Thomas Doty – Storyteller

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Stories and Light

As a storyteller, I contemplate light, a lot. Whether I'm enjoying a summer day of abundant sunshine or a magical evening of stories around a campfire, or experiencing the shadowy shift of the seasons from autumn to winter, my world is filled with light that is constantly changing. Like a great story, light has textures, colors, moods, shadows and flares, softness and harshness, richness and depth....

In the world of theatre, a lighting designer creates moods through light, a technician executes that design, and each actor moves through the play from one preset scene to the next. "Find your light," the director says. In storytelling, the concept of light is different. As a teller I am not only the sole actor but also lighting designer, technician and director. I create the effect of light spontaneously as I share each scene of each story.

If my performance is indoors, I request an unevenly lit space ... shadows here, a splash of light there, patterns of colored light and shadows that imitate a dramatic sunset on the beach or the haunting textures of a full moon lighting a Northwest forest. As I journey through each story, I play with the light. I feel brightness and dimness on my face as I move, shifting to a new composition of light as the mood of the story shifts. I not only find my light, I find my shadows.

Once, in a high school gymnasium, I was fiddling with lighting possibilities just prior to a storytelling. I hadn't noticed that some of the lights were gas and needed 10 minutes or so to come back on after they were turned off. In my attempts to be creative I flicked the wrong switch. As students filled the bleachers, the gym was launched into semi-darkness. There was nothing to be done. The lights would come back in their own good time. Much like the world at the start of creation, I began the performance in dim light and let the words carry the drama. I chose a native myth I call, "Sun and Stories Come Into the World Together." In this myth, after a time of darkness, the light of the world (the sun) and the light of culture (the stories) arrive and share the world's stage equally. As the plot progressed toward the first rising of the sun, one by one the gym lights flickered back to full strength. The effect was dramatic and startling, and very satisfying.

When most folks imagine a storytelling, I suspect they are not picturing a performance under harsh fluorescent lights with the storytelling space outlined by the free-throw lines on a gym floor and a basketball hoop as a backdrop. Yet even in this setting, we see something different. We have memories and experiences that send our thoughts of storytelling to a scene that includes firelight ... folks gathered around a campfire in the forest or in the desert, or in the flickering light of a fireplace, the gentle glow of a candle or an oil lamp, or cozied-up around a crackling wood stove in the nurturing hearths of our homes. For centuries, this is where people have experienced the telling of stories, in twilight-to-nighttime settled moments at the end of the day, just before sleep and dreams where we enter yet another setting for stories. This fire-lit scene is soothing, memorable and has magic in it ... a universal and ancient place. In a native plank house lit by firelight, or a Nordic hall, or around the ceremonial fire at a gathering of tribes long before they were called powwows, folks are drawn to the fire for stories, warmth and companionship. It is in this setting that the storyteller's art finds its deepest and most ancient roots.

I love sharing stories around a fire. The interplay of light and shadows constantly changes, and each story-moment is a dramatic opportunity. And there is also the sound. The sputter and crackle of fire plays with the ebb and flow of words, and adds depth to the silences between those words. The sound of a fire can be a subtle soundtrack that soothes our hearts after a scary story or it can fill our ears with eerie pops and hisses that make our pulses throb. Firelight allows us to experience the stories in much the same ways our ancestors did. Like a story, it tugs us into the awareness that we are a community. In this setting, firelight strays beyond the boundaries of stage lights. Not only is the storyteller in the light but the audience is lit as well. This communal light encourages eye-contact between teller and listeners. When I perform indoors, my request for uneven lighting includes raising the house lights a bit to cast light on the audience. This emulates the common light of a primeval telling. It is an invitation to enter the world of stories, and sets the scene for a vibrant flow of emotions between storyteller and listeners. It brings back the intimacy of a traditional telling. Shared light encourages a sharing of stories.

I've also seen firelight bring rock writings to life. A few years ago, I was with my friend Roy Phillips exploring a series of pictographs in a cave in eastern Oregon. From the native point of view, the rock writings are the stories of the Rock People, a written form of native literature that is a companion to oral tradition. Roy had been trying to get a good photo of the images, but the cave was too dim to use natural light and a flash was too harsh. Finally, he fired up an old gas lantern that sent a golden glow dancing through the cave. The images jumped off the rock surface! Not only did the warm light make vivid the images we knew about, but we clearly saw images that were faint before, even approaching invisible. This made for the perfect photo! And then we noticed the fire-blackened wall at the back of the cave where native folks had lit small fires over a long period of time. They used firelight first to create the images, and then to read and reread the story, visit after visit, century after century. With his lantern, Roy had recreated the original light, and the cave took a breath and told her story. We sat and watched. Images changed as the light changed, shifting from one mood to another as time and light worked together to dramatize the story and move the narrative along.

Sometimes it is the transitional light of the sun that inspires the Rock People to tell their stories, and we Human People to share ours. And those stories are often told at the same time. I close my eyes and picture this scene....

Late in the day, as long shadows stretch across Tule Lake, the symbols carved into the base of the rock called Koomookumpts' Bed start to stir. The last light of the high desert day is fiery. The rock face glows red and orange. Faint images turn bold and more of their story is revealed. The rock holds the light during the silence that is twilight. I imagine the Old Ones as they return to the rock. A fire is lit as they gather close and start to share stories. The sun has left for the night, leaving behind bits of himself in the fire. Light and shadows search the symbols on the rock. More and more stories are told -- all night long -- until the fire burns to coals and sunrise starts to glow.

In many cultures, storytelling is a ritual. Pausing between stories to place a log on the fire not only perpetuates light and warmth, it is a gesture, an offering. It adds fuel to our cultural consciousness. It takes us time-traveling through centuries of narratives back to when the world was dark and cold, and someone did something in a story to bring us light. Every culture has myths of light coming into the world ... sunlight, moonlight, firelight.... They light our path. They keep us warm. They provide moments of insight, of inner light. We gaze into the coals at the end of a storytelling and each of us contemplates the meaning and purpose of our existence. We feel enlightened.

The memories of our beginnings are kept alive in stories. Each time these stories are told, our world is remade ... as the sun rises on the winter solstice and turns up the light ... as springtime reshapes winter into new light.... Creation begins with a shared word as the light begins to surround us.