The Folktellers invite the
audience to join them
"Where the Wild Things Are"
by Barbara Home Stewart, a free-lance writer, lecturer,
and former newspaper and magazine editor
©1978 Barbara Home Stewart
My first close encounter with Barbara Freeman
was in 1973 when I visited the Chattanooga Public Library
in Tennessee in search of a feature story for the Roadrunner's
Report, a library service department newsletter which
I produced for J. B. Lippincott. Speaking to her was an
experience. I knew at once that I was in the presence
of a new kind of solar energy. Listening to her nonstop,
mile-a-minute conversation was like standing next to a
grindstone and watching the sparks pop off in all directions.
Her sparks were ideas and they were generated by her desire
to make children aware of the power of books.
On that first visit I knew I had met a
true mover and shaker of the library world. With innate
artistry and determination, Barbara Freeman had transformed
a dull, dingy, old Carnegie library children's room into
an enchanted underworld. A 30-foot plywood storytelling
castle was standing across one corner of the room. In
a single craft day held in the castle (which was guarded
by that knight in tarnished armor, Sir Read-a-Lot, cousin
to Lance) over 100 children jammed inside the plywood
haven. Outside, another 100 watched a film while waiting
for their turn to enter.
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The ingenuity of Barbara's programs and
the audacity of her approach to children's literature
most likely were influenced by her background as a horseback
riding instructor, lifeguard, bus girl in Yellowstone
National Park, and her years of teaching seventh grade
students before earning her M.L.S. degree.
So in 1975 it was no real surprise when
I received a phone call from Barbara telling me that she
and her first cousin, Connie Regan, had quit their library
jobs, pooled their life savings of $2000, and gone on
the road as "The Folktellers." Amid a tumble
of words, Barbara brought me up to date on happenings.
My excitement grew as I learned more about Connie. "Connie
has a creative streak a mile long. From 1972 to 1975 she
was coordinator of an outreach library program she named
M.O.R.E. (Making Our Reading Enjoyable). And with the
storytelling name of 'Ms. Daisy,' Connie took films, puppets,
tales, and lots of love and talent to Chattanooga's children
in day-care centers. We both loved our jobs, but we're
going to try to make it on our own."
Barbara continued, "We both realized
that our storytelling was a doorway to the imagination
for both youngsters and adults. In some cases, it was
an avenue to experiences that couldn't be provided by
books on a shelf. We began thinking that the storytelling
itself, - the telling, listening, and the sharing - might
have a valuable meaning for many people outside the reach
of the Chattanooga Public Library. So, we counted up our
assets, pooled our pennies, and took the plunge . . .
Although I never had a chance to travel
with them or share their experiences, I was able in a
small way to feel that I had been a part of the journey.
On a week's advance notice of their arrival in Philadelphia
that spring, I invited 15 school and public librarians
to my home to meet "The Folktellers."
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(above) changes voices for different characterizations
and uses a wide variety of facial expressions and gestures.
Connie (below) uses the full range of her voice, with
all its lyric highs and somber lows."
As these two storytellers unfolded tale
after tale, the brick walls of suburbia melted away like
the walls of the attic where the magic godmother lived
in George MacDonald's beloved The Princess and the
Goblins, and for a few moments, the dinner guests
were lost in another, faraway world . . . a world where
a ghostly image of a woman who was buried alive floated
through a misty countryside as two white horses neighed
in greeting; a world where wild Sendakian things grew
larger than the pages of a children's book as Max's ghoulish
comrades loomed over us in the dark shadows of our imaginations.
When the last folktale was over and we
had returned to reality no one spoke for a moment - and
then everyone spoke at once.
"When can you do a program for the
Free Library and the Catholic Library Association?"
asked Carolyn W. Field, coordinator of children's services
at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
"How much lead time do you need for
bookings?" asked assistant coordinator Helen Mullen.
"Do you have special programs for preschoolers?"
inquired Beatrice Kalaminsky, former president of the
Philadelphia Association of School Librarians.
"Can the children see your pickup
truck D'Put?" asked Marian Peck, Norristown children's
"How can we reach you when you're
on the road?" questioned Dorothy Stanaitis, children's
librarian at Gloucester Public Library in New Jersey.
