Originally published 2010
Story Telling, and the Art of Telling Stories
Stories are how we communicate (profound, yes?). Look at the first paragraphs of so many news articles and you’ll find anecdotes to pull you in. We like to connect the facts of our lives to the stories of our lives. I had intended my next posting to be about the debate over health care (or, as my doctor reminded me, over health insurance). That’s certainly a story worth telling.
But first I want to tell a better story, one I first told in 1988.
On Jan. 16, 1988, at the opening of “Six Bronx Folk Artists” at the Bronx River Art Center and Gallery, I presented a “play.” Noah Jemison, one of the curators of the exhibition and an amazing artist who had been donating his time to pass on his love of art to the kids in the Bronx, had arranged a small commission, which I decided to spend by hiring two actors and two musicians to help me out. I cast two actors, Holly Hawkins and Jonathan Miller, and two musicians, Richard Paradise and Lindbergh Allen.
I had directed Holly and Jonathan in The Millionairess, by George Bernard Shaw, in May 1987, and these two incredible artists fortunately agreed to join this project. Richard Paradise was a rock drummer and a great sound person (he was my sound effects assistant when I directed another Shaw play, Passion, Poison and Petrifaction — a play for which Noah designed the set and props, another story that I’ll tell someday, with pictures). Al was a fantastic jazz drummer and singer, talents I did not hesitate to exploit for this performance.
The press release said that I would “perform a one hour play utilizing the folk art objects as props for a set design.” That made sense, but I wanted to have the performance be as much “folk art” as the art on the walls and on the floor. To me, theater began as story telling, so I wanted the performance to take up the theme of folk art by telling stories.
The first story I used was a Finnish folk tale called “The Pig-Headed Wife.” I pulled it from a book of folk tales, and turned it into a little play with a narrator. It began:
When Orville married Gertrude, he thought she was the pleasantest woman in the world.
Gertrude, you are the pleasantest woman in the world.
Why, thank you Orville.
But it didn’t take long for Gertie to show her real character. She was headstrong and had to have her own way. Now Orville believed that:
A husband is the head of the house. He rules the roost. Gertie, you must obey me.
But the more Orville asked, the more stubborn and pigheaded Gertrude became. If he asked her to do one thing, she was bound to do the other. It got to the point that if Orville said —
Gertrude would say —
If Orville said —
Gertrude would say —
And their conversations always sounded something like this:
You get the idea. It was a charming story, and one can certainly see where this kind of story telling would lead to (does Taming of the Shrew ring a bell?).
To keep with the folk-tale idea, I designed and painted masks that the actors held on poles as they portrayed the various characters. You can see them here, and probably guess all the characters.
Another story used was “The Ostrich and the Mouse,” an Italian folk tale. You can probably guess which masks were used for that.
To give a sense of how folk tales could be turned into folk art, we also had a staged reading of “The Death of the Hired Man” by Robert Frost. I still think that is one of the most brilliant “stories” in poetic form ever written, and Holly and Jonathan were magnificent.
I also wanted to show how story telling remained a part of our lives. I decided to evoke the ghost stories we used to tell around the campfire in the “good old days” (that is, the times at Blue Mountain Methodist Camp when I wasn’t writing home whining about how much I hated the bugs and poison ivy). And I wanted to show how stories could be told as much with sound as with visual aids.
That story, presented below, is “Ghost Story.” And yes, it starts, “It was a dark and gloomy night.” How else is a ghost story to begin? No masks, but try to imagine the sound effects.
Copyright © 1988 by Susan Kirby
It was a dark and gloomy night. Desmond Denton, 80 years old, sat in his easy chair in the second floor study of his small house, reading the newspaper. Outside the wind blew
and rain beat against the window pane.
Lightning flashed, and thunder ...
echoed through the house as Desmond’s eye fell upon a small notice at the bottom of the page. “Charles Plankton,” Desmond muttered to himself. “That name sounds familiar.” He read the small article to himself. Then he turned the page.
“Charles Plankton ...” But Desmond could no longer rely on memory, which had begun to fade a few years back.
Desmond folded the paper and put it next to the chair. He sat back and listened to the ticking of the clock
as he watched the last of the embers in the fireplace die out.
The clock struck midnight.
(CHIMES — 13)
“Thirteen?” Desmond asked himself, not trusting even his ability to count. He looked at the clock, and then compared the midnight hour shown there with the gold pocket watch he wore on a golden chain attached to his vest. The pocket watch pointed both hands at twelve, and since the pocket watch had not been wrong in more than fifty years, he believed it was indeed midnight. Desmond decided to go to his bedroom and undress, ready for sleep once again, but before he could arise ...
a clap of thunder shook the house, and the single lamp flickered and went out.
