Arts | New Jersey
The Storytelling Trance
Tom White for The New York Times
RELATING The audience at “SpeakEasy,” at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown.
By TAMMY LA GORCE
Published: March 26, 2010
Tom White for The New York Times
Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times
FOUNDER “As the teller, you have the stage to yourself,” said Gwendolyn Jones, who formed the Garden State Storytellers' League.
ONCE upon a time, a friend asked Vicki Ferentinos to stand in front of an audience and tell a story.
As Ms. Ferentinos, 36, an effervescent part-time comedian and the owner of a catering company, considered the request, she pondered the “blurry” line between comedy and storytelling.
“I thought I should be serious,” she said, “but even when there’s tragedy I like to put little bows on things.”
So Ms. Ferentinos used humor — as one of her favorite storytellers, Garrison Keillor, does — in writing her story, “Time to Make the Donuts,” about her lifelong struggle with her weight and the troubled childhood that informed it.
She presented it at “SpeakEasy,” a storytelling event this month at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown. Such storytelling events are being held throughout the state to prove that stories are not just for children.
Ms. Ferentinos read her story, which took 12 minutes, to about 90 adults sitting in folding chairs, some around tables. It met with knowing nods of sympathy. Belly laughs, too.
She had achieved what another New Jersey storyteller, Carol Titus, calls “the storyteller’s trance.”
“When adults go to a storytelling event, they say, ‘Oh, wow — I didn’t know anything like that existed,’ ” said Ms. Titus, 73, of Mount Tabor. “Stories are thought of as being for children, but when people remember sitting around the holiday table and the uncle telling the story of coming home from the war, or the story about how the family came to this country, they realize the importance of stories. Those stories are not for kids; they’re for everyone. They pull everyone in.”
Ms. Titus’s storytelling résumé runs long. She is the founder of the New Jersey Storytelling Network, a nonprofit group and Web site that connects tellers and listeners with local gatherings, events and festivals. She also runs storytelling workshops at the County College of Morris in Randolph Township, and coordinates the New Jersey Storytelling Guild, a 33-member group that meets once a month in Montclair.
The guild, which formed in 1985, alternates between workshops and story swaps at its meetings. Workshops delve into subjects like the differences among myth, folk tales and fairy tales. Story swaps are more hands-on; members exchange stories and constructive critiques.
“The meetings are a way to hone stories — we develop characters, work on dialogue. Things that help the story come across in a memorable way, whether it’s for adults or children,” Ms. Titus said.
One of the longest-running groups is the 89-member Garden State Storytellers’ League, formed by Gwendolyn Jones of Florence in 1982; it is affiliated with the National Storytellers’ League. At a recent monthly meeting of the Garden State league at the Hamilton Township library, a few dozen adults — what Ms. Jones, 79, called the core of the group — sat in a circle, waiting their turn to tell stories they hoped to perfect for an audience.
As in the guild, some members are paid professionals who tell tales at birthday parties or school events and volunteer to tell stories at retirement homes or hospitals.
All sat rapt throughout the telling of an English folk tale, about a boy who could never get his directions straight, by Doreen Shepard, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Columbus.
“I always explain that as the teller, you have the stage to yourself,” Ms. Jones said. “You must portray the characters, you must give the backdrop, so you are totally responsible for the story. And Doreen achieves that, because she is so sincere. She has that connectiveness. It makes you want to listen.”
The audience at “SpeakEasy,” at the Mayo Center, organized and hosted by the comedian Maureen Langan of Manhattan, also seemed to feel some sort of connectivity. The show, which featured five stories on subjects including Ms. Ferentinos’s body image and a middle-aged father’s struggle with divorce, sold out.
It may become a monthly event, according to Ed Kirchdoerffer, general manager of the Mayo Center; a second one is scheduled for May 5.
“We did an audience survey,” Mr. Kirchdoerffer said. “We weren’t sure how it would go over, but people loved the format.”
That format favors the theatrical monologue-type pieces often presented at the Moth, a nonprofit group founded in 1997 in Manhattan that stages storytelling competitions throughout the city.
The Morristown Unitarian Fellowshipis presenting a new series, in which the actor Martin Dockery, who has been a finalist seven times in the Moth’s GrandSlam Championship, will perform his story “Wanderlust.” In June, Ms. Titus is presenting a story for the series.
“I think of that kind of storytelling as stand-up storytelling, people spinning tales,” Ms. Titus said. “I welcome it, because it helps people remember: stories are important no matter how old you are.”
Theatre review: Lady Bug Warrior
By MATT BRERETON
IN TERMS of conceit, staging and execution this is probably a two-star show, but performer Vicki Ferentinos has such a forceful personality that over the course of this 50-minute monologue you’ll be hard pushed not to be won over.
THE SPACES @ ROYAL COLLEGE OF SURGEONS (VENUE 53)
She personally greets her audience as we file into the venue, before launching into her breathless tale. Her blurb in the Fringe programme describes her as “quirky”, usually a byword for “madder than a box of frogs”, but actually she’s rather sweet, somehow managing to come across as aggressive and vulnerable at the same time.
We learn about her drunkard father; her succession of deadbeat boyfriends; her crisis of confidence following a lean spell on the romance side; her problems with self-image and overeating, and how all these led her to create her Lady Bug Warrior alter ego, a champion of social justice and personal positivity who has allowed Ferentinos to begin fulfilling her life’s wishlist – including bringing a show to the Fringe.
Ferentinos thanks us individually as we leave, but it is we who are left feeling grateful she has allowed us this peek into her life.
Insect Repellent Not Required
Reviewed by Pete Shaw
August 11, 2009
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Last updated: August 17, 2009
It’s easy to hold preconceptions and pigeon-hole an unproven act in Edinburgh based on the superlatives and hyperbole of a press release, and I admit that I had expected Vicki Ferentinos to join the ranks of naÃ¯ve hopefuls that get thrown in the Edinburgh bear pit because the show just wouldn’t cut mustard. Even ‘Lady Bug Warrior’ is lost in translation. So the opening gambit that doing Edinburgh was on her ‘to-do’ list didn’t inspire confidence, and when she explained the show was a search for her inner superhero, I was getting distinct that ‘oh no’ feeling and congratulating myself for sitting near the door. But I shouldn’t have worried. It picks up very quickly, and you soon realise you’re in the company of an infectiously likeable woman who has a very funny story to tell.
Ferentinos’ ‘Lady Bug Warrior’ is a super hero who doesn’t jump buildings in a single bound, or have laser vision; but rather the champion of common courtesy. She tells her autobiography punctuated by characters that have influenced her on the way. From growing up in New Jersey, her boyfriend Michael Conti at age 12, struggling with weight issues, relationships and finally finding her voice on moving to New York, Ferentinos grapples comedy from stereotypes we can all recognise. There’s also the best Sarah Palin gag I’ve ever heard – worth the ticket price alone!
The set may be simple, and the costumes deliberately cheesy, but this is one lady I would be happy to see return to the Fringe again and again, as it won’t be long before she finds an army of fans to join her in Lady Bug Warrior capes.