Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

Table of Contents

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

John Langstaff

Laura's Alaska Trip

The Evolution of the Bethlehem

Steel Story

Effortlessness

Remembering J.J.

In Brief

Taking Stock in Provence, France

Pill Hill Stories

 


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

 

I spent the month of January as Artist in Residence at the Gardner Museum in Boston. If I could bring you there, I'd blindfold you and take you in. You'd feel the stone floor beneath your feet and be struck by the warm air, a delight since it's zero outside. The warm air would make you curious. You'd smell orange trees, lilies, orchids, a hint of fragrance from some trees. You'd hear water bubbling in a fountain.

Taking off the blindfold, you'd be astonished by the Venetian court before you. The walls are pinkish orange and rise four stories to a vast glass roof which lets the sun create a play of light and shadow all day long. It seems you're no longer in Boston. You're in Venice, looking up at Venetian windows. There are people standing in them; visitors like you, but they're on the third floor looking down, and since they're framed in the Venetian window they're freed from 21st century time. It's easier to see their grace.

I'd let you breathe it in and then take you to the long dramatic hall called the Spanish Cloister and say, "That marvelous painting down there is a Sargent painting called "El Jeleo." Sargent's early masterpiece is so alive you can almost hear the Flamenco guitar and the deep singing as a flamboyant woman dances with great style and gaiety. You'd look at me and say, "We must dance!" And we would! Because I know the guards! And Kristen Parker, my marvelous liaison here.

El Jeleo and the courtyard give me clues about the extraordinary woman who conceived all this, Isabella Stewart Gardner. She has left this museum for the pleasure of the public. "C'est mon plaisir." She had the brilliance to allow sun, clouds, birds and the stars themselves to become participants in her courtyard. There are so many dramas, here it would take years to absorb them all.

For instance, there's a small room on the first floor called the Yellow Room. I spent twenty or thirty minutes going back and forth between two paintings in the Yellow Room: one of a young woman in what looked like a yellow ball dress, A Lady in Yellow. She reminded me of my sister Maureen at eighteen. On the wall opposite is a portrait of a young actress done by Degas, called Madame Gaujelin. Josephine Gaujelin, a ballerina who had become an actress, commissioned the painting then rejected it. She looks as if she's been pouting every since. Mme Gaujelin becomes particularly stern when visitors come in and barely give her a glance. At night when there's no one there, she carries on a conversation with the young lady in the yellow dress. Some of what Mme Gaujelin says is so rude that I'll not repeat it here. Madame Gaujelin is intriguing and delightful and is herself worth the trip to Boston.

Journal Entry: January 13, 2000
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum


The snow is falling heavily outside my apartment in the carriage house of the Gardner Museum in Boston. I can see students running around throwing snowballs at each other. Free as deer. Microwave vegetarian meatloaf for dinner. A mush. Rented Shakespeare in Love. I'm wild about it. Every character is fun.

It's been hard to get used to having so many guards around. When I leave I surrender my key to a guard, and when I return I press a button and tell the guard who I am. My friend Connie Regan-Blake reminded me that this is a time to be guarding my time, so I think of the guards as helping me protect my time to play with Pill Hill characters. I'm trying to capture the impressions of youth. I hope that is enough of a drama in itself.


Journal Entry: January 14, 2000

Last night I had a tour of the museum in the dark. The museum was empty except for Don, the guard, and me. I shone my flashlight on an angel with a trumpet high in the corner and could almost hear the trumpet blast because all else was in blackness. Down in the Dutch Room, my favorite room since boyhood, I then shone the light on an empty frame of Rembrandt's The Storm On The Sea of Galilee. It's a painting that sings of life, half filled with light and the other darkness. But as I say, the flashlight beam showed an empty frame. Ten years ago that Rembrandt and a number of other paintings were stolen by men who dressed up as Boston policemen. Looking at the empty frame in the darkness, I felt a sadness. One thinks of the Gardner as invulnerable. Alas, not so.


