Did you hear the tale about the ...

Storyteller helps keeps tradition alive with his fantastic cast of characters

July 16, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michael Gaudreau hunched his shoulders, crinkled his hands into claws above his head, and scrunched up his face. His teeth glimmered as he growled like a ferocious - and hungry - bear.

In a raspy deep voice, he bellowed: "Great-grandmother Beedie, I'm going to eat you up!"

But for all of his ferocity, Gaudreau is harmless.

He's a storyteller, and the bear was one of several characters Gaudreau performed on a recent afternoon in preparation for a performance at the third annual Bel Air Book Festival on Saturday. The 53-year-old Bel Air resident is one of more than 40 authors, illustrators, craftsmen and storytellers on the schedule for the festival, founded to promote literacy in Harford County.

Gaudreau has been a performance storyteller for about 10 years, but he has had many more years of experience speaking to an audience. An art teacher at John Carroll High School in Bel Air for the past 33 years, Gaudreau began spinning his yarns to first- and second-graders as a student teacher at Towson University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1974.

He has learned that a storyteller can captivate students of all ages with a good tale.

"I can lecture to my students until I'm blue, but they don't always pay attention," said Gaudreau. "But the second I start telling a story, you can hear a pin drop in the room."

It was about a decade ago that he was challenged to take his storytelling to a higher level. He was at a concert listening to a performance that included a story about a seal woman followed by a folk song. When the performer finished, Gaudreau turned to his wife, Kate, and said, "I could do that."

Unknown to Gaudreau, the woman seated next to him was Beth Vaughan, an established storyteller, who turned to him and said, "Oh, you can do that? Then put together a 45-minute show and you can perform in the upcoming Southern Maryland Celtic Festival."

About two or three people gathered around him when he began his debut performance. When he finished, he looked up and saw the crowd had grown to more than 50.

"I got so absorbed in the storytelling that I didn't even notice the growing crowd," Gaudreau said. "It was so exciting for me to have such an audience."

Vaughan eventually became his mentor. She said she was surprised when she learned he was a first-timer.

"Michael has a natural flair for performing," the 74-year-old Shawsville woman said. "He's captivating and vibrant and charming when he tells stories."

Gaudreau's stories include leprechauns, animals and giants. His personas range from Great-grandmother Beedie, a crafty woman who outsmarts a fox, a bear and a mountain lion; Finn McCool, a talented, handsome, braggart giant; Foxy, his hand puppet; and Michael John, a character who learns a lesson about greed from a leprechaun.

Although he writes some of his stories, his tales are predominantly folk tales based on his ancestry in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France.

"A lot of my stuff is based on existing folk tales, but every storyteller tells a tale a little differently," Gaudreau said. "So as I tell a tale, it evolves over time into my own story."

During the past decade, he's performed and done workshops at venues such the Southern Maryland Celtic Festival, Charles Carroll House in Annapolis, the Washington Irish Folk Festival, the Baltimore Folk Festival and libraries in Harford, Baltimore and Howard counties.

Whatever the location, his expectation of the audience remains the same - he wants them to laugh. And sometimes he's had to resort to semi-ridiculous lengths.

Once he was telling stories for a group of senior citizens and one fell asleep. He started beating a drum to wake him and was rewarded with roars from the crowd.

So far, he has about 50 tales he can spin off the top of his head.

And after years of storytelling, Gaudreau has learned that his audience can give him more than just applause.

"When I finish a performance someone will always come to me and tell me one of their stories," said Gaudreau. "I'm always getting new material."

Gaudreau tries to use the stories he hears because he knows the only way to preserve a story is to tell it. Otherwise, it's like the event never happened or the person never existed, he said.

"If you tell stories about your grandfather, then he's always there with you," said Gaudreau. "But if the stories end, then he'll be forgotten."

Gaudreau's storytelling often includes elements other than words. He uses a Bodhran Irish Drum when he tells the story of the giant named Finn McCool. He taps the drum throughout the story, but he also uses it as a stove, or a baby bonnet.

In other stories he uses it to show the moon rising, or to create the sound of beating hooves or clacking skeletons dancing.

His favorite prop is a Strumstick, a long skinny banjo-like instrument he uses to tell the story of Great-grandmother Beedie.

"I want a piece of berry pie," he crooned. "Nothing's more delicious than a piece of berry pie."

And with a final smack of his lips his tale was done.

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