Storytellers tell how they spin tales

Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 12:57 p.m. CDT; updated 2:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — It was a bad time for a dog to go missing in the woods. People in the area had spotted the Missouri monster, or Momo. Momo was not something to mess with. Storyteller Anthony Clark stretched his arms up to the sky to show how tall it was, and softened his voice to a whisper as he described the monster’s coal red eyes.

Despite the danger, Clark headed into the woods with his friend to search for his missing dog, Jake. He headed into a cave, following the sounds of a whimpering dog. Inside, his friend saw something shining in the crevice of a cave. Clark pantomimed his friend’s movement reaching into the crevice. He heard a slight rustle, and tilted his head. There was another rustle. And then...


Brown, Prater, Tyler, and Clark will perform on Saturday, Nov. 3 at the Lighthouse Theater with other storytellers. The event starts at 8 p.m. The Lighthouse Theater is off of I-170 at exit 137.

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Clark squealed immitating the sound of a million bats swarming. The audience gasped and collectively drew in a breath, letting it out as laughter. Clark was weaving a tale, and he had this audience in the palm of his hand.

“Every time they jump, they immediately laugh,” Clark said. “They are laughing at themselves because they just can’t believe that they were so caught up in it.”

Making the audience jump might be familiar to anyone who has told tales around a campfire. For experienced storytellers, creating jumps have certain rules. You don’t want to put a jump in too early – tension has to build before a jump can be effective. And putting more than one jump in a story can be tricky.

Later that night, Clark met with the three other storytellers who performed to take stock of their work. All of them are members of the Mid-Missouri Organization of Storytellers, or MOST, and all specialize in ghost stories. They met before the event to create, rehearse, and fine-tune stories, and then analyzed their success at Clark’s house that night. That’s why MOST was created 12 years ago – to give support, learn from each other’s methods and help storytellers find work.

This particular gig was a yearly ghost story event at the Heritage Festival. Audiences vary for storytelling, but for this particular event many people make it a tradition.

Theresa Reinkemeyer, 16, has been coming to the storytelling event for six years with her mother, Mary Ann. They come prepared with their own lawn chairs and apple cider, and said it is a good way to celebrate fall.

Creating A Personal Relationship

Any story can be tweaked to fit the mood and flow of the audience. Playing off the audience is what makes storytelling dynamic and gratifying, Clark said.

“There’s an excitement to see people’s immediate reaction when you are up there doing it. You can see on their faces, do they like it do they not like it?”

Larry Brown, one of the founders of MOST, said storytelling is unlike TV and movies, and even live acting, because the storyteller can create a personal relationship with the audience.

“It’s more like live music performance or live stand up comedy, where you have to interact with the audience. You don’t have the safety of big stage lights or safety of editing,” he said.

Brown said a lot of his practicing is done in front of a live audience.

“What happens if I pause there? Or if the audience laughs or responds in place I didn’t anticipate? Or I’ll be telling it and I’ll think of another aspect, another image ... so the story is always in process for me for years before it settles in,” Brown said.

Brown said he feeds off the audience, but also requires support and feedback of the other storytellers before and after a gig. Brown, a storyteller most of his life, started MOST when he realized that there were other storytellers in the area.

Awakening The Imagination

Greg Tyler tends to work on his stories in his mind. It could be two years before he thinks it’s time to reveal a new story. In the meantime, he said he tends to work on turns of phrases or bounce ideas off of Clark.

He said he tries to make the story come to life through details that any listener could make their own. At the September event, he told a story about a statue with kaleidoscope eyes, hoping that the open-ended description would draw the listener in.

“I like to give a listener enough information so they can pull it into their mind,” Tyler said. “What they see is what they are going to see. It is a lot scarier, what they see, than what I can tell them.”

Brown described this as thinness – putting in as few details as possible so that the story awakens the listener’s imagination.

Amy Prater, who started storytelling at the same time as Tyler, uses her own life to spark the imagination. One of her original stories features a Halloween party she had when she was 16. The party wasn’t real, but many of the characters were real friends of hers – except for a boy that collected young girls’ fingers.

“I think things are scarier when it’s something that could have happened to you. What made it believable were the real details that were about me and my life, and then the fear was real in the story,” Prater said.

Developing The Story

Prater said she’s notorious with the other MOST members for coming up with stories at the last minute. Her last story was an exception - it came about from an exercise she did with Clark and Tyler. Each pulled words out of a newspaper, and the others used the words to create stories. Her word was “masquerade.” That sparked a story about a masked Halloween party she began at that work session, and continued to tweak for a few months before she told it for the first time in September.

