Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive
Lana A. Whited and Tina L. Hanlon, 1996
Note: This article originally appeared in ALCA-Lines: Journal of the Assembly on the Literature and Culture of Appalachia, vol. V (1997), pp. 20-23 (reprinted with permission). In December 2005, the Jack Tale Players celebrated their 30th anniversary at Callaway Elementary School, in the same auditorium as their first full performance on Dec. 11, 1975. In August 2012, they observed that they had performed more than 3000 times in thirty-five states and England, including 175 USO shows, and they had traveled more than 500,000 miles. For details on the USO shows, see "All-American, All-Star USO Show, or 'Who Needs Bob Hope?'" The drawing above left was made by Sam, a 3rd grader at Lee M. Waid Elementary School, Franklin County, VA, after seeing a Jack Tales performance in May 2000. Although the pictures on this page are more recent than the article, the article content has not been updated. See the following for many more pictures and other information on R. Rex Stephenson, the Jack Tale Players (and Jack Tale Storytellers after his retirement in 2012), as well as specific dramatizations, including tales with female heroes introduced from 1998 on (such as Ashpet, Mutsmag, and The Three Old Womens Bet):
Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson
Complete List of Plays and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson
The Jack Tale Players Web Site
Study Guides for Jack Tale Players
Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson
The Jack Tales Facebook page
In October 1995, at the annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, Ferrum College's Jack Tale Players celebrated their twentieth anniversary with their 2000th performance. It was also a historic event because during part of the program that day, the Players were accompanied by prominent North Carolina storyteller Orville Hicks, whose very famous older cousin Ray Hicks demonstrated the ancient tradition of storytelling on the same program. R. Rex Stephenson, founder of The Jack Tale Players and professor of theatre at Ferrum, combines the roles of writer, director, actor, musician, and teacher in his work with this group of traveling performers. In her Historical Guide To Childrens Theatre in America, Nellie McCaslin has described the work of the troupe as "an innovative and highly imaginative native program" that "continue[s] to provide rich content for audiences of all ages" (170). The group's success is largely due to Stephensons ability to dramatize this material for modern audiences, using methods which preserve the essential character of both the tales and the telling.
In 1975, Stephenson realized the dramatic possibilities in the traditional Appalachian folk tales when his daughter Janice Lynn brought home a copy of Richard Chase's Jack Tales, and he read the stories to her. Stephenson recalls thinking to himself, "Boy, these [tales] would dramatize."1 After obtaining a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Stephenson found three tales in the National Archives and many more in the homes and communities of rural storytellers and local historians. Two developments in his research were particularly important. First, he and Ronnie Davis, an original Jack Tale Player, discovered the James Taylor Adams papers among Works Progress Administration (WPA) files from the 1930s and 1940s; Adams' folklore collection had been given to Clinch Valley College by his widow, Dicey, and sat neglected in twelve cardboard boxes in the college archives. Stephenson credits Blue Ridge Institute director Roddy Moore with convincing Clinch Valley authorities to allow photocopying and cataloging of the manuscripts.
The second important development occurred when former Ferrum College president Joseph Hart invited folktale collector Richard Chase, then a resident of Emory, Virginia, to Ferrum to meet with Stephenson. Chase had collected the Jack Tales in North Carolina from the Ward family of Beech Mountain, who could trace the tales to their ancestor Council Harmon in the 1880s. Harmon had heard them from his grandfather, who said they came from the early settlers of the United States. Chase had also worked as a WPA folklore collector in Wise County, Virginia, and published two books which are still the best-known collections of Appalachian folktales: The Jack Tales (1943) and Grandfather Tales (1948). Toward the end of his life, Chase was a valued consultant as Stephenson and his fledgling players developed their tales, employing a performance style called "story theatre," which Stephenson defines in his 1994 Teacher's Guide as "a style of theatre that lies somewhere between story-telling and acted-out play." Stephenson adapted the original material, blending in traditional storytelling and folk songs, and "The All-American All-Star Jack Tale Show and Washboard Review" was born.