Journal Entry: January 19, 2000

Supper with Jennifer Gross, Curator of Contemporary Art, at the Squealing Pig on Huntington Avenue. What fun it was to walk in the sub-freezing cold to the Irish pub with Jennifer. She talked of her grandparents being immigrants and of her recently getting a Ph.D. She reminded me that the immigrant story continues.


Journal Entry: January 21, 2000

I've had an image of late of walking in total blackness. I'm struck by Teresa of Lisieux, "There is only one thing to do during the night, the unique night of life. . . and that is to love."

Riding in the subway this afternoon was like being inside a marvelous band. Above ground the trolley has a rocking rhythm, a slight clicking sound. Underground it sounds like a thousand drums then changes into a heavy metal band. Jazz!


Journal Entry: January 24, 2000

To the right of El Jeleo is a blue Persian tile. One of the guards, Lucian St. John, a delightful man who speaks Arabic, translated the tile "God opens all doors." I think of this as a time when mysterious doors are opening. I continue to have the image of walking in total blackness. Are there doors in this blackness? Maybe the blackness itself means I've walked through a door.


Journal Entry: February 1, 2000

Early this morning I walked in the semi-darkness of Huntington Avenue. Sea gulls looked like dark sketches against the silver moon. I enjoyed the majesty of that image as I walked up the icy sidewalk, past a massive bulldozer that a man was backing down a truck ramp. His day was beginning and I thought of what fun the Super Bowl must have been for him, watching Kurt Warner, who five years ago had been bagging groceries, throw a pass to win the game.


Journal Entry: February 1, 2000

Lunch with Anne Hawley, the director of the museum, who was elegant in black and has all the charisma of John F. Kennedy. Anne spoke of beauty opening us to the world.

Later I met a young woman drawing in the museum who said to me,"I love the beauty of this place." Her drawings were exquisite. Beauty opens us.


Journal Entry: February 3, 2000

My last evening here in the museum. I sit quietly at the edge of the courtyard feeling the grace, beauty and mystery of The Gardner. And the loneliness, but perhaps that's because I'm leaving.

 

 

John Langstaff

 

As a boy, I loved Robin Hood. Now that I'm grown it's John Langstaff. Both full of magic.

The first time I went to the Christmas Revels at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, I enjoyed the pageantry of the chorus and the great warmth that held twelve hundred people close. At the end of Act One, John Langstaff came to the lip of the stage, lifted his arms and voice, and standing on tiptoe, urged us to sing. A moment later, he and the Morris Men were dancing down the stairs, reaching for the hands of audience members, and a dance began that took them and me and hundreds of others into the great hall. Hundreds and hundreds of us were dancing and singing "The Lord of the Dance" and I thought: Here is magic, here is wonder, this is what we all need to be doing. Who in the world could have thought of this?

I was dazzled because in my secret heart, I'd known that drama must include dancing together with hundreds, but I'd never found a way to do it, and there we were, boldly singing and dancing in a hall so wide and tall that it could welcome a thousand voices. That was my introduction to John Langstaff.

Jack has a singing voice that's as rich as an oak tree. It's a voice that calls you, a voice that can touch the joy of romance and the sorrow of loss, a voice that brings you back to Robin Hood and forward into time.

Jack is a lover of the traditions of all peoples. The Revels celebrates the songs, dances, rituals, dress, stories and customs of different peoples. One year there'll be a Russian Revels and another a Norwegian, a Romanian or Mexican Revels. Always the Revels gather people in song, celebration, dance and wonder. All of this joy could only come out of a heart that is deep.

Jack has seen the pain of war and is a pacifist. He's keenly aware of how much destruction has been wrecked on the earth and on the poor of the earth. He's used his life to help us celebrate the earth and all its peoples. If you've never been to a Revels show, go; you'll love it. The Revels is in ten cities now, so you don't have to make the trek to Cambridge. You can call for information: (617) 972-8300.

 

 

Laura's Alaska Trip

 

Last summer our daughter Laura went on a 75 day wilderness expedition in Alaska. It was sponsored by NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School. There were five men and five women. There were three sections: hiking in the tundra, mountaineering -- which was largely on glaciers, and kayaking on Prince William Sound.

