Years ago, as a teacher, Jim May went to the National Storytelling Festival looking for a tale or two to bring back to his fifth grade class. What he found was a whole new perspective on life that led him to become an Emmy Award-winning storyteller.
“I grew up in a very deep dogmatic religious tradition, the Roman Catholic Church,” he explains. “So much of the doctrine is connected with story. Anybody who has grown up with a religious tradition knows myth — the ancient meaning of myth, which is the absolute core of what you hold to be true in the world. As I learned more about storytelling, I saw that these traditional stories are not just simple folk tales about everyday life. They were these great myths that told about the arch of human civilization. That connected with the old stories I had heard growing up.”
Having been raised in a tiny farming community in Northern Illinois, May found himself drawn to tales with roots in other rural communities. The Jack tales of Ray Hicks and the folk tales of Jackie Torrence resonated with him at that first festival.
“Interestingly enough, you can find that global aspect in stories that Ray Hicks told in North Carolina,” he says. “They have echoes in them.
“I think a lot of stories were passed from mouths to ears before written language,” he continues. “Certainly before the printing press, people had to go to some effort to remember these stories. Clearly, there’s an implication that they were really necessary for the survival of the human race. Storytellers went to so much trouble and effort to learn them and pass them on.”
May’s own repertoire includes a number of personal stories about his own slice of life growing up on a farm. He also frequently dips into folk tales and myths from around the world. He will share a wide variety of tales as teller in residence for Storytelling Live!, a special seasonal series sponsored by the International Storytelling Center.
May will offer daily matinees Aug. 30-Sept. 3 in downtown Jonesborough. All performances begin at 2 p.m. in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, an intimate theater in the heart of the International Storytelling Center. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations are strongly recommended.
The storyteller often looks for a personal connection with the folk tales he has collected from around the globe. He has a new story about a marsh creature from 18th-century England that has a surprising link to his life today.
“It’s kind of a spooky morality tale about nature,” he says, explaining the ecological and cultural upset that was caused when Dutch engineers drained the English wetlands. “It’s not only creepy and fun, but it has a lot of truth about how the marsh was an important part of people’s lives and how wetlands helped the people survive.
“There’s a lot of concern about draining wetlands here in the country to make them available for farming,” he continues, referring to the land around his own farm. “The conservation groups are reclaiming and buying up that property and taking the drains out and returning them back to the marshes. So I’m sort of living out that environmental mortality tale I came upon last year in a collection of folk tales.”
During his weeklong residency, May plans to lead a special workshop, “Utilizing Storytelling in Communication,” from 9 to 11 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 1. The workshop is based on the idea that information presented as a narrative — in other words, as a story — is much easier than plain facts for listeners to process and remember. The workshop is appropriate for anyone who wants to learn how to communicate better in their personal or professional lives.
Tickets for May’s matinee performances are $12 for adults and $11 for seniors, students and children under 18. Ticket stubs will save audience members 10 percent on same-day dining at Bistro 105, The Cranberry Thistle, The Dining Room, or Main Street Café.
The International Storytelling Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Storytelling Live! is sponsored by Mountain States Health Alliance and Phil Bachman Toyota Scion. Media sponsors are News 5-WCYB, FOX Tri-Cities, Tri-Cities CW4, Johnson City Press, Kingsport Times-News and Citadel Broadcasting.
A detailed schedule of the 2011 Storytelling Live! season is available at storytellingcenter.net.
For group reservations or more information, call (800) 952-8392 ext. 222 or (423) 913-1276.