And so it went - until we all ran out of
questions and the clock ran out of time. But in the months
and years to come, The Folktellers realized many profitable
engagements from this initial introduction to Philadelphia's
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The next morning, however, at the breakfast
table, my "helping hand" took the form of a
figurative slap on the two women's wrists when we began
discussing their very modest fees. After we analyzed their
current rates, they quickly saw they were earning only
pennies an hour-after subtracting food, shelter, car maintenance,
promotional brochures, postage, and so on from their fees.
That morning at our kitchen table proved a financial turning
point. Phone calls from both Folktellers over the next
several months related their surprise and delight that
sponsors did not "blink an eye" at their updated
fees, which are still, by modern standards, very moderate.
"The first year," Connie related,
'we cleared all of $400 after expenses. The second year
we did a little better. And believe it or not - this third
year we're actually going to have to pay income taxes!"
"We're pleased with how we've worked
out our fees," Barbara continued. "We charge
$500 for a festival weekend, $300 for a concert performance,
and $100 each workshop hour. We are still keeping our
school rates low - around $100 a program. There is also
a transportation fee depending on our expenses."
"When we first started out,"
Connie added, "we didn't realize this was going to
be a career - it was more of a professional adventure.
That first year we mostly stayed with friends along the
way and sometimes slept in the truck. We were able to
get by since neither of us spends very much money - we're
both very frugal, and the D'Put doesn't take much gas.
But within the past eight months, we've been making enough
to live on, and the future looks exceptionally bright.
The two Folktellers have come a long way
- much more than the 60,000 miles registered on D'Put's
odometer - since making that decision to venture into
the shaky but exciting world of the free- lance entrepreneur.
They have presented over 600 programs, often as many as
four a day.
They have appeared at Mariposa in Toronto
and the Winnipeg Folk Festival - both in Canada, the 24th
Annual International Folklore Festival in England, and
most recently, at the National Storytelling Festival in
Jonesboro, Tennessee. This month they will take part in
the Fall Book Fest sponsored by the Carnegie Library of
Pittsburgh. Past appearances have included an all day
workshop for the Catholic Library Association in St. Louis
and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap in Washington,
D.C. They have demonstrated storytelling techniques at
the New York Public Library and taught courses at Old
Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and at Pace University
in New York. In the spring of 1979 they will make a trip
to California and plan to perform along the way.
But the story of that long bumpy journey
is best told by observing them at a festival . . .
Amid greetings from all sides, D'Put bumps
to a stop at the edge of a large clearing in a field at
Jonesboro, Tennessee, and the two attractive smiling young
women in denim coveralls and brogans hop out. Barbara
and Connie lower the tailgate of the camper and begin
pulling out armfuls of fascinating props - a six-foot
crocheted boa constrictor, a mouse with wings, assorted
handmade puppets, an old-time banjo, and several mountain-made
limber jacks. Arms filled, they head for the improvised
wooden stage to join their fellow performers at the prestigious
National Storytelling Festival.
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Within a half hour the meadow is jammed
with vehicles, blankets, camp chairs, and stools as hundreds
of people from all over the country gather to listen,
share, and participate in this very special form of entertainment.
The Folktellers begin their virtuoso storytelling
performance with a spine-chilling horror story. Then they
tell a tale in tandem, cleverly swapping lines and saying
some words in harmony. Seeing the two perform in this
spoken duet, harmonizing their minds and voices and gestures,
one senses a rare comradeship between them. Contrasted
with Barbara's lighter, comic touch, Connie's delivery
reveals such intensity and power that she rivets you attention
to her folktale, whether she is shouting dramatically
In her delivery Barbara changes voices for different characterizations
and uses a wide variety of facial expressions and gestures.
