Interview with Helen McKay, at Glistening Waters, Masterton, NZ.
Helen: Ed Stivender comes from Philadelphia, USA. Ed, would you like to tell us how you became involved with storytelling?
Ed: I was formerly a teacher. I used to teach religion at High school and tell Bible stories. It was in the telling of the Bible stories in the classroom that I really started my storytelling. Then, when I’d decided to leave teaching it happened.
It was a day when spring fever was about and we were due to go on Summer vacation. The kids weren’t paying much attention and, frustrated, I said to them, “Do you think I’m here because I like to hear myself talk?” They nodded. Later I thought about that and realised I had another career besides teaching to consider.
I joined up with Tom Kit Players’ Chlidren’s Theatre and worked with them for 2 years. In that time we did 13 different shows including a Bi-centenial piece called Johny and the Six Bag. The final piece I ddid was The Four Species with Mystical Marineland Aquarium. Then in 1979 I went out on my own.
Thanks to Connie Regan Blake from North Carolina, who is here in NZ at this festival, and her cousin, Barbara Freeman who travelled with her around the States, living in the back of her pickup truck and doing what I call storytelling missionary work throughout the country.
I met them at the Hartford Festival and they told me about the National Storytelling Festival at Jonesborough, Tennessee. I went down in 1976 and realised there was life after teaching. In 1977 I started doing my one-man shows and in 1980 I was invited to perform at the National Storytelling Festival, thanks to Connie and Barbara. As a result of that performance I began to get work throughout the country and I’ve been doing it since 1977.
Helen: Do you prefer telling to children or adults?
Ed: Both groups; I enjoy doing all age ranges. I like working with children and also with older folk. I find the most difficult form of storytelling is telling for the whole family, where you have 2 year-olds in the same audience as 80 year-olds. Because the different levels of experience and cognitive awareness that those levels have are so vast, it’s hard to serve all those levels at the same time. But, as a storyteller, you have to deal with it, so it’s very difficult.
Helen: Working with that kind of audience where would you programme your stories?
Ed: I tend, for better or worse to serve the lowest level of attention span. So if I have a bunch of 2 year-olds in the audience I target my stories to serve them. For the older ones it might not be as interesting as if I was targeting the middle range. My tendency is to constantly monitor my auddience at rest <197> that is <197> my audience is constantly giving me information about how my stories are affecting them <197> whether my material is interesting or not.
If there many very young children in the audience I direct my stories at them as if they become bored they can become antzy and cause problems for the rest of the audience. so although some of the older people might feel cheated I tend to serve the section of the audience which can create problems.
Helen: I understand what you mean. We have mixed audience story cafes and when adult stories are told the kids are sometomes bored and disruptive. It’s hard to get them back after you’ve lost them.
Ed: Yes it’s very hard to compromise when planning a programme.
Helen: I noticed in the telling I attended you told some classical literary pieces. Do you tell many of your own stories?
Ed: Sometimes I tell stories that I make up. When I first started telling I told traditional stories to which I would add my own twist. For instance, The Princess and the Frog I originally told as an Iambic pentameter piece, as though it were written by William Shakespeare. The way I do it now is without the iambic pentameter. My audiences showed me what they liked <197> what’s funny and what’s not. I did Jack Tales and Grimms Fairy Tales with my own special twist.
Then after a while I began to do some classic copyrighted material such as Many Moons by James Thurber which I had to memorise. Currently I am doing the Gift of the Magi which I memorise word for word. That is difficult for me <197>I don’t enjoy memorisation. I tell some scriptural stories with my own twist – such as a piece called The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Party, in which I act as St Francis of Assisi telling stories of the Bible with a comic edge to them. I try to keep close to the spirit of the stories but playing around with them for modern audiences.
In 1985, my friend, Jim May, suggested that I should tell some stories about growing up Catholic. I said No! No! No! I’ll just do my Jack Tales and my traditional tales <197> they’re on track. So we did a cabaret show together in 1986 called Raised Catholic – Can You Tell? He did his wonderful stories and I did three stories. Then a publishing fellow came from August House, Little Rock, Arkansas and said “Do you have any more of these stories? We’d like to do a book.”
So I said “Sure I’ll write some more stories”. I wrote about 15 stories called Raised Catholic. The problem was that I wanted to get the stories I’d written down back into oral form so I could perform them. That was a very difficult task. So I do three kinds of stories; my own versions of tradtitional stories, some memorised classical material and stories of growing up Catholic.
I can just say (with my tongue in my cheek) being a storyteller is the way a day dreamer moonlights and I’ve been a day dreamer since day one. It’s really nice to be able to moonlight and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do this, thanks to storytellers and listeners all over the world. It’s a gift from God.
Helen: Thank you Ed for a sharing a fascinating journey.
Ed: Well if you need me in Australia in the 3rd Millenium, I’d love to come.