Telling tales as an art form, and to preserve a precious heritage

Columbia resident among trio of storytellers at Jan. 19 conservancy event

  • Marc Young, 62, of Columbia, is one of the professional storytellers who will be performing at the Howard County Conservancy on January 19.
Marc Young, 62, of Columbia, is one of the professional storytellers… (Photo by Amy Davis, Baltimore…)
January 11, 2014|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

As a 5-year-old sitting on his great-grandmother's knee in the 1950s in Philadelphia, Marc Young listened patiently as she whispered in broken English the same two sentences she would come to repeat in a weekly ritual for years.

"God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. Ever since, the Jews are a special people to God," Grandma Rose would tell him in her thick Ukrainian accent while gently rubbing his forearm with hands gnarled by years of menial labor.

"She wasn't so much stroking my arm as she was trying to grind her message into my chromosomes," recalled Young, a longtime Columbia resident who is now 62.

The outcome of her wish — that her great-grandson take her place in passing along stories of Jewish history, culture and folklore — will be on display when he takes part in "Tales of Nature: An Afternoon of Professional Storytelling." The event will be held Jan. 19 at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock, a 300-year-old farm that is home to a nature reserve and educational facility.

Young, chief learning officer for a federal science agency by day and a storyteller on the side, will be joined at the first-ever conservancy event for all ages by full-time storytellers Adam Booth of West Virginia and Diane Macklin of Baltimore.

"In some areas of the country, there are really nifty traditions of storytelling, often involving Mother Nature and Earth's creatures," said Marianne Alexander, immediate past president of the conservancy's board of directors and a member of the program committee.

"This will be a neat way to bring those rich traditions to themes we all care about — the environment and nature — and to sample storytelling from three different traditions," said Alexander, an Ellicott City resident. "Maybe we can start something here."

The three storytellers have distinct approaches to their art, which is geared toward adults as well as children.

Booth is a four-time West Virginia champion in his home state's "Liars Contest" for telling stories from his Appalachian and Jewish heritage, and is also a musician. Macklin specializes in sharing stories of African-American culture and folklore, frequently playing the kalimba, a hand-held African instrument often referred to as a thumb piano.

While many of Young's stories hinge on his Jewish faith, he also tells tales from other cultures. He plans to tell a story that was originally published in Yiddish called "The Wind Who Lost His Temper," as well as a Native American folktale that roughly translates into "His Mother Was A Wolverine." If time permits, he might add a humorous Jewish story about a beekeeper.

Young has focused on returning stories to the oral performance tradition that has been around as long as the Bible, he said. Some of these stories were abandoned by immigrants who jettisoned their culture and customs to reinvent themselves as American citizens, he added.

"I'm trying to recapture, reburnish and reinvigorate that lost treasure and present it to new ears," he said.

To accomplish that, he has sought out teachers in many disciplines, from tai chi to qigong to mime and beyond. They have helped polish his tone, gestures and timing to elevate his performances.

A storyteller's ability to appear to speak extemporaneously comes from "being so familiar with the story's elements that we don't have to think about how it all fits together," he said. "When I've got that down bone-deep, then I call tell the story conversationally."

'Connecting with others'

Macklin first encountered the art of storytelling when she met storyteller Tracy Leavitt in 1992, prompting Macklin to ask incredulously, "You can do this for a living?"

After graduating the next year with an English degree, the New York native worked in administration at a nonprofit for a while until her boss introduced her to his wife, who was none other than Leavitt.

"I believe in divine intervention, but that [coincidence] felt like a pipe dream," she said.

Leavitt had trouble convincing Macklin that she, too, could tell stories, but once she agreed to give it a try, "the story flew out of me like my breath, and I wanted to have that feeling again," she recalled.

Still, she decided to earn her master's degree in teaching and took a job at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. After five years, she realized storytelling was the missing component in her life and left teaching to pursue her art full-time.

Macklin, who describes her style as dramatic, asserts that "storytelling has to pick you."

"You have to be called into it. It's more than performing, it's connecting with others," she said. "When we're in the moment, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic factors — they all go away, and we are one village with a common story that connects us all."

'Based on true events'

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