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Telling Stories

Ann Shapiro, A Master of "Once Upon A Time"

Published 10/06/2010 12:00 AM

Once upon a time there was a little girl from New Rochelle, N.Y., named Ann Shapiro.

Ann felt she was the luckiest girl in the world. Her life was filled with stories, from the intricate tales her father would tell on long car rides, to the larger-than-life performances on Broadway to which her Nana Sally would take her.

And then there was the time she not only went to the Howdy Doody Show, but Clarabelle the Clown chose her to her to be in the Peanut Gallery.

As she grew, the girl discovered that she had talent as a performer. Her parents encouraged not to simply memorize facts and figures and not just accept what books said, but to do her own research. Her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams by asking, "What is it that YOU want to do?"

She decided, upon graduating from high school, to forego college. Instead, she took guitar and voice into schools so she could share her stories and songs with children. She started as a teacher's aide, then became a freelance teaching artist.

It was fun. And it made her happy.

And then Ann met a man named Tom Callinan, who upon meeting her called her a "quality bohemian woman." They got married and moved from New York to Connecticut in 1972. And of course, they sang songs and told stories together, creating a company called Crackerbarrel Entertainments. Eventually they had two sons, Eli and Emmett who, once old enough, got in on the act too.

That's the fairytale-like story of Ann Shapiro's life to date.

Today, 42 years after graduating from high school, Shapiro is still singing songs and telling stories as a master teaching artist with the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. And she still partners with her husband in their business, which is based out of their home in Norwich.

It's the only career Shapiro has ever had and she says she still feels like that fairytale version of herself, that she's the luckiest girl in the world.

"I'll go anywhere to tell a story because it does two powerful things: It allows those who are listening to find a unique place inside themselves and at the same time creates a sense of community."

Part of what makes storytelling unique, she says, is the absence of the so-called "third wall," an imaginary boundary, such as in a play, that separates the action on stage from the audience.

It's this aspect of storytelling that highlights Shapiro's talent. She's a character in her own story, and at the same time she engages her audience and makes eye contact with its members.

"My story might change depending on the audience's reaction to it. I may write it out ahead of time, but I don't memorize it. I must first get connected to the audience and then see where the story goes."

Her favorite stories are folk tales for children, especially if they involve music. If there is no music, she'll write it.

"Songs are important because it helps kids focus on the story. They wait for their part to come around."

She uses colorful costumes in her performances and instruments like a guitar, ukulele, strumstick, dulcimer and anything else that could be used for percussion or rhythm. Using big movements that can be easily imitated, she weaves mesmerizing stories and yet remains warm and approachable to her audience.

When she's not in front of an audience, Shapiro has what she calls her "real job," executive director of the Connecticut Storytelling Center at Connecticut College, which hosts the annual Connecticut Storytelling Festival. She's held the position since 1999.

And while she never did go to college, it turns out that all along she's been providing a crucial element of literacy to schoolchildren - the ability to visualize, an essential aspect of literacy.

"The first three components of being literate are listening, speaking, and visualizing," says Shapiro. "If you can't do all three, you can't read."

While oral storytelling - which is distinct from simply reading books aloud - is an ancient art and form of communicating used for centuries by some cultures to preserve their history, Shapiro believes it's more relevant today than ever.

"With computers, video games, and texting on cell phones, not to mention television, there's not much visualizing or face-to-face verbal communication going on. We are constantly bombarded with the visuals of others."

Jane Gangi, a literacy specialist and an associate professor with the Instructional Leadership Program at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, calls Shapiro's work heroic.

"We know that No Child Left Behind doesn't work. We know that sound-to-letter correspondence doesn't always work. Storytelling always works. And so Ann is doing heroic work. She is a dynamic performer who engages young people every time she encounters them.

"Kids comprehend more when they are engaged. Reading comprehension comes from listening, not from reading. The old way was to look at what poor readers do and then figure out how to fix it. Now we understand that the key is to observe what good readers do and how to teach that. What we've found is that the best readers are able to create sensory images for themselves as they read. They are able to make predictions and inferences. Nothing helps that process along better than the emotional connection made when being told a story."

But the impact of storytelling goes well beyond literacy and language skills. It's a way of making a direct connection with students that can last forever, Shapiro says.

She recalls a time while walking to the New London Board of Education offices and two teenaged boys quickly approached her from behind, mumbling under their breath.

"I hate to admit that I was a little worried," Shapiro says, "but then they said, 'Mrs. Ann? We remember when you read The Cat Came Back to us when we were little.' They were six when I taught them that story."

Sometimes, she says, the impact can be heartbreaking.

"There's a song I sometimes sing called 'It Takes a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song,' by Woody Guthrie. Afterwards we talk about things we're afraid of and one time a boy told me that he gets worried when his uncle comes over with a gun. I didn't know what to say so we just put it in the song."

Although she doesn't often go to middle schools or high schools, when she does, sometimes the biggest boys in the room get so caught up in the stories they suck their thumbs.

"It's touching, worrisome and delightful all at the same time."

Part of Shapiro's responsibilities at the Connecticut Storytelling Center are to oversee Tellabration, an event involving simultaneous storytelling across the state, and the Connecticut Storytelling Festival.

This year Tellabration will be held Nov. 20. Next year marks the 30th Connecticut Storytelling Festival, scheduled for April 29 to May 1, at Connecticut College.

For more information:

Connecticut Storytelling Center

860.439.2764

www.connstorycenter.org

National Storytelling Network

800.525.4514

www.tellabration.org

Crackerbarrel Entertainments

860.889.6581

www.crackerbarrel-ents.com

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