World-renowned storyteller weaves his tales in Malibu

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Storyteller Jay O'Callahan at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Charles Collins

Today, most of us seem to get our stories from movies and books. There was a time, however, when all stories were told by word of mouth. The shaman, priest, rabbi and storyteller all spoke to an enraptured audience.

As part of an ongoing program entitled, “Tales by the Sea,” the Malibu United Methodist Church continues this tradition, opening its storytelling season with the tales of Jay O’ Callahan on Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m.

The program began nine years ago, when Reverend Larry J. Peacock thought it an ideal way to bring people together in a nonreligious, yet sacred and entertaining way. Church member Ann Buxie discovered the dramatic talents of O’Callahan, an award-winning storyteller, at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee.

“These stories reveal humanity,” Buxie said. “They show how we are coping with what life brings our way. By intermission, the crowd is buzzing. Everyone starts to open up to each other. The storytellers show such a respect and love for the people whose lives they’re telling. It brings everyone closer together.”

Many of O’Callahan’s stories stem from his own life. Growing up in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, O’Callahan lived on what he lovingly refers to as “Pill Hill,” a title given by locals referring to the myriad of doctors living in that area. His parents, however, were teachers who loved to perform at the local Footlight Club.

“I loved the excitement of those performances,” O’Callahan recalled. “The world intrigued me. Sound … storytelling allows you to play with sound. The whistles, the sound of neighbors calling their dogs, I try to bring those sounds alive.”

He will be telling several of his very popular “Pill Hill” stories next week. One of his stories, “Glasses,” relates his confusion as a 7-year-old boy following World War II.

“There was lots of drama,” O’Callahan said. “I remember the doctors who’d been through the war. They came home and thought the world should be brand new. It was a confusing time.”

O’Callahan has told the “Pill Hill” stories all over the globe, from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the National Fine Arts Complex in London to numerous venues throughout the states. He is currently working on a new “Pill Hill” tale entitled, “Patricia’s Wedding,” that will be a culmination of all the “Pill Hill” stories.

Performing around the globe has posed some unique challenges that O’Callahan.

“I was enlisted to tell a story at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980,” O’Callahan said. “Here I was, being urged to tell a tale to a whole dining room of people from every corner of the globe. I began to just tell a Haitian folktale, the “Owl.” My body began to expand and contract, much like a windshield wiper, to the wonderful rhythms of this 7-minute story. Slowly, the whole dining room put their forks down. English wrestlers and Japanese athletes all watched with the same enrapt expression. They all seemed to get it.”

The same thing occurred when O’Callahan performed in Africa.

“I was in an area where they mostly spoke French and African. Adults were learning English. So I used more music and movement to convey my stories. The lesson I learned is that, underneath everything, there are universal moments.”

O’Callahan has also written three children’s books, “Orange Cheeks,” “Tulips,” and “Herman and Marguerite,” which was illustrated by his daughter, Laura.

He is currently working on “Labyrinth of Uncle Mark,” a story that deals with the moral dilemmas of a Japanese American family trying to come to terms with the internment camps during World War II.

When asked what advice he would give to others interested in pursuing this art, O’Callahan responded, “Do it. It’s a wonderful way to express your creativity. Playing with characters automatically pulls out your strengths.”

Also, he recommends, “Find a listener. Some of my tales have taken as long as three years to create, telling them to different people.”

Tickets for the Malibu show are $10 and include beverages and light snacks. For more information about this show or other “Tales by the Sea” performances, contact Ann Buxie at 310.457.2385.