INTERVIEW WITH KAREN CHACE
In An Appearance On Her Program “The Story Café,” Seekonk (MA) TV 9.
There is so much we could talk about today but I want to start with storytelling. As storytellers we know that folktales travel from one culture to another. As an example, while American’s know the Disney version of Cinderella we know that there are over 500 versions from around the world. Why do you think folktales are an important bridge between cultures?
I guess you could say stories are the shortest distance between two people, or two cultures. It’s the easiest way to communicate concepts and values. Traditional stories speak to what we all have in common, the power to think beyond ourselves and make leaps of imagination and understanding. There’s a quote from Joseph Campbell that you might know, “The folk tale is the primer for the picture-language of the soul.” I think when we “lose ourselves” in a story, we’re only going deeper into the fundamental part of ourselves that thinks and speaks in sensory images. As you know, people hearingstories together become a community in sharing that experience of picturing the tales, and hearing and seeing each other’s responses to them. The same might be true even if you’re reading a folk tale or listening to a recording – the story may create a connection with another culture by helping us appreciate some differences from ours, but most importantly helping us feel what we have in common (the importance of being kind, the need to move past our fears, the value of laughing at our foolishness, the dangers of judging by appearances).
And speaking of bridges, you offer a program that is often request, Building Bridges. Tell us a bit about that, what makes it different from your other programs?
It’s a program of stories and songs that are especially aboutcommunity and connection, a celebration of multicultural diversity promoting understanding and appreciation of our common humanity. “The Barking Mouse” that I told today is one of them. Another example is Heather Forest’s adaptation of an African tale about a garden the Creator planted in the beginning, where all the parts of the body grew. When the parts fought with each other, the Creator put them together into a body so that they’d have to cooperate. This worked so well that the Creator made many bodies of different colors, and asked them to cooperate as a living whole like the parts of the body.
You have also done variations of that program not only in performance but in a workshop at a Peacemakers Summit. Who was your audience? What topics did you discuss?
This was an annual gathering at Hampshire College in Amherst MA of student peer mediators from public schools all over the area. We’d start with talking about what kind of stories we see on the media, and what models of conflict resolution we see most often. I’d introduce the idea that stories can help build understanding, and tell them how Brother Blue would exclaim that “Stories can save the world!” I’d then tell a number of stories about conflicts, like Old Joe and the Carpenter, and the Blind Man & The Hunter. After the stories came a discussion. I’d ask what lessons they thought were learned in or from the stories, what transformations the characters went through, has this changed your perspective and how, do you think those stories could help people, and how?
I’d then lead some games and exercises on storytelling skills to prepare them to tell those stories or similar ones. We’d follow up with some visualization in which each could bring up a memory of a conflict and how it was or wasn’t resolved, and what kind of world each wanted to live in and how to create it. I’d then have them pair up to tell their partners their stories of what they’d experienced. I’d conclude with the story “Holding Up The Sky,” in which an elephant finds a hummingbird laying on its back with its feet in the air. When the elephant asks why, the hummingbird says word has gone out that the sky might fall, and it’s ready to help hold it up. When the elephant scoffs that the hummingbird couldn’t hope to hold up the sky, it replies that it can’t by itself, but each must do their part, “and this is what Ican do.” When I saw this performed, the story ended with the elephant laying down next to the hummingbird and pointing its feet toward the sky too.
You also have a related program specifically for libraries and their adult reading discussion series, focusing on the Dewey Decimal System, specifically the 400 section, which is Languages.
You have said you think it is important to “put the sound of other languages in your ear.” Why is that important?
It’s one thing to know in theory that some people speak other languages, but we tend to especially value what we’re used to and comfortable with. I started learning French in the 4thgrade, but it was mostly something that only existed in school. When I first went to France as a college student, it was a revelation that everyone there was actually speaking French all the time. It was a living language with slang and proverbs and tongue-twisters, and it was just as valid and important as American English. I think stories can be one way to experience and appreciate other languages as an important part of the human family’s self-expression.
You studied French and Spanish and have also traveled out of the United States. How does exposure to other languages and cultures enhance your work and your personal life?
They say “travel broadens the horizons.” I think that exposure has made me more open to learning from people from other places and cultures. It’s fascinating to learn about different customs and ways of seeing the world. On a trip to Chennai in India someone served mango juice. When Ibrought my glass eagerly to my mouth to drink, Icaused quite a reaction! I learnedthat the custom was to tilt your head back, and holding the glass away from your lips, pour the drink into your mouth without touching.
One can travel through stories and music too. I’m a collector at heart, and I love collecting inspirations and ideas from different places and then sharing them so others feel the fascination and enjoyment I did.
You have written an article for the New England storytelling guide on combining music and storytelling, which will be published by Parkhurst Brothers Publishing. You are so connected to both, would you ever be able to choose between storytelling and music?
I think they’re both so intertwined for me that it wouldn’t be possible. Stories that have some element of music in them has always had a huge appeal for me. And it seems to me that language in storytelling or in everyday speech has a kind of intrinsic music to it, with the rise and fall in pitch and its rhythm. Most songs or instrumental music tells a story, and often performers may introduce their songs or compositions with the story of how they created it or what it’s led to. I’m really glad I don’t have to choose!
You also work with a wonderful musical group Swallowtail. Tell us a little bit about that part of your life.
Swallowtail is a contra dance band that I’ve been a member of since we started in 1978. We influenced the music played for contra dancing by developing arrangements of tunes and medleys with changes in instrumentation, key, etc. Besides community dances in our own area, we did a couple cross-country tours in the early eighties that included appearing on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and have also played for the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. I play hammered dulcimer in the band and am one of the two callers. The guys in the band are among my oldest friends.
You shared a lovely Pablo Picasso quote with me, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” What does that personally mean to you?
Along with the daily “grind” of life, there’s a deeper, richer reality that we touch when we engage our creativity. Art helps us remember that we’re so much more than meets the eye. Another favorite quote for me is from the poet Frederico García Lorca:
“The poem, the song, the picture, is only water drawn from the well of the people, and it should be given back to them in a cup of beauty so that they may drink – and in drinking understand themselves.”