The first performance was given in 1975 in the hallway of Ferrum Elementary School. Early shows were hard to book, recalls Stephenson, but because one original Jack Talers father was the assistant superintendent of the Richmond school system, the troupe was invited for three days of performances there; after The Richmond News Leader published a glowing review called "Simple Jack Tales Educate" (Calos), Stephenson returned to Ferrum to find his telephone "ringing off the hook." Since then the rush has never subsided, with the company appearing in Los Angeles, in Central Park, in England, at the Atlanta Omni, in a number of USO shows, at meetings of the Children's Theatre Association of America, and in many other places, big and small. Stephenson estimates that the troupe gives over one hundred performances a year and has been seen live by more than seven hundred thousand people. They have also recorded a videotape (which features three tales: "Jack and the Giants," "Wicked John and the Devil" and "Jack and the Robbers"), and Stephenson and his actors frequently offer workshops for public school teachers, such as "Using Traditional Tales and Storytellers in the Classroom," held in conjunction with the 1995 Folklife Festival and sponsored by the Blue Ridge Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts/Folk and Traditional Arts.
Playwright/director Rex Stephenson (left) performing with Jack Tale Players
for the Children's Literature Association International
Hotel Roanoke, June 2000
Photo by Lana Whited
Jack, the hero of these folktales, has been described as an Everyman, an archetypal folk hero. Audiences unfamiliar with the Appalachian Jack Tales are probably familiar with Jack as a multi-faceted character from English nursery rhymes such as "Jack, Be Nimble" and "Jack and Jill"; from many folk expressions and names such as Jack-of-all-trades, Jack Frost, or Jack-oLantern; and from English folk tales such as "Jack and the Bean Stalk" and "Jack the Giant Killer." These same tales appear in southern Appalachia with such titles as "Jack and the Bean Tree" and "Jack Fear-No-Man." Chase and others have pointed out that Jack's folktale ancestors are Irish and German as well as British. As the Europeans who settled in the southern Appalachian mountains retold these tales, they took on the flavor of Appalachian culture, through the dialect in which they were naturally told and the details from mountain life; thus, they represent an intriguing blend of Old and New World elements.
Since he was reborn in America, Jack has been one of our most vital and appealing folk heroes because he continues to evolve, adapting to new times and places. He is many things in many tales, although in Appalachia he almost always starts out as a poor son of ordinary mountain farmers. His age varies, but he is usually a teenager, younger than his two brothers, Tom and Bill or Will. Sometimes he is a hard worker; however, he is usually the clever trickster or the fool who may learn a lesson about living sensibly but more often just triumphs out of sheer luck. Like his cousins in folktales around the world, Jack often sets out to seek his fortune or gets caught up in a quest at the beginning of a tale. Sometimes he has to deal with witches and giants; he is often helped by companions with magic or super-human powers, and he sometimes takes center stage in the company of royalty. Chase writes in his preface to The Jack Tales that "it is always through the 'little feller,' Jack, that we participate in the dreams, desires, ambitions and experiences of a whole people" (xi-xii). Herbert Halpert adds, "Here we have an almost mocking contradiction of what has been called 'the American fairy tale—that honesty and hard work are the means to success" (187). A member of the Harmon family once remarked to Halpert, "If I was to name my boys over, I'd name all of them 'Jack.' I never knowed a Jack but what was lucky" (187). Even more than the tall tale heroes of great physical strength or fairy tale princes and princesses blessed with beauty and impeccable virtues, Jack is an embodiment of wish fulfillment for ordinary people—the little guy who wins our hearts and triumphs over adversity no matter how weak, lazy, or foolish he appears at times.
Rex Stephenson's reincarnations of Jack are the offspring of two developments begun in the 1960s: a storytelling revival and the dramatic method known as Story Theatre. One of Stephensons editors, Christian H. Moe, observes that in the Story Theatre form, "a narrator and actors recite and perform a story almost word-for-word from its original source (xxv). Stephenson stresses in his Teacher's Guide that his adaptations differ from others "by returning to both the storyteller and the balladeer, in role, to provide the narrative." He believes that "the storyteller's traditional approach to the material [can] be an intricate and a complementary part of the dramatization." His narrators also preserve what he calls "the past-tense quality of folk tales," a narrative perspective which provides an experience for observers by drawing them into the tale, reassuring them in a friendly way that even the most frightening episode will come out all right because it happened in the past and is being recreated in a safe communal environment. The lively dialogue, sound effects, and stage movements of the characters within the tales are additional sources of entertainment. Stephenson's Teacher's Guide very accurately notes that "the show has delighted young and old with its fast-paced action, energetic actors, and toe-stomping music."