Desmond sat in darkness a moment, adjusting to the realization of the blackout. Then he opened the drawer in the little table next to him ... felt in the drawer, and pulled out a candle and a box of matches he kept there for emergencies such as these. He struck a match ... and lit the candle.
As Desmond stood up, deciding to head for the bedroom, another flash of lightning was followed by yet another clap of thunder.
Then Desmond heard the front door open.
Then heard the door close.
Then he heard the sounds of footsteps on the stairs.
(TWO STEPS, SKELETAL RATTLING)
Someone was in his house!
Someone was on his stairs!
Desmond hobbled to the study door and turned the key in the lock.
(KEY LOCKING — CLICK)
The steps grew louder, then stopped.
(STEP, STEP, RATTLE RATTLE)
Desmond stood at the door, candle in hand, and listened. There was silence.
Desmond thought he heard a noise ...
but realized it was only the thumping of his own heart.
There was a soft knocking on the door.
(THREE SOFT KNOCKS)
“Who’s there?” Desmond found the courage to ask. The knocks grew louder.
(THREE LOUDER KNOCKS)
“Who’s there?” Desmond repeated.
(THREE VERY LOUD KNOCKS)
“Answer me or go away!” Desmond shouted. There was another silence ...
and once again, all Desmond heard was the beating ...
(THREE HEARTBEATS, SOMEWHAT FASTER)
of his own heart.
(THREE TERRIFYINGLY LOUD KNOCKS)
caused Desmond to back away. He groped to his nightstand and picked up the phone — but the line was dead. Outside the wind blew ...
and the rain hit the window pane.
Desmond quaked ...
Someone was trying to turn the doorknob.
(CLICK OF KEY IN LOCK)
Desmond heard the lock click. He heard the doorknob turn ...
Desmond grabbed the cane he had next to his chair and lifted it as he watched the door slowly open in the flickering candlelight.
The door now stood open and a gust of wind ...
filled the room, tinkling the little crystals that hung from the now-dark chandelier.
Desmond could see the light from his candle flicker down the hallway. But there was no one there!
Then Desmond heard ...
(STEP STEP, RATTLE RATTLE)
Someone had walked into the study ... Desmond threw his cane at the open doorway. It crashed to the floor.
Desmond could feel a presence, but could see no one.
“Is someone there?”
(SILENCE ... THEN ONE TAP)
“Who is it?”
“Who’s there? I’m an old man. Don’t frighten me! I know someone’s there!”
Desmond felt his knees begin to buckle. “Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked in as brave a voice as he could muster, and he slowly felt his way to his chair and sat down. His candle, which he still held, cast flickering macabre shadows on the wall. But Desmond could still see no one.
Desmond finally got the courage to inquire,
“Whoever you are, are you still here?”
“Does that mean yes?”
“All right. One tap is yes.”
“Are you here to hurt me?”
“I hope that means no. Dear God, I hope that means no. One tap for yes, two for no, is that right?”
“Good.” Desmond could still hear his heart pounding ...
but it seemed to be a little less loud.
“Do I know you?”
“I do? Are you my dear wife, Sadie, who died six years ago?”
“No? Are you a woman?”
“No. A man, then.”
“I hope this isn’t twenty questions.”
“A man, and I know you. But I’ve known so many people? I’m 80 years old. I was a lawyer, then a judge. Oh no! You’re not one ...”
Desmond’s heart beat faster in fear, “You’re not one of those I sent to jail? Are you here for revenge?”
“No? Thank God, thank God. But it’s so hard — are you my father, then? Dear Father, who died when I was 15?”
“No? No, you wouldn’t have waited so long ... unless ... are you Death, come to take me to heaven?”
“Not Death? ... But ... you are dead?”
|“Then who are you? Who? A relative?”
(SILENCE, THEN ONE TAP)
“A friend. But you hesitated ... you’re not sure?”
“Did I think of you as friend?”
“Did you betray me, are you here to make amends?”
“No? ... Did I betray you?”
“And you want revenge?”
“No? No? Then why are you here? What do you want? Help me! I cannot see you! Give me a clue, a hint!”
(TOM TOM BEAT)
“An Indian? I know no Indians!”
(TAP TAP, THEN A SLOW JAZZ BEAT STARTS)
“I remember that ... I remember that beat. But my memory plays tricks on me. The years jumble together ...”
(JAZZ BEAT CONTINUES)
“You were a musician?”
