by Ronald Rand
Reprinted from The Soul of the American Actor
Jay O'Callahan, one of this country's most compelling storytellers, has performed his solo performances at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, London's National Theatre Complex, the Lake Placid Winter Olympics, Lincoln Center, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Barter Theatre, Library of Congress and for National Public Radio, among others. His solo works include Pouring the Sun, Points of View, Pill Hill Stories, The Dance, Village Heroes, The Herring Shed, and The Spirit of the Great Auk. His awards include an NEA Fellowship for Solo Performance Excellence, an Ohio State Award, and the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Association. Mr. O'Callahan also participated on the Unesco Project, Many Voices, One World, for the National Geographic Society, and he performed for the U.S. State Department in Mauritius and Africa.
When did you know your path lay as a storyteller?
I resisted the storytelling path for a long time. W. H Auden said we resist that which we do best. I wanted to be an artist and thought that meant I must be a novelist, poet or playwright. Friends told me I had a gift and in time I began to explore it.
I told hundreds maybe thousands of stories to my younger brother and sister and got into the habit of creating out loud. Years later when I got married I did the same for my children. I didn't realize it but I was exploring sound, rhythm, pacing and learning about developing characters. I read that the Noh masters studied the use of gesture and movement. That fascinated me and I began to do the same. For seven years I told stories for free in libraries and schools and finally took the plunge.
What have you learned over the years that's necessary for storytelling to work?
The story needs to be compelling. Ideally, the characters are so real that the audience begins to know them better than they know most of their friends. The through line must be clear. Usually there is a single image that holds the whole together. In Moby Dick for instance the image is of Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. In King Lear it's Lear howling in the storm. The details need to be sharp and fresh.
I've learned that in creating a big piece commitment is the key. If I waffle the story never comes alive. I need to commit to the story, characters and know that some image will give the story life. My work is a work of juggling images in the presence of an audience.
What inspired you to create your engrossing Pouring the Sun, about Bethlehem's steelworkers, based on the stories of the family of John Waldony and his sister Mary Soltysiak, and their troubles and triumphs beginning in the 20's and 50's?
The story was commissioned for The Steel Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1999. After a century, Bethlehem Steel was closing it's operations in that city and artists felt that the steelmaking community should be celebrated. Lehigh University commissioned me to create a performance piece. I interviewed steelworkers, foremen, waitresses, and union representatives over a period of a year. I still didn't have a story. Then I met John Waldony and his sister, Mary. John was a steelworker and a union leader. He and his sister both talked of the strength of their mother, Ludvika. I was fascinated that Ludvika had the courage to immigrate to the United States when she was eighteen. She was a farm girl with little education and almost no money, but she not only came, she created a life for herself and her family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She and her husband, Fritz, fired my imagination and became symbolic of the thousands who came from different parts of the world to work at Bethlehem Steel. It was this story that opened the world of the immigrant to me.
You also have a talented family. Your cousin, Kathryn Gately Poole, is a gifted teacher of acting. Were you encouraged when you were young by your parents?
My parents loved language, drama and music. My parents were teachers and had little money but bought an enormous thirty-two room house for us to grow up in. That in itself was a drama. My dad loved to act and got my sisters and I into amateur plays. My father was in the Poets Theatre in Cambridge, an experimental theatre that was the first to put on "The Bald Soprano" in Boston. In addition to that, my parents would have huge parties. People would sing and argue and have such fun that I wanted to do something in life that matched those parties. I discovered in storytelling I not only use language but I can sing and dance and become as many characters as I want.
Who has inspired you as an artist?
Van Gogh's Letters made a deep impression on me in college. He said he wanted to bring beauty to the lives of ordinary people. He was unafraid of talking about beauty. I liked the wild fun of Norman Mailer's work. In addition, Salinger, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare meant a great deal. Later on Melville and Whitman. I think Whitman is perhaps the boldest and freest of American artists.
The performers I admire include Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton and Gene Kelly. I listen to recordings of Maria Callas because of her depth and beauty.
Another of your works, The Spirit of the Great Auk, was inspired by the real-life odyssey of Dick Wheeler's kayak trip from Newfoundland to cape Cod. Why did this mean so much to you, to want to share this story?
Because of what happened at the end of Dick's kayak journey. Dick had nearly finished his dangerous 1,500 mile journey when he had an extraordinary experience. Outside Portland, Maine on a gray November day he had a sense that the sea was speaking to him. When Dick told this to some Native Americans, they were not surprised. They said that happens in a vision quest. As an artist, I wanted to convey the whole of Dick's experience as best I could. I think our sense of drama is too small, too confined. Our plays and stories are mostly about people interacting with one another. We are part of a broader world, the natural world. Native Americans, of course, know this but most of us have lost sight of this. I wanted to create a work with a chorus that echoed the old Greek Chorus, a work in which the Newfoundland fishermen are a chorus, the sea birds are a chorus and finally the sea itself is a chorus. I wanted to break the boundaries.
What makes storytelling so important to experience?
Storytelling is an invitation so the audience to create. There is no fourth wall. The storyteller is armed only with language and movement, but that's enough to invite the audience to see a world that becomes so vivid the theatre disappears. It's a risk that demands trust. But because the audience creates, it's possible to touch depths that no other form can touch.
Reprinted from The Soul of the American Actor Fall 2002