History of the Jack Tale Players

R. Rex Stephenson originated the Jack Tale Players in 1975 with a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts to present the traditional Jack Tales in dramatic form for children. After a trial run in a hallway at Ferrum Elementary School, the first performance of the Jack Tale Players occurred at Callaway Elementary School in Franklin County, in December 1975. Since then, more than half a million people have enjoyed nearly 3000 performances in thirty-four states and in England. Folklorist Richard Chase visited Ferrum College twice in the late 1970s as consultant to the Jack Tale Players. An anniversary performance was given in the same room at Callaway Elementary School on December 12, 2005.

The Jack Tale Players performed in 60 VA Medical Centers on 8 stateside USO tours, 1978-82.

Stephenson has collected and dramatized a variety of tales about the folk hero Jack, as well as other stories based on regional folklore and history. In 1991, six of his scripts were published in The Jack Tales: Folk Stories from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The IUPUI National Youth Theatre Playwriting Competition recognized another script, Jack’s Adventures with the King’s Girl, with an Excellence in Playwriting award. More than twenty tales have been dramatized since 1975, and most have been published.

Jack Tale shows feature fast-paced action, energetic actors, innovative staging, and toe-stomping traditional music. The Jack Tales have universal appeal to all age groups and locations, whether it be an 8-year-old in Wakefield, England, or a senior citizen in a Veterans' Administration Medical Center in Los Angeles. 

The Jack Tale Players celebrated their 40th anniversary Dec. 11, 2015!

30th Anniversary show photos Dec. 12, 2005   |   40th anniversary notes and photos in Facebook

Letter from 4th grader after first Jack Tale performance in 1975

Callaway School    
December 11, 1975

To: The Drama Club
      Ferrum College
      Ferrum, Virginia

      I am really glad you could come and do all those Jack tales for us today. I hope you can come back again in the 76 year. I really appreciated it. I liked the dance, when Ma was getting married and when Jack was going to get her head chopped off best. You can act really good. I don't see how you do it.

      One of my classmates was a flowergirl in Ma's wedding. Her name is Teresa Nichols. She acted good, but not as good as you!

Tammy Brubaker      
4th Grade                 
Callaway Elementary

             copy of 1975 hand-written letter by child

 "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."  R. Rex. Stephenson (consulting with Richard Chase in the late 1970s, below)

"The tall tales they tell would make Jack proud."
Trudy Willis in The Roanoke Times, Mar. 9, 1977

"A special treat!"
The New York Times

"A simpleton named Jack has been giving some sophisticated lessons in play-acting to students in Richmond public schools."   Katherine Calos, Richmond News Leader, Jan. 1976

"Something as simple as a father reading a story to his daughter over twenty years ago sparked a thought that gave birth to one of America's best storytelling troupes." Blue Ridge Folklife Festival program, 28 Oct 1995.

". . . an outstanding entertainment event that stands above all others. . ."
Benjamin McConnell, Recreation Specialist, Veterans' Administration Hospital

"I haven't seen our students react more favorably to any presentation since I have been at the Martinsville High School and that covers a decade." Dr. R. Hensley, Assistant Principal

“The entire audience was intrigued by your clever ability to combine story/song/staging/dialect and an interesting view of Appalachian heritage.” Secretary of Bascomb Elementary PTA, Woodstock, GA, May 2001

"I have seen [Stephenson's] unique stage productions of the Jack Tales which he has toured in the state and nationally to great acclaim. He has rekindled an interest in Virginia Folklore by showing children—and adults—part of their historical heritage. He is a master of dramatizing these stories and directing them on the stage for popular entertainment."
Aurand Harris, playwright, Feb. 9, 1987

"I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Jack Tales performance and think it is a great play that every person from around this area should see. It will bring them to appreciate their heritage more."  Ferrum College student, March 2006

“It is really important for children to see folktales outside of Walt Disney because the true folktales give children a better account of history.” Ferrum College teacher education student Michelle Vincent, 2004

"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. 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." Ferrum College student, March 2006

"I was so impressed with the performance today, I smiled the whole time! It's amazing how talented each of you are!" Ferrum College student Lauren Hearp, May 19, 2011

"The Jack Tale Players were extremely entertaining. It was very funny and at times I couldn't stop laughing.... I enjoyed the play and gave it two thumbs up." Ferrum College student, March 2006

"The Jack Tale Players have really opened my eyes on the world of storytelling." Ferrum College student, May 2011

"I thought the Jack Tale Players were a wonderful group. The stories they told were very captivating and fun. I would definitely go see them again wherever they performed." Ferrum College student, May 2012

"I love the way they present traditional music of this region in a way that has an old, former city-slicker, like me, patting my foot and drinking it all in with each emotional charge they deliver." Charles Shea LeMone, July 11, 2012

"I really enjoyed seeing the Jack Tale Players perform. I grew up to old stories and music like they played, and it has always brought back precious memories hearing tales and old timey music. I thought they did a great job performing. In parts of the play it really made me giggle and feel like I was a young child being read a folktale. 'Sail ship sail' made me want to get up there and say it with the performers." Ferrum College student, May 2012

"My son thoroughly enjoyed your performance this week at Snow Creek Elementary! He gave me a 20-minute reenactment of the play and can't wait to see you this summer. Thanks!" Miriah Rogers Eisenman, June 3, 2012

"You can learn a lot about acting by being a donkey on stage."
Kristina Stump, Jack Tale player, 1996

"When I grow up, I want to be a Jack Taler too."
elementary school student

 For More Background and Teaching Guides See:

The Script as Story Theatre by R. Rex Stephenson
(with more comments by college students)

Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive
Article by Lana A. Whited and Tina L. Hanlon 

Folktale Texts Online in AppLit

Study Guides for Individual Tales 

Excerpt from A Historical Guide to Children's Theatre

Bibliography of Works by and about R. Rex Stephenson

Background on Drawing of Jack by Berkeley Williams, Jr.

Photos of Performances and Richard Chase at Ferrum College

Student Activities on Appalachian Folktales and Dramatizations

Annotated Bibliography of Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature
by Tina L. Hanlon

Production of Stephenson's Jack Tales in Jonesborough, Tenn., 2006

R. Rex Stephenson Receives 2007 SETC Child Drama Award

Interview with Rex Stephenson on The Jack Tale Players.” Guest blog about 40th anniversary
Home to Author-Illustrator-Teacher-Speaker Elizabeth O. Dulemba
7 Jan. 2016

30th Anniversary of Jack Tales Celebrated Dec. 12 (press release 2005)

"Capturing Characters on Stage for the College and Community: An Interview with Playwright Rex Stephenson"
by Tina L. Hanlon (in Virginia Libraries web site, 2008 nos. 3-4)

Rex's 1987 "why I do it" article on UFO tours, "Not All Road Shows Tour Europe"

Chinese Students Learn Jack Tales

Appalachian Storytelling Event. Virginia Tech, 24 June 2013, with art and stories by children

This page's last update:  12/2/17

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