“And from my distant past ... from my distant, distant past.”
“I cannot remember! Help me, give me another clue!”
(TRAIN ON TRACKS)
“A train ... is that a train?”
“That sound, it is in my bones.”
(JAZZ BEAT, THEN TRAIN AGAIN)
“But it was so long ago ... when I rode the rails, jumped the boxcars in the Depression, in the ‘30s. And there were so many I came in contact with, so many, how can I remember?”
(JAZZ BEAT AGAIN, PERHAPS DIFFERENT, MORE MOURNFUL)
“I knew you well?”
“You were my friend? We were not just riders on that train ... those trains ... we shared ...”
“I try ... I try to remember. It’s in a fog ... give me time.”
Desmond sat in the chair, scanning the memory cells that blurred and sharpened in many images.
The clock ticked on the mantlepiece ...
then chimed the hour.
“I remember. Yes, I remember now. Charles Plankton. Porkpie Plankton, that’s the name we called you then. I knew it sounded familiar.”
“You were a drummer then ... You’d been famous ... in the twenties ... yes ... but then the Depression ... you were out of work ...”
“You called me Beans ...”
“I was out of work, lost, searching ... so young. We were desperate men in those days ...”
“I read tonight you died on Friday ...”
“And you remembered me ...”
“Did you come to say goodbye to an old friend?”
“Then why? Why are you here? Why look me up now, after all these years?”
(A SERIES OF FRUSTRATED TAPPING)
“I’m trying to remember! So long ago ... so long ago.”
“On the train ... the train ...”
“Yes ... you played that with your brushes ... you were never without your brushes ...”
“Or your pocket watch ... oh ... yes ... the one your father gave you.”
“You said — ‘As long as I live, I’ll never give them up — my brushes or my watch. They are my good luck charms. I may be down now, but with these I got hope. As long as I have them,’ you said, ‘I’m okay.’ ”
“Did you ever find another band?”
“I’m sorry. The article ... the ... obituary in the paper ... it said you died in poverty, a burial in Potter’s Field.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I had known.”
“Did you still have the watch?”
(A SERIES OF ANGRY TAPS)
“No! No! You didn’t, of course you didn’t. How can I fool a spirit? You know, don’t you!”
“And did you know then?”
“I needed a good luck charm ... you had your music. I had nothing.”
“I thought I had nothing.”
“I took your watch ...”
“and I accused that other guy ... But you knew ...”
“And you didn’t try to stop me when I jumped off in that little town in Pennsylvania ...”
“That’s when my luck changed. I got a job ... I worked ... went to school ... married a beautiful woman ... two beautiful and successful children ...”
“And you died with nothing.”
“I stole your luck ...”
“I was a judge, you know, a punisher of men!”
“And yet, you didn’t judge me. You didn’t punish me. Why not? Unless ... are you angry? Have you come to judge me now?”
“No? What then?”
(THE CLOCK CHIMES ONCE, THEN CHIMES TWO CHIMES)
“The good luck charm ... you’ve come for your watch ... You want it back.”
Desmond reached in his pocket and pulled out the watch on the golden chain. He had worn it almost 60 years. He unclipped the watch and extended his hand ...
The wind blew ...
The rain beat against the window ...
Lightning flashed, and a clap of thunder ...
Desmond sat still. “Goodbye, old friend. I’m sorry.”
(ANSWERING SOUND OF SLOW JAZZ BEAT)
Then the eerie footsteps echoed across the room ...
The door creaked ...
then shut ...
tinkling the little crystals on the chandelier with its breeze.
The next morning, when Desmond’s housekeeper opened the study door, she discovered the old man in his chair.
“A heart attack, I imagine,” the housekeeper told her sister later that evening. “It’s funny, though, his face was sort of ... peaceful, I don’t know ... as if he was listenin’ to and seein’ somethin’ real nice. But something real strange ... You know that watch I told you about, the one he always said to me, ‘Millie, I’m never without it, it’s my good luck charm’? ... Well, it was gone! Vanished! I looked everywhere for it. I hope his daughter don’t be accusin’ me of takin’ it.”
For years the house was empty ... Desmond’s daughter tried to rent it ... but those that moved in quickly moved out. They said the house was haunted. Especially the study.
After a while the daughter sold the house ... it was torn down and condominiums put up in its place.
But on rainy nights ...
when lightning flashes and thunder strikes ...
There are those that say they hear strange sounds ...
(CLOCK, CHIMES, TRAIN, AND SLOW, MOURNFUL JAZZ BEAT FADING OUT)