An Interview with storyteller and NDG resident, John David Hickey
John David Hickey (aka, JD Hobbes), was one of the first contributors to our new monthly event, First Thursdays. He was kind enough to take some more time out for this interview in order to be our first featured NDG artist! You can check out his website here.
NDA: So why don’t you begin by telling me about what being a Storyteller entails. People make assumptions that this is something for a bunch of little kids sitting on the floor in the library, but that’s not correct, is it? Where do you perform? Is there a network of storytellers, or some kind of sub-culture associated with storytelling?
JDH: What does being a storyteller entail? This is a complicated question with a multi-layered answer. On its surface, being a storyteller means you are a teller of tales that can be new, old, personal, true, fiction, or all of the above.
Generally, storytellers do not read their stories: the tales are told from memory, which allows the teller to use not only his voice, but also his entire being to convey the story. Most of the time, storytellers perform solo, but they can be known to work with musicians or other types of artists.
In modern Anglo-culture, there is a notion that storytelling is a children’s pastime and that it holds no interest for mature adults. However, consider that storytelling is the foundation of all art forms: dance, theatre, cinema, acting, music, painting, sculpture — all these art forms are telling stories via their mediums. In Francophone culture, storytelling is integral to the survival of French culture. By telling stories, we create, share, and nurture our French-Canadian identity. French is more than a language: it is a cultural heritage that is shaped by the local stories that are told in Quebec, France, Belgium, Congo, Haiti, etc.
Traditionally, tellers share mythic stories, which may be false on their surface, but generally carry layers of universal truth about the human condition. These stories can reveal ideas, cultural traditions, and clues to lost histories, all wrapped up in metaphors and symbols. They invite the listener to hear the truth that resonates rather than the truth that defines.
Storytelling has been enjoying an ebb-and-flow of interest over the past 25 years. There are hundreds of storytelling festivals all over the world, including one in Montreal which features the finest in English and French storytellers, both local and from abroad ((Festival Interculturel du Conte du Québec).
In Canada, there is a national storytelling organization called Storytellers of Canada that organizes events, promotes storytellers, and runs projects that attempts to save our oral cultural history.
Recently, the spoken word world has seen a new influx of modern storytellers who focus on the True Story rather than the legend. Shows like The Moth (NYC), Confabulation (Montreal), and Snap Judgment (Oakland) host sold-out shows that feature tellers that share intimate, expository, and hilarious personal stories on a variety of themes.
NDA: What inspired you to become a storyteller, and how did your first experiences go?
JDH: Performing has been in my blood for decades. I started doing plays in high school and through CEGEP. I took a break in University, but when I moved to Montreal, I returned to community theatre again for many years (Lakeshore Players in Dorval).
To celebrate Halloween in 1994, Hurley’s Irish Pub featured Mike Burns, an Irish storyteller. The pub was packed and silent as he told his stories of ghosts, goblins, and devils. I was hooked. I attended the monthly storytelling events regularly and Mike and I became friends. He encouraged me to try storytelling, so I picked up a couple of books of folktales, found one that I liked, and told it at a story swap at the Montreal Storyteller’s Guild. My life changed completely in that moment.
I took several workshops, I attended retreats, I was mentored by other storytellers, and I slowly developed my own telling style. My theatre training helped me in terms of stance, voice projection, and pacing. My fellow storytellers taught me how to find the stories that worked for me, how to deconstruct them to their bare essentials, and how to reconstruct them in a way that made them my own.
NDA: How do you go about choosing a story and preparing to tell it?
JDH: Most of my stories come from traditional sources. People sometimes (too often!) ask me why I don’t write and tell my own stories. This is a prickly question for me. I have written and told my own stories, but I find great value in keeping the traditional stories alive. Modern stories are too easily forgotten, but traditional stories continue to survive the generations because they speak to universal truths to which many of us can relate.
Where these stories come from is varied. Sometimes I hear stories from other storytellers, but most of the time, I find them in books. When I find a story that I decide I was to try to retell, I read and re-read the story until I find I have it straight in my mind. Then I put the source away for a couple of weeks and I don’t think about the story at all. Then I try to retell the story to myself from memory, being creative in trying to plug the gaps in my memory. Once I’ve reconstructed the story, I go back to the story and see how much the story has changed. I may then decide to stick to the original version in some places, stick to my own version in others, and even write whole new sections as it inspires me.
After that, it’s practice, practice, practice, which involves a lot of talking to myself as I retell the story from memory. However, there is no substitute for the energy of a live audience, so once I’m ready, I perform the story as best as I can and see what happens. Sometimes the best new ideas come from a live performance. Stories, like the storytellers, evolve.
I don’t memorize the words of my stories. I break the events down in a story into scenes, kind of like panels in a comic book, and then I describe each scene to tell the story. The advantage of not being tied to the word is that I can make changes to the story on the fly as inspiration strikes, or adapt to unexpected situations that occur during its telling. If I stuck too closely to the individual words, it would be too easy to get lost in the telling of it.
NDA: It seems like an intriguing combination of improvisation and recitation. And this idea that certain traditional stories have more staying power, and at the same time, evolve, is something that scholars (and myself!) are quite interested in. I know that Jack Zipes has expanded Richard Dawkin’s idea of memetics to include fairytales. What do you think gives certain stories the evolutionary edge? And what transcendent elements are you drawn to in particular?
JDH: Stories that explore the human condition tend to strike the right chords with people, but stories are also very culturally driven. The tales of Shaharazad in the 1001 Arabian Nights explore the universal themes of justice, love, greed, friendship, etc., which are ideas that everyone regardless of their nationality can relate to, but the language, style, and symbolism doesn’t always meet the cultural or societal norms (the original Arabian Nights stories are filled with themes of misogyny, racism, and graphic violence). Therefore, you need to distill the story to its universal thread that everyone can relate to, then repackage it so that your audience can see themselves in the story. If they cannot see themselves through the hero’s eyes, they disconnect from the tale.
For me, I am always drawn to the underdog story: it’s the youngest prince, the simpleton of the town, the purest heart that wins the day by being true to their natures rather than giving in to the forces that try to stay their course. Not all my stories have happy endings, but they should have inspiring moments that move the listener.
Storytellers are the greatest magicians because, using only their voices, they can make an audience of people believe they are somewhere else.
NDA: Tell me a bit about what you’re working on now. Any other interesting events coming up?
JDH: I’m hoping to get a show in Porchfest in May. I’m about to head out to Victoria B.C. and I currently negotiating a couple of House Concerts in that area while visiting friends.
Summer tends to be a quiet time for storytellers, so I’ll be using that time to develop others shows. I’ve got two Fringe-style plays I’m developing (not for this year, I’m afraid). I just acuired an artistic director to help me design a storytelling/music show about The Devil. And I’ve been trying to transform a storytelling/choral piece into an animated film, currently in the initial storyboarding phase(you can listen to the piece here).
NDA:Very cool! Finally, what advice would you have to anyone interested in pursuing the craft? Should they seek out a mentor, or are there other things they could do?
For new storytellers, I usually encourage people to read, read, read stories that move them. I don’t recommend stories that they think others will like: if the storyteller is moved by the story, then it should move the listeners. Many cities have storytelling groups or spoken word scenes, so I would encourage new storytellers to attend their events, study the performers, and take the plunge slightly before they feel they are ready. My advice is that a performer should never wait until he is completely ready to take a risk.