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Nancy Duncan, Storyteller

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman reading

Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I wrote several articles about the late storyteller Nancy Duncan. Eventually they will all find their way onto this site.  There is one other currently on the blog.  That piece is entitled “Her Final Story,” and was written when a quite weak Duncan faced her final days with terminal cancer.  From the time she was diagnosed with cancer and on through the many rounds of treatments and surgeries she endured over years, she used storytelling as a means of coping with and making sense of her experience.  The story offered here was written when she was a breast cancer survivor and still full of energy. Through it all though, she never lost her warmth or spirit or her passion, and that is what I always tried to convey about her when I profiled her.  The other thing she inspired me to do was to try and find the right words to describe the art of storytelling and to explain why it was and remains a primal form of communication that we all need for our nourishment.  My search for those words made me a better writer.  Being around Nancy made me a better person.

Nancy Duncan, Storyteller

©by Leo Adam Biga

This article originally appeared in the New Horizons.

WANTED:  Storyteller.  Must possess engaging personality, commanding voice, malleable face and ability to relate well with people of all ages.  Active imagination a plus. Large repertoire of stories advised.  Previous storytelling experience preferred, but not required.  Some traveling involved. Hours and fees negotiable.

No, the ad is not real, but the description is true enough.  For proof, just catch Omaha storyteller Nancy Duncan in action. That is if you can find her before she hits the road again with her bag full of tales.  A seasoned performer, Duncan inhabits a story in such a way that it spills out in animated spasms of sound, expression, posture and gesture.  She is as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a shout. As still as a mountain or as antsy as a mouse.  Her rubber face bends.  Her supple body contorts.  Her attentive eyes dart.  Her sonic voice booms.  She is whatever the story calls for:  firebrand pioneer, wily coyote, grizzled witch, fearsome wind, bubbling brook, puff of smoke or, more and more, simply herself.

Duncan left a successful theater career behind to join the professional storyteller ranks in 1987.  Since devoting herself full time to spinning yarns, she has developed a kind of fervor for her calling only true converts possess.  For her, storytelling is more than a trade, it is a way of being and a means of sorting out the world.  As she will tell you, this ancient oral tradition still has the power to hold us enthralled amid today’s digital revolution.  Using only the force of her voice and her charisma, she tells stories that variously amuse, inform, heal and enlighten.  Since beginning a battle with breast cancer in March, Duncan, 63, has made storytelling part of her therapeutic regimen and survival strategy.

While she did not discover storytelling as a personal artistic medium until the mid-1980s, she says, “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.  I was a huge liar as a kid.”  From the very start, the former Nancy Kimmel was immersed in stories told by her father, Harley, and maternal grandmother, Emma.  “My grandmother shared a bedroom with me from the time I was 5 until I was 16.  She was great.  She’d smoke a pipe and tell stories.  She loved the B’rer Rabbitt stories and could do them with a great dialect.  And my father was a great storyteller.  He liked to perform the story.”

When she moved with her family from the suburbs of Illinois to the backwoods of Georgia (Buford), she found a ripe landscape for her fertile imagination and boundless energy.  She and her playmates organized “safaris” where they roughed-it like natives in the wild.  Their only close-call came when moonshiners ran them off.  As an imaginative child, she wore different identities like so many hats.  “I was a leopard woman for a whole summer.  My friend and I made ourselves leopard suits and claws.  We would hide in bushes and jump out and scare our friends,” she recalled.  She was a fine athlete too, whether scaling hills or playing hoops.  Despite her dramatic gifts, when forced to choose between acting in school plays or competing on the school team, she opted for the court over the stage.

With the intent of curbing Nancy’s rambunctious ways and turning her into a proper young lady, her mother sent her to private art and elocution lessons.  But Nancy chafed at any attempts to make her a debutante.  She would much rather have been tomboying it outdoors with friends.  By the time she graduated high school her father had fallen ill and she reluctantly left home to attend Agnes Scott College, a private women’s school in Atlanta.  Not long after completing her first year there, her father died.  She missed his stories.  After grieving, she blossomed in college, majoring in English and minoring in art and theater.  She then embarked on being a writer, even completing a fellowship at the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, before turning her attention to the theater and earning a master of fine arts degree in Iowa City.

It was there she fell in love with one Harry Duncan, a renowned fine book printer and instructor 20 years her senior.  She learned typography from him.  She also fell in love with him.  And he with her.  Student and teacher married in 1960. Despite skepticism from family and friends about their marriage surviving such an age difference, the union worked.  The couple enjoyed 37 years as husband and wife and raised three children together.  Harry died in 1997 from the effects of leukemia and colon cancer.

Harry Duncan

What made the relationship click?  “The secret of our marriage and our lives is that we both found ways to do what we loved to do and would have done anyway if we didn’t have to work.  It had to do with living our dream and not letting anything get in the way of that.  Harry was a master printer, poet, editor, designer.  He was devoted to his work.  We sometimes had to drag him away to go on a vacation.”

