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Jay O'Callahan's 'Spirit of the Great Auk' takes audiences on a 1,500-mile journey

staff report • Mar 24, 2013 at 5:21 AM

A career as an author never reached a climax for Jay O’Callahan, but his career as a storyteller has been quite novel. Thirty years after his first visit to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, O’Callahan is not only on “a short list of America’s foremost storytellers,” says festival founder Jimmy Neil Smith, but he is also a leader in America’s storytelling renaissance and a mentor to hundreds of novice and adept storytellers.

“Simply put, Jay is a one-man theater,” says Smith, also founder and president emeritus of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. “He is playwright, director and actor all rolled into one person. Further, he becomes all of the story’s characters — effectively employing his voice, gesture and timing to bring his story to life …

“Whether it’s the celebration of 50 years of space exploration or the 1,500-mile voyage of kayaker Dick Wheeler in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, Jay’s stories are all masterpieces.”

As the last in a three-part Mary B. Martin School of the Arts series called “When Worlds Collide,” O’Callahan will bring “The Spirit of the Great Auk” to East Tennessee State University’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium stage at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 28. Following the performance, O’Callahan and special guest Dick Wheeler will engage the audience in a question-and-answer session.

The tale recreates kayaker Wheeler’s 1,500-mile journey from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay, following the path of the now-extinct penguin-like Great Auk bird. To write the story of the odyssey, O’Callahan traveled from Nantucket to New Zealand himself, as well as spending much time with the kayaker.

“Along his journey, Wheeler learned about concerns of fishermen for the pollution in the sea and potential extinction of many other sea species because of over-harvesting,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “As it turns out, we didn’t learn many lessons from the extinction of the Great Auk. This is going to be a story that is very insightful, and I expect it to be a wonderful experience.”

O’Callahan told South Look Magazine that he wants his audiences to feel part of the adventure and the physical and inner struggles. “I want them to experience what’s happening to the sea,” the storyteller said, “and what’s happening to the fishermen in Canada, Maine, Marshfield ... and maybe they’ll think about how we relate to the sea and nature, not necessarily looking for answers or solutions, but maybe they’ll experience it in a new way ...

“It’s not my job to find a solution to the problem, but rather to bring you on a journey, to guide you through an experience that will give you a better sense of our place in the natural world ... I want people to suddenly be there, not in the room but in the kayak, paddling through the fog, struggling to keep the boat from turning over. That’s what makes a true adventure — something spiritual happens inside a person and they are changed. And if it is a huge enough adventure, they are changed forever. Dick Wheeler does not return the same man. He has changed.”

The projected adventure must work, because Maurice Ewing in the Journal of Tar Heel Tellers calls “The Spirit of the Great Auk” “arguably the finest example of epic story-crafting in modern times ... For 62 minutes, we felt the pain in our shoulders as we strained to make thousands of paddle strokes, we felt the deep solitude and penetrating loneliness of a single person on the open sea. We rode with the uncontrollable rise and fall of mountainous waves. We felt the smallness of a human in the vastness of an immense ocean, and the power, courage and determination of the human spirit under impossible circumstances. And we came to understand in a profound way the undeniable connection all humans have to the sea.”

This “man of elegance, wit and poetry,” as Time Magazine calls O’Callahan, grew up in a section of Brookline, Mass., called “Pill Hill” because so many doctors lived there. The magical house and grounds were a perfect setting for his parents’ parties, which were filled with singing, drama and conversation — a great atmosphere for a child’s imagination to blossom, says the artist’s website.

Determined to share his expertise and discoveries with a new generation of storytellers, he runs a writing workshop at his home as well as on the road. He is also a pioneer of “appreciations,” a technique to improve the skills of storytellers without any demoralizing consequences. “Appreciations” are a unique form of feedback that help creative professionals focus on developing their strengths.

“People think that pointing out faults is the only way to improve,” O’Callahan has said. “This is an ancient way of thinking. Appreciations are not about being polite. They are about pointing out what is alive. The recipient must take it in, incorporate it.”

Among his many honors, O’Callahan has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Storytelling Network and was the National Fine Arts Committee’s “official storyteller” of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

A National Storytelling Festival regular and favorite, one of his most recent stories, says Smith, is “Main Street, Jonesborough” — a one-hour tale, crafted from the collected memories of Jonesborough’s residents, that tells the story of Jonesborough’s rebirth.

Tickets for “The Spirit of the Great Auk” are $5 for all area students; $15 for general admission; and $10 for seniors 60 and over. College students need a valid student ID. Group discounts are available for general admission and senior tickets.

For more information on O’Callahan, visit www.ocallahan.com. To find out more about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call (423) 439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/cas/arts. “Like” ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter at TheArtsAtETSU.

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