In his production notes to The Jack Tales, Stephenson specifically discourages elaborate staging; he writes,
no attempt should be made to utilize any type of realistic sets, costumes, or properties. To ensure that I depend primarily on the talents of the actor, I restrict the use of set pieces to several 2' x 4' x 2' brightly painted wooden boxes and two folding chairs or rocking chairs. They are used to form all the settings and locations. (60)
The Jack Talers play a variety of parts as they dramatize each tale with minimal props and basic costumes consisting of gingham-like shirts and jeans held up by bright suspenders.
Instead of more traditional staging aspects, Stephenson stresses the importance of sound effects "used to augment pantomimic action and theatrical conventions" (Moe 336). His performers, most of them Ferrum College students, use simple, often homemade mountain instruments such as a cow bell, spoons, washboard, and washtub bass to accompany their singing of folk songs and to add comedic effect. The Players occasionally act out traditional ballads such as "The Wreck of the Ol 97" as a warm-up to the tales, and Stephenson's publisher, I. E. Clark, makes available an audiotape of the Jack Tale Players music for the benefit of other theatrical groups.
The acting methods Stephenson employs are more representational than realistic. "It is important," he says, that his actors "realize they are presenting roles rather than three-dimensional characters" (Jack Tales 60). A good example of this method is "Jack and the Robbers" (sometimes told by others as "Jack and the Animals"), which was collected by Chase and bears obvious similarities to the European folktale "The Bremen Town Musicians"; in fact, the narrator in Stephenson's version acknowledges, "Theres a fellow over there in Germany by the name of Grimm that tells pretty much the same story." Over half the actors in this tale portray animals—a dog, a cat, a donkey, an ox, and a rooster—and must thus rely on voice and gesture to define and convey their characters. Stephenson's performance notes emphasize that "Energy is the key, as well as a one-dimensional portrayal" (Jack Tales 60); reproducing the sounds of the animals accurately is also very important. Kristina Stump, who plays the front of the ox in "Jack and the Robbers" on the Jack Tales video, says that Stephenson once pointed out to the cast, "You can learn a lot about acting by being a donkey on stage."
The flexible, no-frills staging has many practical and artistic advantages. Many viewers well versed in the original material prefer Stephenson's style of adaptation over more elaborately staged and costumed dramatizations of folk tales with realistic settings and extended dialogue, like Tom Davenport's film versions of folk tales with Appalachian settings; the simpler Story Theatre form preserves the spirit of ageless oral storytelling, focusing on economical action and language to move us swiftly through the rhythms of the story, and allowing the storytellers to draw us into their magic circle primarily through their dramatic use of voice, pantomime, body movements, and sound effects. The uncomplicated nature of the Ferrum Jack Tales productions requires Stephenson's students to develop techniques of physical movement probably not emphasized in rehearsal for the standard stage drama. He writes that "if story theatre is to achieve its fast-paced and uncomplicated style, the director needs to rely on the actor's ingenuity. In a clever and unexpected manner, the actor can create trees, bridges, bushes, show passages of time, or changes in location. Children are delighted by these small surprises" (Jack Tales 60). The tale called "Jack and the Hainted House" illustrates these techniques, because the walls, windows, fireplace, and furniture of the haunted house are created by the bodies of the actors. What better way is there to bring to life the terror of a haunted house, while at the same time interjecting some hilarious comic relief in the interactions between naive Jack and the objects that move around behind his back?
Ferrum drama students also learn a lot about adapting original material for the stage from Stephenson's methodology, which involves them as participants. Because he was "really keen on improvisation" when he began adapting the tales, the Jack Tale Players founder customarily began his work with improvised narrative. He or a student would read a tale aloud, while others acted it out. From this initial improvisation, Stephenson derives "a basic scenario for the tale and, after several performances, moves on to scripting and rewrites." The entire process with each tale, he says, might take two to three years. Although newcomers to the Players are sometimes surprised to learn that they rarely work from a script, Stephenson's oral methods approximate one of the most genuine qualities of the original tales: their variations from teller to teller. A spectator who sees "Jack Fear-No-Man" one day might encounter a slightly different tale on another day with an alternate narrator. Richard Chase wrote of the Beech Mountain tellers that "No two individuals . . . ever tell the same story exactly alike; nor does the same man ever tell any one tale quite the same twice over. . . . This is a part of the story-teller's art" (x). Of course, the drawback of such variation is deciding how to record the story for posterity; Stephenson finally published a collection of six scripts in 1991,2 though his performers continue to depart from the texts regularly.
