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March 16, 2014 • 06:53:03 a.m.

Jim May strives to keep storytelling alive

By JAMI KUNZER jkunzer@shawmedia.com

Emmy award winning storyteller Jim May. (Photo provided)

The way Jim May sees it, a revival of storytelling is underway.

And he’s right in the middle of it.

The Emmy award-winning storyteller and author regularly draws in professional storytelling friends and colleagues – including March 15 entertainer Michael Parent – to perform at the Spoken Word Cafe in Woodstock.

May helped create the venue seven years ago at Stage Left Café, 125 E. Van Buren St., next door to the Woodstock Opera House.

Because of their ties to May, a Spring Grove native who founded the Illinois Storytelling Festival and has traveled the world telling stories, those who stop by tend to waive the usual cover charge, offering a unique value to McHenry County. The events are free, though donations are appreciated.

They typically draw crowds, as audiences gather to get swept up in tales from both today and long ago.

Though most of the performances are geared toward adults, family programming has included Grammy award-winner Bill Harley and students from Dean Street Elementary School in Woodstock.

As successful as the Spoken Word Café has been, in May’s mind, there are never enough stories being told.

He’s continually working to reestablish storytelling as an art form. As he puts it, it’s ideal not only for entertainment, but also for the “grounding and healing that is needed in complex, modern times.”

“We think in terms of narrative. Cinema is narrative put on film. Ballet is stories danced. Ballads are stories sung. And theater is stories acted out,” May said. “What people find when they come to a storytelling event is that fundamental part of the imagination or that quality that only humans have to use their imaginations to be somewhere they’re not.

“People realize that happens just with one person telling them a story. That’s just as popular as going to a movie or a play or listening to a favorite song. It changes a mood or you might remember something from 50 years ago you hadn’t thought of because of a story someone tells you.”

Though older generations always have seemed to share May’s sentiments, younger generations now are being drawn to the art form, May said.

He’s seen a revival among those in their 20s and 30s in urban or bar settings where events, such as poetry slams, have become popular. At some Chicago bars, people put their names in hats. When called upon, they have roughly six minutes or so to tell a story or read a poem. Winners advance to win prizes and reach higher levels, May said.

It’s more of a grassroots storytelling effort than the professional storytelling he and his colleagues do, but it’s still storytelling, May said.

“I’m trying too learn to do the slam poetry,” he said. “I’m hoping this will kind of bring the generations together.”

He’s also working with students and leaders at McHenry County College, where students competed in a poetry slam for Black History Month. The students have been invited to join May at Spoken Word Café on April 19.

Other efforts include an April 27 “Peace Begins with Remembrance” event at the Lisa Derman Holocaust Memorial Sculpture, McHenry County’s only Holocaust memorial, in the Spring Grove Village Park, 2102 Main St., Spring Grove. May has invited storytellers from throughout the country to share “Stories of Remembrance, Peace and Justice.”

The park is the place where Holocaust survivor Lisa Derman died in July of 2002 during the Illinois Storytelling Festival, while telling her story of resistance and survival in World War II Poland. Before her death, Derman was instrumental in creating the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Skokie, Ill.

As May recalled, she died shortly after saying, “I may not be here much longer. The story must go on for the next generation. The time will come for the rest of you to stand up and answer the call.”

She then had a heart attack.

Moved by her message, a documentary as well as a memorial were created. The memorial, a bronze sculpture, was unveiled in July of 2011 at the park.

“We felt her message must go to the next generation,” May said.

Having discovered a talent for telling stories as an elementary school teacher during the 1970s, May left the classroom behind for a career as a full-time, freelance storyteller in 1985. He continues to travel the nation, telling stories at schools and clubs and for companies and non-profit groups.

He has two new books due to be published this summer.

“I’m just kind of plugging away,” he said.

Coming up:

“A Beautiful Game,” 7 p.m. March 15, Spoken Word Café, 125 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock. Known for his humorous glimpses into Franco-American life, Michael Parent will describe his “mostly true” recollections of his longtime connection to the game of ice hockey. No cover charge for the event. Information: www.woodstockoperahouse.com or www.jimmaystoryteller.com.

McHenry County College students and others join May and professional storyteller Oba William King of Chicago at 7 p.m. April 19 at the Spoken Word Café at Stage Left Café.

“Peace Begins with Remembrance,” April 27, Spring Grove Village Park, 2102 Main St., Spring Grove. Stories of remembrance, peace and justice will be told at the Lisa Derman Holocaust Memorial Sculpture, McHenry County’s only Holocaust memorial. The park is where Derman, a Holocaust survivor, died in July of 2002 during the Illinois Storytelling Festival.

Jim May will host a performance of “Jim May Tells Nippersink Stories” in May (a definite date has yet to be set) at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 E. Van Buren St., Woodstock. It will be the first time he has done a selection of McHenry County stories from his book, “Farm on Nippersink Creek,” on the Opera House stage. The show has toured festivals across the world.

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