Laura read from her diary to a gathering at our house. She was filled with a spirit that comes only from risk and seeing the great wild beauty of this earth. All through the evening she laughed and answered questions. Here are some excerpts so you get the flavor.

Diary Entry: June 17th, 3:36 PM:

My backpack for this section was 65 pounds and we hiked 125 miles. It's shocking the first time you put it on. And you're going to have to walk for eight, nine, ten hours with it on your back. It rained all the time, 75% of the time it rained and we walked through rivers. We were constantly cold, they're glacier rivers. And you walked through them. You can wring out your socks if you want. So you're wet all of the time and then you get into camp and the goal is to dry everything. We didn't shower for three and a half weeks. We stink and boys stink much worse than girls.

Diary Entry July 13th 10PM:

We climbed all day to go through a pass that no one had ever crossed. On the very top of the ridge it was freezing. Horizontal rain and hail, so windy. Jim said 38 degrees and serious windchill. We went on the scree, rocky and cliffy, up and down ridges, for a long time when it began to thunder. And lightning! Some people's packs were lighting up -blue! Lightning and thunder at the same time. Can you guys go faster? No Jim we can't go faster, we're running now. The ridge was miles long and we had to get over it. Once you're up, you're up. You gotta go.

Weren't you frightened, Laura? No, it was the best day of the whole trip.

 

 

The Evolution of the Bethlehem Steel Story

 

The hurricane arrived on September 17, 1999, the night of my first performance of Pouring The Sun at the Zoellner Arts Center at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This night was three years in coming. It was nice to have the whirl of the winds for opening night.

One of the main characters in the story, Fritz Waldony, loves to play Chopin but loses three fingers in an accident at Bethlehem Steel. Fritz's great granddaughter, Courtney Yelovitch played Chopin for the audience before my performance began.

Working on the story was a long, mysterious process. At one point I wrote Bridget George, former managing director of the Touchstone Theater, telling her it was too vast. Bridget wrote saying, "Trust that some person or moment would strike you and that will be enough." And added "And if you don't do it, it will break my heart."

Bridget George is one of the lights of the world. I went on. Interviewing John Waldony was a gift. John is an ex-steelworker, former president of the local union and a man with a deep sense of justice and history. John and his sister Mary Soltysiak told me about their mother's coming to this country from a little Warsaw farm when she was eighteen. This young woman, Ludvika Moskal, had almost no money, little education, no friends. I imagined her on the deck of a ship at night and that image gripped me. For the first time in my life I had a glimpse into an immigrant's heart.

The journey was long. I performed Pouring The Sun to small audiences in homes as I toured the country performing other stories. One night in Washington state a man said, "It's like hearing a Beethoven symphony" Hooray! I called Linda and said, "It's on the way." I performed it for friends in Houston. The audience was glad . . . when it was over! I hadn't worked through some of the deeper emotions so the audience was left feeling they'd been to a funeral.

Next I performed it for my director Richard McElvain. His drama class sat there silent and Richard said, "I stopped taking notes. You haven't got one story. You have several. So it is nothing." Now I was in the depths I'd left my Houston friends in.

This was a crucial moment. I had lost my focus. I decided events in the story had to relate to Ludvika. I performed it countless times to audiences at my house. Judith Black helped me transform a mundane proposal scene into a real love scene. Kathy Gately helped me clarify Fritz and the whole through line of the story. Fritz was coming alive!

Doug Lipman's Long Stories workshop participants went out on a street in Atlanta Georgia and reenacted the strike scene. I saw in a flash how the strike was related to Ludvika. Connie Dodge felt I was avoiding the most painful emotion in the story. She was right. I could not face exploring the emotions of losing a child. I called Ginny Callaway; Ginny and her husband David Holt lost their daughter Sara Jane in an auto accident. Finally I was able to face that emotion. That was three days before opening night.

Mary Soltysiak sent a letter afterwards saying I was like a member of the family.

 

 

Effortlessness

 

My wife, Linda, cooks with an ease that looks effortless. Rice, beans, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes are all like notes she's playing on a clarinet.