In more practical terms, this type of production can be staged inexpensively and transported easily, and The Jack Talers schedule often calls for mobility: during the month of May, generally its busiest travel time, the troupe customarily performs two to three shows a day on the road, accumulating forty to fifty performances in a fifteen-day period. In 1996, the Players performed to nearly 13,500 spectators between mid-May and mid-July. Such a demanding schedule builds students' focus and leadership, says Stephenson's colleague Jody Brown, chair of Ferrum's Fine Arts and Religion Division and a Jack Tales veteran herself. "When three hundred grade-schoolers are waiting for a show," Brown observes, "performers have to drop petty or nonproductive issues. When the show is the fourth performance [of the day] and the clock says only 2:30 p.m., performers must be able to draw on inner reserves to share successfully with each child. The discipline of being in Jack Tales serves people well, regardless of major or career interests."
An additional benefit for Stephenson's students is their appreciation of children's theatre, which Stephenson feels many actors consider inferior to "serious" theatre. Children are a tough audience, and Stephenson works hard to teach his actors the techniques which engage younger viewers. "I think I push actors to be physical," notes Stephenson; "kids' theatre is more 'show me' than 'tell me.'" The success of his methods is demonstrated in the accomplishments of Jack Tales alumni with other theatre groups for young audiences; their credits include leading roles with The Arkansas Arts Center Childrens Theatre, Richmond's Theatre -IV, and the children's productions of Ferrum's professional Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre.
Stephenson's production notes and Teacher's Guide point out several other performance benefits: his adaptations are constructed to be performed by variable numbers of actors with different levels of skill, at varying ages. In the Teacher's Guide, he outlines a dramatization method for educators of younger students which is essentially the same as the one he practices with his adult troupe: getting them to understand the story thoroughly enough to narrate the events in sequence, and then encouraging them to improvise the actions and dialogue of the various characters and set pieces. Another advantage is the fact that the characters—even Jack—can be played by actors of any race or either gender, a practice in the Ferrum Jack Tales tradition that contributes to the universality of Jack's character. Audience participation may be emphasized or omitted to suit different sizes or age levels of audiences. (Photo at left is from a 2002 performance in Woodstock, Georgia.) In "Childrens Theatre and the Lure of the Mirror," Jack Stokes observes that children's theatre "is a theatre forced by necessity to do things which would qualify it for the avant-garde had not that term been reserved for more fashionable opaque theatre" (xix).
The success of this innovative method of dramatization is confirmed by the reactions of audiences for over twenty years. A Danville newspaper described elementary children "clapping, screaming and rolling with laughter." A principal commented, "I haven't seen our students react more favorably to any presentation since I have been at Martinsville High School, and that covers a decade" (Stephenson, Jack Tales v). The tales are successful with even the youngest viewers, as preschoolers have been observed laughing wildly at the horseplay during the folk song which opens the Players videotape—even before the first tale begins.
The performances are also successful with adult spectators, largely because they are not watered down or prettified like some versions of folktales for children. Devils and witches are outsmarted, giants are killed, and people aren't always kind to each other. Stephenson says he must sometimes improvise when schools won't allow the depiction of death or magical elements such as witches or incantations, but these features have long been commonly accepted in folk tales by people of all ages. Stephenson's adaptations make clear that he recognizes and avoids the common misunderstandings about folktales: that they are merely light and fluffy entertainment for young children, or that they are told just to pass on conventional morals. Many other adults have distorted them into shapes intended to serve these purposes. As Stephenson writes in his Teachers Guide, "Far from being minor amusements, folktales put us in touch with the values of people. They affirm the creativity of people and show the power of stories in transmitting cultural principles" (x). Perhaps the most convincing testimonial to the effectiveness of the Jack Tale Players' methods is reflected in the words of an elementary school student who declared after viewing a performance, "When I grow up, I want to be a Jack Taler too" (Stephenson, Jack Tales v). The effect doesn't seem to wear off as students get older, either; Christina Boyd was hooked when she saw the Jack Tales as an eighth grader in Meadows of Dan and couldn't wait to come to the college, where she is currently a troupe regular.