Connie uses the full range of her voice, with all its
lyric highs and somber lows. The audience does not fail
to sense these special traits. They listen spellbound,
and when The Folktellers finish their set with a rollicking
grandfather tale, the listeners respond with chuckles
"Working with young people
keeps them constantly on their toes ... their enormous
vitality and enthusiasm keeps restive preschoolers perched
on seat edges- wide-eyed and wondering." The Folktellers'
bag of tricks includes a six-foot boa constrictor, hand
puppets, and dancing "limberjacks"
After the show, the crowd surrounds The
Folktellers asking questions, volunteering stories the
women "might like to use in their act," and
offering room and board, companionship, and jobs for them
on their next visit to the area. This wonderfully warm
scene happens all over the country - be it a storytelling
event or a folk-music happening. Once, in New York, after
the two had introduced storytelling into a traditional
music festival, one man stood apart, hesitant to come
forward. Connie noticed him and put out her hand to shake
his. He took a moment to search for words, and then confessed:
"Listen you two, I want you to know
something. When they announced storytelling, I thought
to myself, this is a good time to take a break. But you
won me! And I want you never to have a second's worry
if you walk out on stage and see some darned fool like
me rising to leave his seat, not knowing the treat in
store for him. Don't worry a bit! You just start right
in, and he'll love it, just as I did."
The two women thank him - he had made their
whole week! "After a concert, people are eager to
share stories with us," Barbara says. "Some
are pretty disjointed - they're straining to remember
the details, and some tell dirty jokes, not to be crude
but just because that's what they know and they're dying
to share something. Folktelling puts them in that kind
The Folktellers share storytelling
techniques with Elizabethton, Tennessee teachers and librarians
through their workshop, "Creative Outreaches in Storytelling"
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"Storytelling," Connie interjects,
"is a rare and intimate touching of people's minds
and memories in a special way. It's a different kind of
storytelling we do than what you'd hear on a back porch.
It's changed a bit, once it is delivered from a stage
and behind a microphone, but it is still very personal.
In so many forms of entertainment today you simply sit
back and things are done to you or for you. But in storytelling
the listener is very actively involved creating the images
from the words. We believe that's what makes this special
bond between the listeners and the tellers. In our Folktelling,
we're trying to restore what television is destroying
- the ability to visualize, to use one's imagination.
If I describe a monster to you with claws and wings and
a beak that tears flesh, your imagination can soar. Your
monster could be quite mild and tame compared to the huge
Godzilla gorilla thing lurking in another person's imagination.
The listeners are working right along with the storyteller;
both are conjuring up all those mind pictures and the
story comes alive."
She continues, "Since the story- telling
images can be so powerful, we are careful in selecting
stories for each age group and we try to be sensitive
to the fact that younger children can be upset by frightening
stories, especially since they can't crawl up into our
laps and be comforted at the end. Sometimes people will
say, 'Kids have seen all that on TV - you can't scare
them.' But with storytelling, the images are so much more
vivid and real. It's not your eyes doing the work but
your mind. When the telling is over, we don't want a lot
of frightened children. Instead, we want them to have
rather fond and exciting memories and an intense desire
to read tales and tell them."
"Storytelling is very different from
watching TV," Barbara adds. "TV is a passive
one-way means of communication but in storytelling there's
immediate interaction between the person telling the story
and the audience."
How do they start a Folkteller concert?
For an assembly of preschoolers through third grade, usually
they get the audience into the swing of it by taking them
all on an imaginary bear hunt with hand motions to scout
things out and sounds of sloshing and squashing through
mud. Once the bear is spotted, there's a frantic retracing
of events, which invariably produces giggles of joy. Then
they change the tempo by asking the children to stand,
open their closet doors to get out their wolf suits, step
into them, zip them up, get their ears on straight, open
their dresser drawers take their claws out and put them
on. Then everyone tries a low roar and a little gnashing
of teeth, before holding out their tails to one side so
they can sit back down and hear the wonderful story of
Max in Where the Wild Things Are.
When everyone is in a suitable mood, Barbara
produces a large bag (or a sack, if she's down south)
and slowly, suspensefully pulls forth her six-foot boa
constrictor to everyone's delight. The lovable Crictor
obligingly undulates into a living alphabet, scout knots,
and numbers, while the story twists into the delightful
tale by Tomi Ungerer.
Working with young people keeps them constantly
on their toes, since flexibility and spontaneity are absolute
essentials. The Folktellers move at a fast clip. Their
enormous vitality and enthusiasm keep restive preschoolers
perched on seat edges-wide-eyed and wondering. Their constantly
surprising bag of verbal tricks often ends with a fun-filled
question, "Do you know how to get a gob of peanut
butter off the roof of your mouth?" (Spoken rather
lumpily, as if it were still there).