After leaving academia behind, Nancy taught theater and directed stage productions at a small Iowa Quaker School. Then, in 1973, she joined the Omaha Community Playhouse staff as associate director.  She left the Playhouse in 1976 to serve as artistic director and later as executive director of the Omaha Children’s Theater (now the Omaha Theater Co. for Young People), which she helped grow into one of the nation’s largest and most respected arts organizations of its kind.  Burned-out by the demands of keeping a theater afloat, she turned to storytelling, a medium she had dabbled with a few years, as her new vocation.

Drawing on her theater background, her early storytelling was character-based and performance-driven.  Her large catalog of stories — some original and some borrowed — include the collections Why the Chicken Crossed the RoadGood Old Crunchy Stories and Nebraska ‘49, which chronicles the true-life adventures of pioneer women.  Her most popular incarnation, Baba Yaga, is a grouch of a witch with a golden heart.  The old hag has become a sensation with school-age audiences, although some fundamentalist Christian groups concerned about the character have boycotted Duncan and even banned her from performing.

Since becoming a storyteller Duncan has often worked as an artist-in-residence in schools via the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently one of only 225 artists participating in the national arts residency initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation.  Her telling takes her on wide-ranging tours across the country (she recently returned from performing at the National Storytelling Conference in Kingsport, Tenn.).  In 1999 the National Storytelling Network presented her with a Leadership Award for her work promoting the art in the North-Central region.  She is also a board member with OOPS, the Omaha Organization for Professional Storytelling, a storytelling instructor at various colleges and universities the coordinator of the annual Nebraska Storytelling Festival.

She has seen the 15-year-old Nebraska festival grow amid a general storytelling revival in America inspired by the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.  Duncan said there is a demand for these public storytelling forums because people hunger to hear stories.  “We all love stories.  We seem to be wired to the narrative form.  It used to be everybody told stories.  Today, people miss the stories in their lives.  It may be they grew up when we didn’t have all these machines do our work and we didn’t have television sap up our time and instead we gathered on our big front porches in the evening to tell stories.  Some people never had it in their lives and miss it because they know television is not giving them the stories they want to hear.  They want to be present in the story — to recognize themselves — because stories celebrate who we are.  They validate us.  It’s like identity maintenance.”

As a creative artist, she naturally feels compelled to explore and express in her work whatever is going on in her life. Lately, that has meant examining her cancer. At a recent telling before a group of prospective medical students she struck up a quick rapport with the audience through her open, honest demeanor and her disarmingly whimsical humor.  More than a creative outlet, her cancer stories function both as a coping mechanism for herself and as a forum for others about the risks of the disease and the forbearance of patients like herself.  In a recent interview at her handsome, sun-drenched home in central Omaha, Duncan described how her experience with cancer is changing her.

“Breast cancer is transformational.  I can feel already changes happening in me because of this, and it’s all based in community.  There’s a huge community of people out there who’ve had cancer and because they’ve lived through this they have a relationship other people don’t have,” said Duncan, who, once she was diagnosed, informed friends around the world about her illness and, in turn, received supportive messages about their survival or the survival of their friends and loved ones.  “That’s a pretty amazing group of people.”  Duncan plans on joining a cancer support group as soon as her summer touring season ends.  “I plan to get in one because I believe in efficacy within your own community — of people healing themselves and healing each other through their communications.”

According to Duncan, confronting problems through stories can be curative:  “It’s a very healing process because as we turn our own experiences, including very negative ones, into stories and share those with other people, they share back and their comments shape the way we feel about our lives and a community is created. As we story, we heal the situation or solve the problem.  It’s very healthy.”

She feels sharing the details of her story, including the mastectomy she underwent March 21 and the loss of hair she has endured during chemotherapy treatments, is her way of fighting the sense of denial and defeat still accorded subjects like cancer.  “We need not to hide the fact this is happening.  If we hide the fact we have cancer in order to be normal again we’re denying who we are.  We’re also making it easier for others to get it because we’re doing nothing to prevent it.  That’s why I have decided I’m not going to wear a wig and I’m not going to wear a prosthesis.  Part of who I am is going to be a person who’s had breast cancer and who wants to tell stories about it.  I hope my actions draw attention to the fact there is breast cancer in the world and that we need to do something to cure it.  Moreover, we need to prevent it.  Hiding it, to me, says the opposite.  That it doesn’t exist.  Instead, we need to let women know, You have a job to do.”

She said her anecdotal research reveals many women still do not do not know how to self-examine themselves or are afraid to.  Why?  “They don’t want to know.  It’s maddening.  They’re cutting their own throat.”  She admits she has become something of a militant in the war on cancer.  “There is an epidemic of cancer.   Over and over again I keep hear people saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what causes it.’  I don’t believe that.  I think we do know — we’re just denying that too — and so we’re writing death sentences for ourselves and for our children.  It makes me kind of fiery.”  Her decision to go wigless and to refuse surgical and/or cosmetic measures takes some people aback.  “It’s threatening.  That’s problematic for me because I don’t want to knock anybody’s choices.  Women have the right to make their own choices.  But at the same time I think denial is a dangerous habit of women.  Too often, we deny the depth of what’s happening in our lives and ignore ways to change things for the better.”

