Long before television and radio provided entertainment, people would spend evenings telling stories. They could be amusing, anecdotal, personal or even biblical. That age-old tradition is not lost. On Sunday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m., the Saratoga Jewish Community Arts in partnership with Saratoga Springs’ Temple Sinai will hold its seventh evening of storytelling via Zoom. There is no cost to view.
“Storytelling. . .is not just a reading or recitation of a story. It is an enthusiastic interpretation of a tale. . .so that the stories open up the listener to new worlds and new understandings,” said Phyllis Wang, the coordinator of the Saratoga Jewish Community Arts program. “And the stories do not have to be Jewish. They can be about ethics, scenes, from traditional sources, Adirondack or current events, or issues such as bullying.”
While other venues have storytelling sessions, such as at Caffe Lena’s monthly gatherings, this event often has a Jewish focus. And it is the only one that Wang knows of that is sponsored by a temple.
“About eight or nine years ago I noticed that during the summer we’d have so many visitors and we didn’t have anything to attract them,” she said. “A light bulb went off and I thought of offering a storytelling evening. For centuries it was a way to preserve our culture and traditions.”
Initially, she approached Beth Sabo Novik, who found the tellers. The resultant show was a great success. Novik, who will also tell at this event, has also become the event’s co-organizer.
“When I was growing up our family went to Maine where we saw entertainer and storyteller Jackson Gillman,” she said. “He was so good and I thought ‘Wow!’ I want to be a teller when I grow up.’”
Experience in theater and dance and taking telling classes ten years ago from Jeannine Laverty, who will also tell at this event, gave Novik confidence to try it herself.
“I have a knack for it,” she said. “It’s very fun.”
It past years, the event was held at Skidmore College and included a sit-down dinner. But the virus changed all that as well as the renaming of the program. When it was held last year, Matthew Neugroschel, a 49-year old lawyer, tried his hand at telling and amazed his listeners.
“I thought, ‘oh good, we have another great storyteller,’ ” Novik said.
Little did they know that Neugroschel had cancer and in June died. Thus, the program has been renamed in his honor.
For veteran storytellers, several points must be checked to achieve success.
“You must tell the story as if it’s a memory of your own and tell it from your heart,” Laverty said. “You can use your body, face, change your voice, but the narration and the dialogue should be different.”
Interaction with one’s audience is also very important, so doing it virtually will take some adjustment.
“I’ll miss that,” she said. “Stories are so incredibly healing and health-giving for both the teller and the audience. Telling is a precious piece of work and I’m always nervous.”
For Shawn Banner, who likes to stick to Jewish folk tales or traditional events in the seven years he’s been telling, stories that have a humorous edge are his preference.
“I like the stories to be character driven, to appeal to all ages and that have a moral compass,” he said. “I like to use facial expressions and do accents. I play around.”
While he may find some stories in children’s books, he’ll retool them with Jewish characters to have an “underlying message of Jewish sensibility,” Banner said.
Some of the stories at this event will have a Jewish connection, but not all will.
“Stories are the most powerful forces in the world,” Novik said. “Good or bad, they’re who we are. They’re a way of teaching. . .the way we think, that a recipe has a conflict and its resolution. It’s what makes a good story — to open a door into another world and how they fit into everyday life and the way they shift our lives.”
To register: email [email protected] gmail.com and Wang will email the code. Check out www.saratogajewishculturalfestival.org or www.saratogasinai.org.