by Robert E. Baldwin
Reprinted from Traditional Home



Imagine getting up early one morning and walking into the predawn mists of a New England salt marsh. There you see a creature silhouetted against the gradually lightening sky. It seems vaguely human, hunched over and moving at an odd gait through the waves of undulating marsh grass. It is making strange sounds, half spoken, half grunted. It comes closer. It sees you.


Suddenly, the creature stops, falls silent, slowly stands erect, and smiles. It is a lanky, bearded man with a kind, intelligent face and a glint of magic in his eyes. It is master storyteller Jay O'Callahan, caught in the midst of transforming himself into one of his own characters.


"Many of my stories are born here," he confesses. "Every morning, I walk two and a half miles to the ocean and back. The first time I did, I was astonished at the dramatic power of the place - it's wild and primitive. There's a sense here of the power of creation."


Time magazine calls Jay "a genius among storytellers." "A virtuoso," echoes the Boston Globe. "He can turn a word into a thousand pictures." A former teacher, novelist, and fiction writer, Jay has performed all over the world, from London's National Theatre to remote African villages. But the marsh is his creative zone. If there is magic to his storytelling, it is a magic that benefits from solitude, practice, and the inspiration of a dramatic environment: In a sea of marsh grass, midway between the beach and the line of cedars that define solid ground, he explores how his characters talk, how they look, and how they move.


"When I create a story, I work with a very spare palette," he explains. "I use sound and silence, movement and gesture, language and rhythm to portray the world the audience sees before them. I work with great care on language and the sound of each character's voice until the storyteller disappears and the characters appear."


Strolling through the morning fog, Jay graces you with an example, conjuring images of his best friend's house in the Brookline, Massachusetts, neighborhood (called Pill Hill because so many doctors lived there) where he grew up.


"It was the most orderly house I have been in in my life," Jay says in hushed tones. "The entry room smelled of clean linen. The cocker spaniel was in the corner, aging in an orderly way. Even the shadows seemed neatly pressed."


As he continues, a 14-year -old boy replaces the 52-year-old storyteller, the boy talking about walking through Pill Hill to St. Mary's school with a group of "toughies" from across town. The story is funny, dramatic, poignant, and exhilarating, full of both the pleasures and the pains of childhood.


"It's healing to reclaim childhood memories," Jay says. "Storytelling demands that you be vulnerable. Because of that, people sense they can trust you."


Jay has reached the beach. The morning mists vanish as the sun clears the horizon. Back on the marsh, the dewy sea grass sparkles. As Jay turns toward solid ground again, he talks about the power of storytelling to heal and to awaken creativity - things that he believes are closely linked.


"Each human being is a galaxy," he says. "Parents, friends, enemies, fictional characters, experiences, fears, uncertainties circle within us like planets. Stars burst into life and die within us. Yet we live most of life superficially, unaware of our vast inner world. Stories can awaken us to the world within. They invite the audience to be active, to create. And that, in turn, awakens in them a sense of their own story."


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© Robert E. Baldwin
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