In the process of describing her journey with cancer, her mission is to get people to look at the illness in a new way and thereby keep it from being a taboo subject shrouded in fear and morbidity.  It is why she uses humor to discuss it and to defuse certain attitudes about it.  “I want my stories to be very funny.  When you have cancer there are all sorts of tricks your body plays on you.  Losing a breast is tragic, but it’s also very funny.  For example, without having any breast on my right side I realized that anything I tried eating that missed my mouth had a straight shot to the floor.  Before, it didn’t.  I always wondered before why there were more crumbs under my husband’s chair than mine.  Guys have been keeping that a secret for a long time,” she said with her big wide smile and full-throttle laugh.

“And being able to wash your hair with a washrag is really wonderful,” she added, her hand sweeping back the few brown wisps on her head.  “I’m not sure I’m ever going to let my hair grow long again.  Also, the whole notion it might come back in red is very appealing to me.  These are just little ways of looking at things that make them fun, rather than threatening.

She said storytelling is a perfect means for the teller and audience to explore together personal issues that are universally identifiable.  Unlike a lecture where the speaker imparts a rigid message to a passive audience, storytelling is an organic, communal, interactive form of communication.  And unlike reading from a text, storytelling springs from the recesses of the teller.  Said Duncan, “If you’re holding up a book and reading from it you are not present in the same way you are telling a story.  You’re just processing words and your personality doesn’t come through in the same way it does in storytelling, where who the teller is and how they feel at any moment is in what they’re telling.  You can’t separate the teller from the story.  That’s why there’s such a wide variety of tellers.”  Storytelling works best, she said, when a spellbinding teller invites rapt listeners to shape the story to their own ends.  It then becomes an individual and shared experience in one.

“You don’t tell stories into the wind.  You tell stories to people,” she said. “Because storytelling is a live process, a story is not frozen.  It’s like jazz — it’s still living and being shaped — and the storyteller navigates the story with the audience and changes it depending on what they get back from that audience.  The audience makes the story in their minds.  They create all the pictures to go with the words, and they get those pictures from their own lives.  So, by the end of the evening you have as many different versions of the story as you do people in the room because each person has co-made their own part of the story.  And when that happens, it’s very powerful and bonding.  It’s like going on a journey together to a different place.  It’s sometimes deliciously entertaining and funny.  It’s sometimes spiritually intriguing and challenging.  It’s sometimes moving and bereft with all the memories that get brought to the story.”

When a teller connects with an audience, she said, it is hypnotic.  “There are certain stories that take you so deep into an emotion or an event that they are trance-inducing.  The audience goes off with you.  You can see it in the way the story flows across their faces.  Their eyes lock-in and their jaws go slack.  It’s as though they are dreaming.”

Duncan said the more emotionally honest a story, the more resonance it carries. For a residency in a Fremont alternative school last year she asked a group of wary students to listen to personal stories told by adult mentors.  To their surprise, she said, “the kids were wiped out by the stories.”  Students then had to tell the stories back and find a personal link to their own lives.  “This time, the adults were in tears.  The kids and adults realized they had a real human connection.  They wanted to know each other better,” she said.

This Pied Piper for storytelling has encouraged several other tellers.  Among them is her daughter, Lucy, a professional storyteller in her own right, and granddaughters, Louise and Beatrice, with whom Nancy regularly swaps tales.  “My grandkids are always asking for stories.  They’re steeped already in the personal stories and in the more fanciful stories.  I have a story I’m working on now that is all about them and their relationship with me.  It’s kind of a grandmother story.” Duncan hopes many of the stories she values will be taken-up by her grandkids and told by them.

“My goal is that one of them will be telling those stories at a festival somewhere.  I’m trying to pass that love of story onto them.”  She feels senior citizens have an obligation to be storytellers, but finds too many isolated from this traditional familial-societal role.  “It’s a great loss to our society when seniors are separated and devalued.  They have a responsibility to pass on knowledge and they have a need to be validated,” she said.  Whether told at a fireside, a bedside or a festival, she said stories tap a deep well of shared human experience.  “Storytelling is the best-kept secret in the world.  It’s not just for children.  It’s for anyone.  We all have valuable stories to share.”

So far, Duncan has not allowed her illness to limit her busy, independent lifestyle.  She said friends and family urge her to take it easy.

“They keep saying, ‘You need to slow down, to stop, to rest’  I haven’t quite accepted that yet.  I tend to listen more to what the holistic medicine people say, which is — do what you want to do…do what makes you happy.”  At a recent telling about her cancer, she said, “Now, this story…doesn’t have an ending.  Not yet.  I don’t know if I’ll truly know the meaning of this experience.  But I have learned many things.  One of them is, you cannot lose something without getting something else back.  You don’t get back the same thing you lost, but you get back something that might be better.  For example, I may not be a grandmother with a great shelf of busom, but there are other kinds of shelves.  There’s the comforting shelf of story.”

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