Storytelling and raising energy: Mythmakers at Van Vleck
By GWEN OREL
Theater is BIG.
Richard Stillman spread his arms wide to demonstrate.
Storytelling is intimate.
That difference is one reason Gerald Fierst and Stillman love performing together as Mythmakers.
“There’s always a fourth wall in the theater,” Fierst said in his Montclair home, once the home of Herman Hupfeld, composer of “As Time Goes By.” A member of the late and much-loved Whole Theatre Company founded by Olympia Dukakis and Peter Zorich, Fierst met Stillman in a certificate program for artists in the schools at Teachers College at Columbia University more than 30 years ago.
At that time, Stillman, who now lives in Montclair also, was a touring actor. After seeing all the artists who were living in Montclair, he decided to move out.
Stillman will have eight instruments when the Mythmakers appear at Van Vleck House & Gardens next week: the cittern guitar, the mandolin, parlor bagpipes, bodhran, lyre, kalimba, shekere and the pennywhistle. He also does percussive dance. Both men adapt folktales to tell as well as perform in them.
They have told Halloween stories, St. Patrick’s Day stories, untold stories of the Holocaust. They perform for children, and at senior centers, as well as at libraries and schools.
Both men are celebrated in the field: Fierst has released four storytelling audiotapes, and is a storyteller-in-residence at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University. He has performed at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, and is a member of the board of The New York Storytelling Center. Stillman’s show “The Spirit of Vaudeville” won the Best Concert Award at the United Solo Theater Festival in NYC, and he was featured on the premier episode of the PBS Television Series "Shining Time Station."
Fierst and Stillman match instruments and stories, so a lyre would be used in a Renaissance story, while the banjo is played for a story about Paul Bunyan.
“There are different rhythms to storytelling,” Fierst pointed out. Whether or not the tellers are literally singing, the rhythms have a musical quality.
“People don’t really understand the intimacy of performance. We’re all so screen-oriented now,” he continued. “To see this sort of ‘throwing the ball back and forth performance,’ it’s much more like seeing a jazz riff than like seeing a play.”
In college, Stillman toured with a group that did school shows, all story theater, and that’s when he got into it, he said. The intimate quality appealed to him. “When you’re doing a play, it’s larger than life. In a large setting, you have to project. Theater is like THIS! Storytelling is like this,” he said, whispering.
And he loved to tell stories to is kids. His wife used to ask him to tell stories to the kids to settle them down. “Well I did tell the story, but I didn’t settle them down! They’d be bouncing on the bed! She’d say ‘you cranked them up, you settle them down.’”
Both men have earned their livings as artists, and, Fierst said, “one of the ways you do that is by transforming. It seems like every 10 years or so you have to find a new way to identify yourself.”
Because the medium is so intimate, the response is immediate and rewarding too.
People will come up to Stillman after shows and tell him how it touched them. At nursing homes, the people are often so sad, and when you leave, they are happy, he said. “Often they say, ‘you made my day, I feel happy.’ And I feel like, OK, I’m not on Broadway, but I’m doing something good with my art.”
Fierst, who is also an educator, has done a lot of work in schools. At a book-signing a few years ago, a middle-aged man came up to him with his son and said, “You don’t remember me, but I was in your workshop when I was 13. It made such a difference to me, and I wanted my son to meet you.”
And he’s also worked with special needs children, and has seen where a child who is non-verbal says a word. “There’s an extraordinary connection,” he said. With storytelling, “you’re working off of the energy of the audience.”
And that, he said, is a thrill.