by Wendy Killeen
Boston Sunday Globe
Newburyport - "I hate algebra. And, I hate that old bag Miss Anderson," says Jay O'Callahan. And so begins a 90-minute immersion into the life, inner thoughts and emotions of a 15-year-old boy. Alone on stage in the intimate theater at the Firehouse Center, O'Callahan, 54, is that boy. And, with swift changes of voice and gesture, he's 24 people who make up the boy's world - his father and mother, siblings, friends, neighbors and school mates, everyone from a 9-year-old girl to a 90-year-old man.
O'Callahan is a professional storyteller. But meeting him, a tall man with a white beard and a soft voice, is like running into an old neighbor at the county fair. He is warm and charming and has lots of personal tales to tell.
His piece "The Dance" is not so much a story as a play in two acts, performed by one person. And it is an engrossing, entertaining evening of theater.
"The Dance" is the second production in the Theatre of Newburyport's 1992-93 season at the Firehouse Center for the Performing and Visual Arts.
It is O'Callahan's first visit to the Firehouse and his first presentation of "The Dance", as a finished work, in a theater.
But O'Callahan, of Marshfield, is at home on any stage. A professional writer and storyteller for 15 years, he has performed in classrooms, on college campuses, and in theaters small and renowned throughout the United States and the world, from African villages to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He recently traveled to Ireland, New Zealand and Chile.
"I was really drawn to creating, always," O'Callahan said in a recent interview. "So, I left teaching and spent five years writing novels and telling stories to my children, who were teeny. The stories I would tell them at breakfast and bedtime or driving to the hardware store were more fun than anything else. I began to really think about those characters and their adventures and suddenly decided to take those stories into the world. Making that commitment as a storyteller was key."
Since, O'Callahan said, his career and storytelling, as an art, have continued to grow.
His early stories were tales of imagination, playful and rhythmic. He still performs those for children and family audiences. But his focus has shifted to a deeper examination of the human spirit.
Richard McElvain, who has worked with O'Callahan for 10 years and directs this presentation of "The Dance" said the author, "is risking doing more personal stuff and as a result, it's electrifying.
"When you free-lance, you do all different kinds of work," said McElvain. "Some are just a paycheck. And some are holy; this is one of those. Jay is a shaman. There are very few people like him."
O'Callahan explained, "What I am really attracted to is portraying the life within people." He said "The Dance" is about "that sense of poetry a young person, any person, has and the struggle, the wonder in life."
The 15-year-old boy is the same character-narrator as featured in O'Callahan's "Pill Hill Stories" at ages 7, 11 and 14. First performed at the Merrimack Repertory Theater about five years ago, the "Pill Hill Stories" are fictionalized accounts of O'Callahan's experiences growing up in Brookline.
O'Callahan, who compares writing to composting, said he created "The Dance" several summers ago by "mostly interviewing myself. It was sitting down with a pen or typewriter and just thinking about that time."
The result is a coming-of-age and a father-son story that is humorous and moving.
"This show is touching on the boy's fun sense of adventure. But there are also some dark flames. He prefers not to talk about them, but they are alive," O'Callahan said. "Suddenly, something in him unconsciously says this is part of life too. He has never done that. And, suddenly he is telling it." And the audience is listening.
"The Dance", O'Callahan continued, is also about "a son coming to understand his father is a wonderful person but not a god. The boy can't reconcile his father's graciousness and intelligence with ordinary weaknesses. He has to grow up to that and the maturing process is hard for him. He is really changing from boyhood to manhood."
Performing "The Dance" is demanding and exhausting, O'Callahan said. But, he added, "It's great fun."
The storyteller also gets joy from how the piece affects the audience. "People are usually surprised at their own imagination," he said. "With this you really do concentrate on the family. So during it, people summon up aunts and uncles and neighbors, kind of the drama of their own lives. This is a healing form. It calls out to the importance of every person."
O'Callahan, who performs his stories on cassettes and videotapes, said he'd like to see "The Dance" made into a movie. And, there may be another story featuring the same character-narrator as he goes on to college. [See Jay's acclaimed later show, "Father Joe."]
Mostly, O'Callahan, who recently published two children's books, wants his craft "to keep expanding".
"I'd like maybe to do a spectacle next. Or it may be telling a story but presenting it in such a different way it will be fascinating. Or something I have never even thought of," he said. "It keeps offering mysterious new things."
February 14, 1993
Reprinted from the Boston Sunday Globe.
Reprinted by permission