Art of storytelling

By Alexandra Kukulka

He claps, snaps, hits his chest and widens his eyes, and the crowd bursts into laughter. He goes on with his story, unfazed by the sudden response from the audience.

This was a scene from the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Lecture series featuring Peter Cook, a performance artist who is also an associate professor in the ASL–English Interpretation Department.

During his Oct. 25 presentation, “Performance Narrative in Storytelling,” at the Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Ave., he talked about his research on how both deaf and hearing people tell and interpret stories.

“Cook was the person I selected because he is not only doing groundbreaking work in  [the] American Sign Language–English Interpretation [Department], but he also is an internationally renowned deaf storyteller,” said Deborah Holdstein, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Michael Albert, an interpreter, verbalized what Cook signed.

Cook started the evening by sharing his history as a storyteller and his experiences at various festivals. While watching  performances, he noticed he was able to determine when a storyteller was acting as a narrator or a character. Cook said his understanding of  these acts led to his research on the art of storytelling.

“[My understanding of verbal stories] led me to think about the role of the nonverbal in storytelling and that process,” Cook said. “I thought it was worth some study and research because [Western literature] has often struggled with an attitude of superiority and looking down on something else [that isn’t written].”

He told the crowd that the interaction between the audience and the storyteller is what he enjoys most about performing. Whether a storyteller speaks or signs, audiences have to be able to connect to them and build a rapport, he added.

Cook gave examples of six professional storytellers, three of whom are deaf. He explained the different physical techniques these storytellers use to express how their characters think, feel and react to situations. He said all storytellers use gestures and varying degrees of eye contact to show when they are in character or  narrator form.

Cook said storytellers also utilize the concept of  space. Artists who both sign and verbalize their stories differentiate between the real space in which they perform and the story space, or fictional space, he said.

Cook shared a story from when he attended Clarks Schools for Hearing and Speech and had the opportunity to take dance lessons for a school ball. He enjoyed dancing so much that he accepted an invitation to another school dance, where a girl caught his eye, he said.

He got her number by the end of the night, which was an obstacle for him, he said. He then paid his 6-year-old stepbrother to call and speak to her on his behalf.

“I had the option to choose between a 6-year-old or a mother,” Cook said. “I thought [I’d] better go with the brother because I can control him.”

His brother discovered that the girl’s name was Cheryl and set up a date, Cook said. However, when he got to the dance, Cheryl passed him a note that said, “Can’t dance, can’t communicate.”

“This little piece of paper with the lousy handwriting still drives like a knife through my heart,” Cook said. “This is a historic issue that deaf people have faced since our time on earth.”

Cook told the students that he recently ran into Cheryl at another ASL event at which she was an interpreter.

The night ended with a Q & A session. Students asked Cook about how he interprets audience reaction to his stories. Lisa O’Connor, a freshman ASL-English Interpretation major, said the event was inspirational and eye-opening.

“It really felt that he was the story,” O’Connor said. “He was telling the stories, and [the audience] really felt his emotions. Even if you could hear and there was no interpreter, [the audience] could still understand the story.”