In school programs for fourth through sixth
grades, they blend mountain tales with contemporary stories
ranging from humor to mild horror. This age is often captivated
by stories with a song (cante fables), "hambone happenings”
and “good ol' grand- father tales."
Which group presents the greatest challenge?
"No doubt about it," Barbara grins, "the
super-cool junior and senior high students. They come
into the auditorium with a sophisticated swagger, daring
us to prove that storytelling isn't strictly kid stuff.
So at these concerts it's imperative that we grab them
by the shirt collars (figuratively) in the first few seconds.
That's a vital time. But we've never lost an audience
yet, young or old. It may be because we believe in the
art, love it so intensely, or because we display professional
confidence from the outset.
Once before an adult concert for a thousand
people one skeptic cornered us. 'I don't want to be rude,
but how do you ever keep people's attention for over ten
minutes with something like storytelling?' he asked. We
told him just to give it a try. After the concert, the
man stopped us and shook his head, 'I'm really embarrassed!
It's not how can you hold somebody's attention for ten
minutes - but what can I do to make this enchanting evening
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"We hope to fire up their imaginations,"
Connie continues, "so that they will not only leave
as converts, but will also be stimulated to try telling
some stories themselves, and perhaps be excited about
taping and preserving their own families' stories."
One way the Folktellers reach potential
storytellers is to conduct workshops on the concrete techniques
and how-to's of the art of storytelling.
But there's always more to
learn. Connie and Barbara pass a lazy summer afternoon
on the porch of Ray Hicks' home listening to the master
These sessions, called "Creative Outreaches
of Storytelling," range from one to 30 hours and
offer practical, dynamic ideas that educators can use
in the classroom the very next day. The cousins show how
to work with sock puppets, flannel boards, props, music,
creative dramatics, book talks, and other techniques of
reaching children through storytelling. In these workshops
they emphasize the beauty of telling picture books as
opposed to reading them. And how to tell them, word for
word, to preserve the author's rhythm and story line.
They have also compiled a listing of their favorite stories
with hints on how to tell them.
Would they advise other librarians to become
Folktellers? "Yes! If that's what they love most
about their jobs. At school concerts we really encourage
children to consider alternate life styles, to think of
career options. And we've not only got letters from children
saying they've decided to be storytellers when they grow
up, but three adult friends of ours who talked to us at
the onset have since left their jobs as librarians to
travel as storytellers! We correspond regularly with Nancy
Schimmel and Carol Leita, both from the San Francisco
area, and with Sharon Luster, a traveling storyteller
and clown who uses the stage name of 'Olio.' "
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And the pace? "When we left the library,
our friends were oohing and ahhing over all the free time
we would have . . . time to sit by a babbling brook and
read, keep a journal, and just contemplate. But since
day one, life on the road has been a fast-moving tumble
of events ... and we have never managed to find that brook,
only more and more streams that lead deeper into storytelling.
Our life has been filled with rewards but everything has
its yin and yang. For us it comes down to just a few negatives.
Letters have to be written - even when you are bone tired
and your only desk is the steering wheel of D'Put. Weight
gain is also a problem, from fast food to home-cooked
feasts. And once our camper was broken into and nearly
all of our belongings were stolen - including irreplaceable
tapes of storytellers. "
Summing up their experiences, Barbara and Connie speak
of the many happy times they've had . . . lazy summer
afternoons on the porch of Ray Hicks' home on Beach Mountain
in North Carolina watching the shifting light and soaking
in the words of a master storyteller . . . holding a crowd
of passersby spellbound as they performed their storytelling
craft on the streets of Greenwich nVillage in New York
City (and getting fifty dollars in donations by passing
the hat) . . . being filmed for a special feature on public
broadcasting system's WSJK (a film devoted entirely to
the Folktellers' activities) . . . chuckling over the
puzzled took on the face of a man who came to the tailgate
of their pickup, slapped down a dollar bill and asked,
"Are you a coffee wagon?" . . . and remembering
all the people who have fed them and opened their homes
to them during their journey.
The itinerant modern-day Folktellers, Connie Regan and
Barbara Freeman, may be the precursors of a new wave of
librarians who are changing their lives to bring an age-old
art back to the people.
D'Put: The Folktellers home
on the road
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