I've noticed the same seemingly effortless grace when my friend, David Spangler, talks. David is a mystic, a joyful man with two feet deep in the earth. David doesn't usually prepare his talks. He is present to the mystery of the moment and the people who are listening, and he knows what to say.

My boyhood storytelling was effortless. I would take the hand of my four year old brother or sister, I would look in their palm and say, "See that silver horse pulling that ship through the sky." And the story would gallop off in the direction that it wanted.

I'm struck with the effortlessness of Brother Blue, Jackie Torrence, and Ray Hicks. They remind me of Arnie Sowell who used to run the 880 for Syracuse when I was in college. The sportswriters would say that Arnie ran "so soft."

How do we attain this mysterious effortlessness? When I worked on Father Joe, The Spirit of the Great Auk, and Pouring the Sun, I had to put a terrific amount of effort in, but once the stories were done, performing them seemed effortless. I haven't quite figured that out.

 

 

Remembering J.J.

 

J.J. Reneaux died Tuesday, February 29, 2000. J.J. was a storyteller, musician, band leader and woman of great spirit. I attended the memorial service with storyteller Mike Myers, who helped me get there.

J.J.'s 16 year old daughter Tess spoke at the service in Athens, Georgia with such presence and beauty it was clear J.J. was also a marvelous mother. Laura Simms reminded us that J.J. brought Cajun storytelling to the community and the world. And Laura spoke eloquently of J.J.'s complete authenticity.

J.J. and her husband Max Rinehart had named her angel William after Shakespeare. Max wrote a letter which Lloyd Wilson read entitled Dear William. The letter described the wonder of their seventeen year marriage. I loved hearing about the time years back when Max and J.J. were out in the yard, lying on the grass under the stars. A long extension cord stretched out from the house so they could listen to a record of one of Shakespeare's plays.

After the service Lloyd played the drums and we danced! Had Shakespeare met J.J. he would have written another great play. But the world had something even better. It had J.J. She was a masterpiece.

 

In Brief

  • My son Ted has been writing Coungrana Nebnoma, a college student in Burkina Faso, Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world. Coungrana wants to continue his literature studies and Ted wants to help this to happen. If you want to help, contact Ted O'Callahan: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Congratulations to Carolee Brockmann for her beautifully written book, Going for Great from American Girl Fiction.
  • Bravo to Matt Herz for the smashing debut of his story The Hawk's Brew, which brings alive life in the colonies at the brink of the Revolutionary War

 

Taking Stock in Provence France

 

Doug Lipman and I are off to Provence, France in June, leading a creativity workshop with a very wonderful group of people we've worked with for six years. It's a pilgrimage for me because when I was in college I read Van Gogh's letters and found in them an integrity and beauty that struck me deeply. Van Gogh offered another choice to me, the road of the artist.

I'd grown up in a marvelous neighborhood but my neighborhood, college and culture were all saying: Be Realistic. Be a lawyer, a teacher, a professor, a doctor. None of the voices said: Be an artist. And here was Van Gogh talking about color, about rising at four in the morning to sketch workers gathering for work in the fields, about being so absorbed in painting out in the open he forgot to eat. He wrote of the beauty of a blade of grass! His letters are passionate, thoughtful and occasionally humorous. "Science demonstrates the earth is round . . . But life too is probably round. . ." Maybe it is!

Van Gogh was a mentor, now I'm coming 'round to him again. In time I became an artist and I've been true to that road. In June I'll be in Van Gogh country with these wonderful people. We'll draw, create stories and skits, write and tell stories. And for me it will also be a time of taking stock. After the workshop week in Provence, Linda will meet me in Paris and we'll sit in cafes avec cafe noir.

 

 

Pill Hill Stories

 

I'm getting clear about the Pill Hill stories that I'm writing. Imagine you're six years old and for the first time you see a man walking on stilts. Your eye would take everything in in an instant. You would take in the clothing of the stilt walker and the way the legs are moving and the oddity of the arms being regular size and the legs extremely long. But more than this, you would register maybe a hundred impressions all in an instant.

It's those impressions of a child I want to capture in this book. Impressions of people, trees, animals, words, and emotions. I think there is real drama here. That's what I'm trying to do.

 

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