and danger. With a sense of wonder, he cried out Peer's realization, "I have the soul of a reindeer."
O'Callahan became so totally alive during the interview it felt as if he were giving a private performance or as if he had become Peer himself.
On Saturday, he'll perform the story with the New Philharmonia Orchestra playing "Suite for 'Peer Gynt"' in the Sorenson Center at Babson College, Wellesley. It's billed as a Family Discovery Concert, and so Grieg's music will be shortened to a manageable length for children, but O'Callahan's story won't be trimmed.
He'll perform the story again with the orchestra on March 10 at Babson College and on March 11 at First Baptist Church in Newton as part of an adult concert that includes Sibelius' "Violin Concerto, Op. 47" with Haldan Martinson as guest violinist.
When O'Callahan was commissioned by Harry Ellis Dickson to adapt a section of Henrik Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt" for a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1983, he found his own life story reflected in the play.
He became fascinated with how Peer began as a young storyteller with a vivid imagination but was unable to put his stories to any productive use. The villagers, including his own mother, regarded him as lazy and useless like his father. Eventually Peer develops the strength and courage to take his imagination and stories out into the world and use them in a more mature way.
"He needs to grow up and take his storytelling seriously," said O'Callahan. "He's an adventurer. He has to be willing to adventure and not just dream of it."
Whenever he performs the story he's done it some 30 or 40 times with an orchestra O'Callahan draws on a similar turning point in his own life.
When he was a boy he told countless stories to his brother and sister, who were nine and 10 years younger than he, by using the lines on their hands as a springboard for his imagination. And he told stories to other children in the neighborhood.
As he grew up, he had to make a decision. "It takes a lot of daring to say, 'No, I'm not going to be a lawyer,"' O'Callahan said. "'I'm going to dance (or tell stories), to trust that gift."'
He did go to law school for one unsuccessful year. "It was very dry, and I was very bad at it," he said. "I felt I was wandering in a dark cellar that Dostoevski must have constructed. I was isolated and out of place."
With one exception. "I loved torts," he said. "They're all stories about things that have gone wrong. I read that a Pepsi Cola bottle exploded or that a dancer lost her leg, and I wanted to meet the people."
O'Callahan left teaching at the Wyndham School, which his parents founded and which he was expected take over, so he could pursue writing. "It was the family plan, but it would have taken all of my time," said O'Callahan. He worked as the caretaker for the YMCA in Marshfield, wrote and constantly told stories to his children, at Cub Scout meetings and the local library.
When his friends kept telling him he had to take his talent seriously, Callahan said he became furious. He thought being an artist meant writing poems and novels, not telling stories. But he got a nudge from a line by the poet W.H. Auden: "We fight against that which we do best."
Once he committed himself to storytelling as a profession, "It took off like a rocket," said O'Callahan. Soon he was performing for children in the Brookline, Newton and Wellesley schools. His name spread across the country, thanks to "The Spider's Web," a WGBH national radio program featuring storytellers, and he received requests to perform in other states.
Before long he was one of America's most pre-eminent storytellers, performing in Lincoln Center, on National Public Radio and abroad, from Africa to Ireland to New Zealand. He has done as much as anyone to establish storytelling as an art form that not only delights children but is fully capable of entrancing adults.
For all the storytelling he has done, O'Callahan has a special fondness for performing "Peer Gynt" with an orchestra. "I love listening to Grieg's music and being part of the music," he said. "I think the nicest compliment I ever got was that I was an instrument. To just be an instrument in the orchestra. To add something but to have it all be one. It's a delight to have this chance."
"The music is very suitably expressive and descriptive of the mood that's going on in the play," said Ronald Knudson, music director of the New Philharmonia Orchestra. "When Peer enters the Hall of the Mountain King, the music starts out slow and grumpy and gets louder and grumpier. It's very exciting music."
O'Callahan has worked on "Peer Gynt" with guidance from Carol Burnes, a poet, storyteller and dramatic coach from Weston. And he'll work with her again before the adult concerts in March. "She says to me, 'Stay with that moment,"' said Jay. "'Go deeper, Jay, go deeper."'
He often works with actor and director Richard McElvain, who insists that O'Callahan rehearse with at least six people in the audience. "Things change when you tell a story to two people and when you tell it to six," said O'Callahan. "The energy between people going back and forth. If you're doing it on your own you don't have that bounce."
When O'Callahan was rehearsing "Chickie," a story that included a battle on a playground between sixth- and eighth-grade boys, McElvain told him that the battle was epic to the boys, like the Trojan War. "That direction opened the world to me," said O'Callahan.
He recently sent out a novel he's written, hoping to find a publisher. Titled "Harry's Our Man," it's about a Northeastern professor who decides to run for Congress in 1951 and talks about topics people don't want to hear about, like the atom bomb. "It has a lot of fun, humor and is very contemporary," said O'Callahan.
And he's well into writing "The Eight Black Pearls of the World," an epic set in the 1400s. He said it has so many chapters it would take about nine hours to tell. So he's not exactly sure what form it will take.
When the performance of a story is going well for O'Callahan, he said it's like what athletes call "being in the zone."
"There's a melting, a release. It's almost as if you're swimming in a black pool. The contradictions of life, the worries and feeling tired, all of it's gone and you're concerned only with the characters. Somehow an ease takes over, and you're not worried about yourself. There's none of that ego stuff."
As Peer Gynt begins to find himself, O'Callahan's hands will extend out to his right and slowly rise to become the antlers of a reindeer. It's the single image that he said holds the piece together, something he feels every great story should have.
February 8, 2007
Reprinted from the MetroWest Daily News by permission.