ON THE SCENE: Storytelling is the oldest art form

From left are Mac MacDevitt, of the Bell Fire Art Collective, and Scott Whitehair, a storyteller from Chicago. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Storytelling is the oldest art form. One can easily imagine our ancient ancestors telling others about a successful hunt, how a saber-toothed tiger nearly got one had it not been for the quick thinking of another. The story might have been about a grandmother to her granddaughter sharing some experiences she had as a child. Sometimes, the storyteller might have drawn images in the sand to illustrate the story or used charcoal to capture the moment for future generations.

Before writing, telling stories was how knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, with some people becoming revered, people who could tell the story in such a way that others could imagine what the event was like.

Chicago professional storyteller Scott Whitehair is such a person, brought to Keene Valley and Whallonsburg from Sept. 15 to 17 by funds provided by the New York State Council for the Arts Statewide Community Regrants Program administered by the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts.

Whitehair is the producer of “This Much is True,” one of the longest-running personal narrative series in Chicago, Story Lab Chicago and Do Not Submit, an ever-expanding of open mics established to use storytelling to foster community ties. Whitehair’s mission is to empower people to tell their stories and expand audiences for storytelling. He has led hundreds of workshops for people of all ages, for Fortune 500 executives, university, and public school faculty and students and theater camps and seminars for people of all ages and backgrounds.

“Friends of mine, from back when I was a kid, said to me, it’s nice that people are now asking you to do the thing that everybody asked you to stop doing when you were 12,” said Whitehair. “So storytelling is something that I’ve always been doing. I grew up in a storytelling culture, not as a performance, but as something people did back in western Pennsylvania, back in the little river towns outside Pittsburgh. Families told stories, old men sitting on logs fishing and barbers told stories. It’s what we did. I’ve always listened to and told stories.”

While Whitehair loves to share his stories, his greater love is hearing the stories of others. He came to Keene Valley at the invitation of Mac MacDevitt of Essex, who, while living in Chicago for about five years, met and became inspired Whitehair to foster and expand storytelling in the Adirondacks.

MacDevitt returned to fertile soil, a region seeded and stimulated by the Adirondack Center for Writing and North Country Public Radio’s popular series called The Howl, true stories told without notes on live stages throughout the North Country. The difference is that while The Howl is held in a community near you about once a year, MacDevitt is working to establish them in November 2021 as a monthly opportunity as he has done at the Whallonsburg Grange’s Whitcomb Arts. Called SpeakEazy Storytelling Open Mic, the Bell Fire Art Collective organizes them and has also been held at the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay.

“Scott was a tremendous help to me with developing my storytelling,” said MacDevitt. I saw him work his magic with audiences and storytellers. I’m thrilled to have him come and share his stories and teaching skills in support of all those interested in this marvelous art form. He’s a legend. The Bell Fire Art Collective is honored to introduce him to the North Country, and we are grateful that the Keene Valley agreed to be the fiscal sponsor.”

Whitehair’s North Country activities included a Friday night performance and discussion about storytelling held at the Keene Valley Library, two Saturday afternoon workshops, a Saturday evening performance at the Grange, and a Sunday evening Story Lab that featured local storytellers who participated in the afternoon workshops.

“Storytelling is inclusive,” said Whitehair. “I’ve yet to meet someone who can’t tell a story or doesn’t have a story. It’s folk art, and it’s ours. We all get to do it. There are no barriers to entry. Every one of us has time when we are more or less comfortable sharing our stories, stories that we are more comfortable with, less comfortable with. But if you are willing to put in the time, the more you tell stories, the more comfortable you’ll be at doing it.”

Whitehair said that while living and working in a restaurant in Chicago, he became introduced to storytelling as a career. One day, he did exceptionally well and had an extra hundred dollars. He planned on going out drinking, but en route to the bar, he passed a small theater with a sign in the window, “This weekend, solo performance workshops.” He wondered what that was about. He signed up for the workshop on his way back from having a few beers.

“The workshop completely changed my life,” said Whitehair. “What it was about was personal storytelling. At the end of the workshop sessions on Sunday, we told our stories on stage to a packed house. My new friends and I were hooked. We said we have to do more of this. None of us knew how to do that. None of us had produced a show or anything like that. We started by putting on shows in bars and coffee shops.”

In time, they created a mobile stage with a mic and speakers they could tow behind a bicycle. In time, they started getting gigs, making money, and being paid to teach others how to tell stories. One day, Whitehair got a call from a business manager asking if he could lead a workshop for their sales team. This radically expanded his earned income possibilities as each workshop led to others.

Whitehair shared several stories, inviting questions after each. He said that initially, he wrote out his stories until a member of the audience said that his notes were getting between himself and the audience. Whitehair learned that the key was telling stories repeatedly, listening to the audience, and making them better, and that’s OK if you don’t tell the story the same way each time. At one point, he asked everyone in the audience to tell a 90-second story to another; it became clear everyone had stories to tell and that one person’s account stimulated one another.

“I thought Scott’s presentation was wonderful,” said Amy Calkins. “He has a way of telling stories from his life that are very relatable. Scott comes across as very sincere. I learned how to own a story and turn around a potential rough ending by going backward or forward in time. He’s very descriptive; you can get a picture in your head of what’s happening, of the people and how you know people like that.”

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Mark Twain once said.

“Come to our storytelling sessions at Whitcomb Arts; details on the Grange’s calendar of events,” said MacDevitt.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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