Alice Kane, one of Canada's most respected storytellers, looks to the Irish tales of her homeland for her best inspirations.
There is a special creation made between a storyteller and a listener, the theory goes. One of those who proves the theory is Alice Kane, a respected Canadian storyteller who began the career — her second — when she was in her 60s.
Kane's first career, children's librarian, gave her a tack ground for what she's doing now. But the majority of her time is currently spent telling talcs to adults, not children. On March 28-29 (Saturday-Sunday) at Innis Town Hall, Kane will join forces with Irish harpist Eithne Heffernan to tell The Story of Flann: Being the Last of the Stories of the King of Ireland's Son.
The Irish-born Kane came to Canada on her 13th birthday, in 1921. After receiving a degree from McGill, she moved to Toronto. "Although the idea of a job was alarming to me, I knew I wanted to work with children and books." Through a series of circumstances, she got "a job I wept for" — working as a children's librarian with Toronto Public Library. She stayed there from 1930 to 1973.
"Storytelling was involved with the job. much to my horror. But I had to do it. and it became a lifesaver for me. It cured all sorts of terrors I had, such as my shyness."
What Kane refers to as "my new life" began when Dan Yashinsky (who now works with the Storytellers' School of Toronto) suggested a way for her to use her storytelling experience. "Dan was a graduate in psychodrama, which is based on telling tales, and he was looking for people who would tell stories to others."
What began as a small collection of people soon became a loyal group of followers who would congregate on Friday nights in a Kensington restaurant to listen to and tell tales. " I had to get over my initial embarrassment, but now I have fond memories of sitting on a stool and telling a story, while a waiter roamed around and an espresso machine chugged at the climax of the tale."
Kane's talent and reputation have grown over the years. She now regularly travels across Canada and to the States to participate in storytell ers' gatherings and to teach others to tell their irwn tales.
"There are as many styles of telling as there are stones. I've been trained to keep myself out of the talcs, though others make themselves a part of it. I myself think that hands get in the way of telling. I remember one woman who bad the most beautiful sleeves of green silk," says Kane slyly. "Augusta Baker, one of the great American black storytellers, used to say that if you recall the story and not the teller, then the teller was good. For me, the keep-out-of-it style works best."
Remember t a le
Kane doesn't agree with a teller who interprets too much. "I like the grandeur and the voice of the telling; that's what makes it so important. The telling shouldn't be sentimental or full of effects. The storyteller should just throw the material out and let you make of it what you want."
With this view in mind, Kane distinguishes between storytelling and acting. "The actor has a hard time becoming a storyteller, because he has to forget that he's not interpreting, just telling. People who come to storytelling from acting have to change their approach; theresponseof a listener should be aural rather than visual."
With its links to bardic tradition in both northern and southern Europe, storytelling is an old art form, but one whose revival is important to Kane and her companions.
"People have reached the limit of the impersonal with the television. You can't talk back to a TV, and it also offers the same picture to everyone. A TV can't present a vision of the czar's palace in a suburban living room with any effect. But in a group listening to a storyteller describe the palace, no two people will create the same picture in their minds. There are as many responses as there are people; what people remember is what their needs dictate. Storytelling is an extremely personal art form. 1 think people are now longing for the personal."
Kane's favourite tales are the myths and wonder tales, ranging from the Bible to the works of Algernon Blackwood and Rudyard Kipling and fairy tales from Rus sia, China and Japan. She recalls that when she was at school. Old Testament tales like that of Joseph "swept me off my feet with their grandeur."
Wonder ta l es
But because of her background, she has a special fondness for the Irish talcs "I have more right to them, but my disadvantage is that my language is English rather than Irish. Some of my favourites are those told by Ella Young and Padraic Colum, which some people consider too literary. But these stories are the grand tales I like, those that were probably told in castles, with musical accompaniment by a harp. As much as I like them, 1 still approach them with a little awe and a great reverence."
Yashinsky suggested that Kane work on these tales with Heffernan, who is also Irish. The surface differences between the two women — Kane is an English-speaking Protestant from the north and Heffernan an Irish-speaking Catholic from the south — were immediately forgotten when they began sharing stories and learning of each other's experiences.
The tales they will recount are largely Colum's. "He took the myths, fairy tales and folk tales and wove them into one story, that of one prince and his half-brothers. 1 told the first of these, that of the eldest prince, three years ago, and this is the last of the tales." Among the characters are gods and farmers, seers, shape-changers and evildoers.
Kane shifts easily from giving the story of her life to telling parts of various tales. There is a poetry to her talk, a sense of lulling and enticing the listener, but also a strength in her voice.
Storytelling is important to Alice Kane for a number of reasons. She sees it as a way of saying something that would be difficult to express otherwise. But at a more personal level, says Kane, "I regard the mythic tales as talismans; I live by them. The stories 1 was given as a child or found later have become my guide, my way of life. From them 1 know everything that I know, such as that might cannot conquer right. Nothing can destroy those beliefs."