by R. Rex Stephenson, Ph.D.
Previously printed in "Teachers' Guide for Use in Conjunction with the Performance of Jack Tales," by R. Rex Stephenson (Hurt, VA: Artistic Printing, 1994)
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The term story theatre, in recent decades, has taken on a broad definition and seems loosely to include all children's theatre that uses narrative to link various episodes together. It simply defines a style of theatre that lies somewhere between storytelling and the acted-out play.
The form is probably as old as drama, but since Paul Sills' play Story Theatre, the style has taken on a more pronounced form wherein actors simultaneously tell and act the story. The Jack Tales differ from Sills' style by returning to both the storyteller and the balladeer, in role, to provide the narrative.
When I began collecting the Jack Tales, I was struck with the storyteller and the balladeers' ability to weave places, events, characters and local setting into a unified story. What I attempted in creating the style of the play The Jack Tales was to capture this narrative quality and blend it with the basic elements of theatre: dialogue, sound, movement, and improvisation. I never wanted to restrict the storyteller or the balladeer to the role of getting us through parts of the story that seemed difficult to dramatize, but to provide a method in which the storyteller's traditional approach to the material could be an intricate and a complementary part of the dramatization.
Another reason for the narration to take the form of a character portraying a traditional storyteller is to take advantage of the past-tense quality of folk tales. Since folk tales always have happened, children are not harmfully frightened by Ol' Greasy Beard, for example, because the storyteller is recounting only the past and we know that Jack must have come out unscathed or the storyteller would not be sharing this incident with us. The storyteller in The Jack Tales performs a special outside/inside dual role: while he or she introduces the characters and situations that could cause the audience to be frightened, the children are aware that no matter how scary the incident is, they are safe because the storyteller has survived to tell the tale. Furthermore, although a bond automatically develops between the storyteller and the audience, it is both solidified and strengthened by Jack's constant triumphs over the forces of evil. Therefore, frightful incidents can be dramatized, thus keeping to the spirit of the tales in their original form.
Observations by college students in English 207/210, World Folktales and Literature:
"The Jack Tale Players ... used very few props; at the most it looked like they used three items, which were two chairs and a hammer or ax made out of wood. Also people were used as a kind of prop to give the audience better ideas of what is going on....What I have learned about dramatic methods of adapting folktales is that the storyteller or narrator plays an important part in taking the audience through the story. It is also important that the narrator takes on the role of being a storyteller to keep with the folktale tradition. The storyteller builds a bond with the audience and that bond is important because it helps keep the interest of the audience and it helps reassure that the good guy/girl is going to win. My view on the performance is that it is another version of a loved tale and they did a good job on it." (March 2006)
"It is better to see it performed with actors because you get a sense for how wicked John really is. When you actually see him yelling at the Devil, it creates a better visual than the [written] story.... Using little props, the Jack Tale storytellers convey an image well. For instance, they use a man as a bush but the viewer still grasps the concept that a demon is being trapped in the bush. Also, going downstairs to represent Hell lets the viewer follow what is going on. Also, sound effects made by cowbells when someone falls down help the viewer to understand the tale. The Jack Tale Players do a great job of bringing folktales to life." (March 2006)
"Story theatre appeals to me because instead of watching a movie or reading about a type of story, I can see all the characters and how they are portrayed. "Wicked John" performed by the Jack Tale Players changed my opinion on story theatre. The experience helped me appreciate Appalachia and the history of storytelling. Each performer caught my attention and I'd like to watch more performances." (May 2009)
"Before this class I would have immediately said a novel is my favorite way of learning a story. But now we have seen two great plays and now my opinion is changing. I really enjoyed watching the Jack tales. I read Wicked Jack [a picture book] and I believe 'Wicked John,' the version performed, was much better. Seeing something acted out draws you into the story better. So now I would prefer a play." (May 2009)
"The Jack Tale Players performance of different stories changed my whole perception on storytelling. As a young child, the only way that a story was presented to me was orally or by a book. When I saw the Jack Tale Players performance, they incorporated other methods that were very memorable. The use of the instruments providing sound effects throughout the stories helped to really connect parts to the audience. The singing did the same as it also complemented parts of the stories. The actors really gave the audience a great visual of the stories as well. Without the acting, singing, or use of instruments, I would have forgotten the stories.... These methods ... created a better connection with the audience. I realized that ... it allowed me to get a better feeling and understanding of the stories." (May 2011)
"I really enjoyed watching the Jack Tale Players perform. I liked how they combined music and performance to represent storytelling. Watching them perform taught me how powerful storytelling can be with such simple sets. They did not use a lot of props or scenery but it wasn't needed. They are such a talented group of performers, that as an audience you become so engaged in the story. I know the Jack Tale Players are making a huge impact on all the children they perform for. I also like how Rex Stephenson changes and adds such simple characteristics to make the play his own." (May 2011)
"The Jack Tales by Rex Stephenson was a fantastic performance that made me realize you do not need a lot of props to put on a good [show]. In 'Hardy Hard Head' the Jack Tale Players made the props by using our imagination. For example, they represented the boat moving by swaying from side to side. Before this performance I thought a tale without good props would be boring, but it was a great show." (May 2011)
For other photographs of Jack Tale Players' story theatre performances see, for example, a scene from "The Three Old Women's Bet" with narrator on left and main characters in center, "Hardy Hardhead" photos, and other performance photos. AppLit also contains drawings by school children who saw performances of tales such as "Mutsmag." Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive contains two photos and a 3rd grader's drawing.
For more information, see
Stephenson, R. Rex. The Jack Tales: Folk Stories from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Schulenburg, 1991. Reprinted by Dramatic Publishing. Dramatic adaptations as performed by Ferrum College Jack Tale Players. Contains "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."
Stephenson, R. Rex. "The Jack Tales," in Eight Plays for Youth: Varied Theatrical Experiences for Stage and Study, edited by Christian H. Moe and R. Eugene Jackson. New York: P. Lang, 1991.
McCaslin, Nellie. Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 2000. 8th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2005.
McBride-Smith, Barbara. Tell It Together: Foolproof Scripts for Story Theatre. Little Rock, AK: August House, 2001. Recipient of the Anne Izard Storytellers' Choice Award.
The Jack Tale Players Web Site
Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson (in this web site)
Complete List of Plays and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson (pdf)
30th Anniversary of Jack Tales to be Celebrated Dec. 9th (press release; anniversary performance, with photos at this link, was postponed until Dec. 12, and it was later determined that the first performance at Callaway Elementary School was Dec. 11, 1975). The story theatre dramatizations by the Jack Tale Players are probably the longest-running dramatic production for children in the U.S. The Jack Tale Players' final reunion show was Oct. 27, 2012. Stephenson and other performers continue to tell tales as the Jack Tale Storytellers. (Contact Stephenson at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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