The Ferrum group's 1995 performance on the same program with Ray and Orville Hicks seems an appropriate emblem for Rex Stephenson's approach: blending the creative energy of youth with timeless methods of storytelling. The effort is ongoing, and though the vehicles of the tale-telling may be increasingly modern (the Jack Tale Players' videotape, for example),Stephensons tales have always focused on loyalty to his sources. Although he regularly adds modern references to his history plays in the interest of humor or familiarity, of his Jack Tales adaptations he says, "I never drop out what's traditional to get a laugh."
But perhaps the most important aspect of Rex Stephenson's work is that the troupe has managed not only to preserve the Jack Tales but to continue discovering them. Once his group began performing the tales regularly, Stephenson says, "People started telling them to me." It was soon common for audience members to come up after a performance and mention a different version of a familiar tale or, occasionally, a tale Stephenson had never heard. A notable example of this is "Jack and his Lump of Silver," which he believes is "the only tale ever collected on the Eastern slope of the Blue Ridge." For Rex Stephenson, the Jack Tales provide a continual learning experience and an ongoing exercise in loyalty to Appalachian traditions: during nineteen years, he observed in 1994, "I have never stopped the research, nor the visits to the mountain families" (Teacher's Guide).
For information about booking performances, Stephenson's Teacher's Guide and workshops, or the Jack Tale Players videotape, call 540-489-6284 (or contact Tina L. Hanlon).
1. Quotations attributed to Rex Stephenson without a source citation are from the personal interview listed among the references.
2. "Jack Fear-No-Man," "Wicked John and the Devil," "Jack and the Robbers," "Foolish Jack," "Jack and the Witchs Tale," and "Jack and 01' Greasy Beard."
Brown, Jody D. Personal interview. 27 July 1996.
Chase, Richard. Grandfather Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1948.
Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1943.
Calos, Katherine. "Simple Jack Tales Educate." The Richmond News Leader, 16 Jan. 1976, p. 6.
Davis, Charles Thomas III. "Jack as Archetypal Hero." North Carolina Folklore Journal, vol. 26 (1978), pp. 1, 134-43.
Davis, Donald. Jack Always Seeks His Fortune: Authentic Appalachian Jack Tales. Little Rock: August House, 1992.
Ellis, Bill and William Bernard McCarthy. "Note on the Texts: Transcribing Jack Tales in Performance." In McCarthy, pp. xxxv-xlii.
Halpert, Herbert. Appendix. In Chase, The Jack Tales, pp.183-88.
Lindahl, Carl. "Jacks: The Name, the Tales, the American Traditions." In McCarthy, pp. xiii-xxxiv.
Lindahl, Carl. "Who is Jack? A Study in Isolation." Fabula: Journal of Folktale Studies, vol. 29 (1988), pp. 374-82.
McCarthy, William Bernard, ed. Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales & Their Tellers. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.
McCaslin Nellie. Historical Guide to Children's Theatre in America. New York: Greenwood, 1987.
Moe, Christian H. and R. Eugene Jackson. Eight Plays for Youth: Varied Theatrical Experiences for Stage and Study. American University Studies Series XXVI: Theatre Arts. Vol. 8. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.
Perdue, Charles L., Jr. Outwitting the Devil: JACK TALES from Wise County Virginia. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City, 1987.
Stephenson, R. Rex. "The Script as Story Theatre." AppLit. From The Jack Tale Players presents The Jack Tales: Teacher's Guide for Use in Conjunction with the Performance of Jack Tales. Hurt, VA: Artistic, 1994.
Stephenson, R. Rex. The Jack Tales. Schulenburg, TX: I. E. Clark, 1991. Reprint Woodstock, IL: Dramatic Publishing/Family Plays.
Stephenson, R. Rex. Personal interview. 19 January 1996.
Stokes, Jack. "Children's Theatre and the Lure of the Mirror." In Moe and Jackson, pp. xxi-xxv.
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