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rutland heraldVERMONT MAGAZINE January 13, 2007

It's All In Your Mind

Vermont storytellers put their spin on ancient tradition

By Patrick Timothy Mullikan

Once upon a time, there was a woman who came from New Mexico and man who came from Philadelphia. Each had an eye, ear and tongue for language and a love of its magic. Then one day, many years ago, they met ...

When Tim Jennings was a child, his mother used to sing him to sleep every night with the English ballad "Barbara Allen."

His grandmother, meanwhile, told him folktales and stories from the Brothers Grimm. There was no book, no illustrations. Just her voice and his imagination. The stories she told came alive in his mind.

As a child, Leanne Ponder grew up listening to the Saturday radio program "Let's Pretend." "The thing about hearing something rather than seeing it is that your brain goes to work on it. It is so much better," she says.

Listening is what storytelling is all about, according to Jennings, 59, and Ponder ("I'm old enough to qualify for AARP"), who say they are the only professional storytellers in the state - that is, telling tales is their livelihood.

"We make a fair living," Jennings says during an interview at the kitchen table of the couple's home in East Montpelier. "Sometimes it's fairer than others." They also perform Celtic music together under the stage name Sheefra, fairer than others." They also perform Celtic music together under the stage name Sheefra, with Jennings on English concertina and Ponder on Celtic harp.

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With his long golden hair and beard, Jennings looks like he could be from the Middle Ages. Ponder, too, has the look and air of a time traveler.

"We are a hairy pair," Ponder says with a hearty laugh. "Half the time I'll wear my hair in a braid, and half the time I'll wear my hair loose."

The two met more than 20 years ago, when Ponder was working for the Vermont Arts Council teaching poetry to kids around the state.

Jennings had moved to Vermont in the early '70s and earned a degree from Goddard College in Plainfield. He traces his storytelling career to his early days in Philadelphia, first as a teenage folk singer and later as a member of the troupe The Philadelphia Street Players.

Ponder moved to Vermont at about the same time as Jennings. Her circuitous path to professional storyteller included work at a dream clinic in Oregon and teaching government employees in Washington how to write coherent sentences.

"This was during the time when Nixon was resigning," she recalls with an even heartier laugh. When she attended Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Ripton, she became hooked on the state.

"We started out by playing music together. It was really nice," Jennings says. "She told stories, and I told stories. I thought: What would happen if we tried telling the same story together, at the same time, like we do the music? How would that work?"

Some 20 years later, the answer is obvious.

The art of storytelling, Jennings explains, is ancient and predates written communication. This was how folklore was passed from generation to generation.

Grimm's fairy tales, he explains, are really a collection of oral folktales that were compiled and edited, with a distinct Germanic bent, by the two Grimm brothers in the early 1800s. "The Grimms didn't write them. The stories existed orally and were passed down."

As storytellers, Jennings and Ponder are among such notables as Charles Dickens, who, Jennings explains, became a professional storyteller once his book sales began to wane. "He would go all over the place. In fact, Dickens killed himself by touring."


Jennings and Ponder's tour schedule, though full, isn't quite so life-threatening. The couple, who perform throughout the state and across the country (at schools, summer resorts, weddings and festivals) have also appeared at the Toronto Festival of Storytelling, The National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., in England, Wales and on a cruise ship.

Storytelling, Jennings explains, is not simply a matter of memorizing a written piece and reciting it to an audience. Great storytellers must also be great performers.

"The trick is it's got to sound like you. It's got to come from inside you, or it's not storytelling," he says. Ponder adds: "We don't put on Irish accents; we don't pretend to be anything that we're not."

To illustrate their point, together they launch into a 4,000-year-old tale taken from the Panchatantra, which Jennings calls the grandfather of both Aesop's Fables and the stories known as the Arabian Nights.

During this kitchen-table impromptu performance, Jennings and Ponder speak in unison, sometimes alone, sometimes echoing each other yet always naturally and with color.

Jennings at one point pounds his chest Tarzan-style.

The story, about a group of men who create a living tiger from a pile of bones they discover, ends with Jennings and Ponder half-singing, half-chanting: "The more you know, the more you need common sense."

The couple have been performing this piece for years, and it shows. The timing is right. The delivery is right. The story is captivating and entertaining.

Ponder says it can take them anywhere from four months to a year to learn a new story, and a year or two more to hone it.

The art of telling stories together, when done right, Jennings says, "(is) not like anything else. It's a whole thing unto itself." Done poorly, he adds, it's sort of like pingpong. "It's mechanical. It doesn't flow. The girl takes the girl's part; the boy takes the boy's part."

The goal of the storyteller, both say, is to be a medium through which the story moves.

"You become invisible, and yet somehow you're very visible and expressive," Jennings says.

Is there still a role in today's fidgety society for the storyteller? After all, an audience member is required to pay attention, listen and use his or her imagination. Clearly, cell phones and iPods do not mix with storytelling.

"All I can say is, there's a part of the human brain or soul - however you think of it - that is hard-wired to hear these mysteriously generated oral tales," he says. "People are hungry for them. Once they get a taste, they know it. 'Oh, that's what I was hungry for.'"

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