What to do tonight: Jewish folktales at the Carnegie Library

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Once upon a time there was a storyteller. He knew so many stories that he didn't know what to do.

Well, that's not exactly right. Alan Irvine knows exactly what to do with the stories he's accumulated over the years.

He shares them.

"It started as kind of a hobby, back when I was still living down in Louisiana, going to college," said Mr. Irvine, 51, of Squirrel Hill. "During the summers, I worked as a counselor at summer camps and I would tell stories in the cabin after lights out and around bonfires. Something to do to settle the kids down a bit.

"I learned one or two ghost stories, one or two old Irish folktales that I could remember enough to improvise my way through. And I would learn a few more each year before the next summer."

Mr. Irvine came to Pittsburgh almost 30 years ago to attend grad school, where he earned a degree in sociology.

"And I kept telling stories," he said. "I worked a couple summer camps in the Poconos and did the same thing. That led to me getting hired to do stories at libraries, schools, things like that. I built it up to the point where, after I finished my graduate school work, I decided to go into storytelling full-time as a profession."

He still teaches sociology part-time at Robert Morris University, but the bulk of his work has a moral to it.

"Most storytellers tend to start with folktales, an already-existing story," he said. "Then there is a process of developing the story and crafting it. You have to develop your own voice and your style of telling.

"I do a wide range of stories. A lot of my material comes from folklore and existing stuff. I do a fair bit of adapting from literary sources. Shakespeare, ghost stories, that sort of thing. I do a lot of Pittsburgh history, which involves researching the actual events, and then I have to make a story out of it. And I do a few stories that I've created from scratch. So I'm kind of all over the place as a storyteller."

Telling a story is more than just reciting the beginning, middle and end. There are details in the voice, the eyes, the whole body.

"It depends on the story," Mr. Irvine said. "I tend toward the more animated and energetic level. But a lot of it is matching with the story. With a ghost story, for example, you don't want to be too animated because that disrupts the building of tension. With young kids, on the other hand, you want to do a lot of animated stuff.

"This past weekend I was performing at the Children's Festival in Oakland. That's a lot of kids, so the storytelling is going to involve a lot of high-energy, lots of funny voices including character stuff."

Tonight he will be at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill sharing a half-hour's worth of Jewish folktales.

"The Jewish folktales I'll be doing tonight will be less animation, more narrative," Mr. Irvine said. "We'll have all ages and the stories will range from humorous to more serious things.

"All cultures have their folktales, and there's a lot of commonalities between cultures. A lot of the Jewish folktales tend toward humor and wit, more than jokes. They have humorous twists that need to be followed."

He is planning to do three or four stories this evening, but he isn't locked in.

"The choice depends upon the audience and the moods," he said. "I do some prep ahead of time and narrow down the range of stories. But I always want to leave some flexibility depending on the audience. If there's a lot of young kids, then there's some stories that I probably won't do."

The big thing about storytelling is the storyteller's presence. A story just isn't alive in a book. And snapping in a DVD of a storyteller just isn't the same.

"There's quite a lot of difference, but it's very subtle," Mr. Irvine said. "Storytelling is very much an interactive art, and it always has some element of improvisation. There's always shuttle shifting and changing to matching the audience. I pay attention to the audience and I may change a line. If they're laughing at the silly lines, I may do more of them. However, if I'm not getting a reaction there, and this is not working as well as I'd hoped, I may abridge it and wrap it up quick and go on to something else.

"Most of our art forms derive from telling a story. It's still all around us. People practice it all the time without being aware they're doing it. It's part of our everyday communicating."

And the lesson here?

"Pretty much all stories have morals," Mr. Irvine said. "The need for justice or the working of morality. A crime that needed to be avenged or recognized. Sometimes it's very apparent, sometimes it's implied. But if they don't have something to tell us about the world we live in, they don't resonate, they don't connect -- we stop telling them."

Mr. Irvine will be at the Carnegie Library, 5801 Forbes Ave., in Squirrel Hill at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.


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