by Barbara Rose Shuler
The Monterey Herald.
If you have ever been in the presence of Jay O'Callahan when he tells a story, you will understand why Time Magazine describes him as a "genius among storytellers."
O'Callahan performs internationally, leads workshops and writes books. He tells stories in the great halls of the world like Lincoln Center, the Abbey Theater of Ireland or the National Fine Arts Complex in London. But you'll also find him in more modest settings such as workshops, colleges, schools or the Monterey Public Library. His stories, many of which have been commissioned by cities, corporations, and individuals can be heard in the broadcast media as well, including National Public Radio.
Why is storytelling such a compelling and important art?
"One of the things about storytelling," O'Callahan says, "is that you have a human being who is talking about his or her experience, even if it is through folktale. So if you hear a wide variety of stories and storytellers you begin to get a sense of a land, whether it is this land or Russia or Norway, through human beings. It has an immediate sense, an inviting sense, inviting in that it is the simplest form of drama.
"You have someone saying, 'There I was...standing by...the waterfall. I looked up and there was no chance of my getting through it...but...' And people are creating the waterfall. Your audience is invited to shape images. This has always been very powerful. It was powerful 10,000 years ago, maybe 50,000 years ago, that you invite an audience, maybe a single person to create with you, to shape images," he said.
"Last night I performed here in Monterey at the library," said O'Callahan. "There was a special feeling. I know that well as a storyteller. A feeling that we kind of gathered around a fire. That can happen if you are in a theater. It can happen if you are performing for a thousand people. It can happen in a kitchen. It happened last night.
"There is this mysterious binding together that comes about not just through laughter and silence and being moved by the characters - that's very important, that's drama. But there is something else. A hundred people sitting there last night and with the sound and movement the voice and silence. They take all of this in with the language and they translate it somehow. It's as if suddenly we're swimming in this dark pool together."
For O'Callahan, the journey of developing a story for telling is a wild ride into the mystery that is the artistic process. Right now he is polishing his latest masterpiece, commissioned to honor the steel workers of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The scare and the challenge for O'Callahan in working on this particular piece turned out to be the task of choosing a single story, among the hundreds of wonderful voices he encountered to represent the almost epic larger story of the steel industry.
"So with everyone I would interview, I would think here is the story. Then the next person. Oh, no, it should be here."
In the midst of his struggle, O'Callahan talked to the woman who had commissioned the story.
"Just trust, Jay," she said. "Go with what moves you. That'll be fine."
That was a beacon of light for the artist. Released from having to choose, he returned to the young emigrant, Ludvika, who had captivated him mysteriously from the beginning, trusting her to carry him to the right words and feelings.
What is it that makes a genius among storytellers? According to O'Callahan, a big part of it is simply trusting in the mystery of the process, trusting stories to naturally reveal themselves.
May 14, 1999
Reprinted from The Monterey Herald.
Reprinted by permission