Tyler said he finds inspiration in the everyday details around him.

“I take little bits and pieces from things around me and can change them. A squirrel moving through tall grass, moving the grass away as it goes, that becomes two ghost children playing in the grass,” he said.

Clark said he likes to evoke “3-D images,” such as a crushed skull, or a cave full of bats, to draw the listener into the story. He said he plays on the natural fears people have, like a fear of darkness or claustrophobia, and brings his listeners to a cave in his story to really work those fears. He sometimes practices telling his stories in his car, using his cell phone as a decoy so people don’t think he’s talking to himself.

In September, some parts of Clark’s stories made audience members, especially the younger ones, cover their ears and eyes. A few kids had to step away with a parent. Clark said even the scariest parts can be positive.

“Some people like that. They hug their parents closely and it becomes a bonding experience. It’s not like I’ve had a parent come up to me so far and say, ‘Why did you do that? My kid will be marred for life,’” he said.

Brown said ghost stories can be like therapy.

“I think it’s also a healthier way to deal with fears, not to say anything against psychology, but you know it is sort of therapeutic. If you can work out fear in fantasy than your real life is not as fearful,” he said.

He said he thinks the appeal of ghost stories comes from the fascination and fear of death.

“There is that longing that this life is not all that there is. We want to have some assurance that there is something more, and ghosts sort of dance out there for you saying, well maybe there is something out there,” he said.

Coming At It From All Angles

All four storytellers came to the art from different backgrounds. Prater works as a clown. Tyler has a theater background. Clark, an economics professor at William Woods University, was working on children’s books when he saw a storyteller perform at Columbia’s First Night. And Brown, an assistant geography professor at MU, grew up with storytelling.

“When I look back on it I realize we told family stories, and particularly had a grandfather that always communicated with stories,” Brown said. “I think that was part of my upbringing.”

For the other three, each found a different reason to start. Tyler began with a more commercial focus, something he has said has died off.

“If I get a job, it’s like, that’s great I’ll go do it,” he said. “But if I set something up I can go in and do the stories that I want to do. If I accept a job, I accept the terms. When I listen to those stories, I don’t think I told ones that were true to me, they were more true to the dollar sign.”

Tyler said he has given up on birthday parties for good. “Have a lot of children there and you give them cakes and sugary stuff ... They’re not as focused. Once you get their attention, that’s usually not best circumstances for storytellers.”

Clark saw storytelling as an opportunity to get his stories out to the world, something he was finding difficult to accomplish through publishing. Now he estimates he’s told his tales, most of which he writes himself, to thousands of people.

Like Tyler, Clark has learned to be picky about where he tells tales.

“I was hired to do a program for a wedding rehearsal dinner. I did it, and as I was up there I could tell they were thinking, what is this guy doing here? I should have advised them to get a piano player,” Clark said.

In general, they say they stick to performances at libraries, schools, and festivals. Brown has performed at Millersburg preschool for about 20 years, returning for their ‘turn off the TV’ week.

Bringing Stories To Real Life

Clark and Brown, both professors, bring in storytelling to their classrooms. Clark said it’s a bit tricky to bring storytelling and economics together, but uses the story as a reward for students around Halloween. Brown said he finds it easy to combine his geography class with stories.

“Well, geography, it’s the whole world, and so one way that I understand other cultures of the world is to look at their stories. Storying is so much a part of culture that as a cultural geographer that it’s a natural fit,” he said.

Clark’s first audience was his son, who was five when he got to first listen to all new stories at their nightly bedtime ritual. Clark said he purposefully didn’t tell his wife and son the Momo story so that they would be surprised at it’s premiere. Later, his son told him it was his favorite to date.

Storytelling gives to the audience, but Tyler said the connection and performance aspect of it comes back to him.

“It’s like having a group of people and they are thirsty. You are able to hand them each this cup, then when comes back to you there’s still something in there for you,” he said.

Back To The Jump

After the bats and the laughter of the crowd quieted down, Clark continued his search for his dog. A little bit of fumbling for a flashlight, a run-in with a skull, and Clark had the audience built up for another scare.

In the corner, Clark’s dog Jake was whimpering. Grabbing him by the collar, Clark was ready to go. But Momo had other ideas.

A hairy arm grabbed him, and the audience, by surprise. The gasps and laughter were quieter for this jump.

In the end, Clark and Jake were dragged to safety by Clark’s father, who blocked entrance to the cave almost to the top with rocks. But there was a little room left at the top, just enough for Momo to escape and keep the story going.

Additional reporting by Lindsay Manigold.

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