by Sarah Burack
I had never been told a story before.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Growing up, I heard stories every night, and I’ve been known to listen to a few New Yorker podcasts since then. Still, until walking into the packed Sackler Museum auditorium a few days ago, I hadn’t realized that storytelling is very much a contemporary form of performance art, a blend of literature and monologue. Storytelling, it seems, has grown up.
Storyteller Jay O'Callahan is a lively performer with a penchant for voices—first raspy and quiet, then booming and exuberant—and a face framed by a shock of white hair. His performance last Tuesday at the Sackler Museum, featured a story he crafted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA. Fifty years, in a marriage, is the golden anniversary. O’Callahan used the occasion to write a love story to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Forged in the Stars.
And what a story. I have a thesis due this week, and I stayed for the entire 90 minutes, from the first, hushed countdown to liftoff (T minus 5, 4, 3…) to the final, resounding "Why not!" conclusion. Forged in the Stars blends material O’Callahan gleaned from hours of interviews with NASA scientists, engineers and pilots across the country, historical stories of the organization, and, finally, the invented love story (or not-so-in-love story) of O’Callahan’s protagonists, Jack and Diane. In all of its parts, Forged speaks of vision, solidarity, and the thirst for exploration. The tale was set in Boston, and though some of the particularities of the city were clearly fabricated—I can’t remember the last time I saw a Maine lobsterman at MIT or caught the whiff of the sea on my way to Northeastern—the details of the characters were nonetheless temptingly immersive. Who wouldn’t want to ride to class next to a woman described as the "Empress of the Street Car"?
O’Callahan’s performance was part of Stories: Across Time and Space, a series of storytelling events presented by the Harvard Art Museum. Upcoming performances will include Surabhi Shah, telling stories from the Jain and Hindu traditions on Tuesday, March 9th, and Linda Fang, with stories from China, on Tuesday, March 23rd. If you’re curious about either event, I recommend getting to Sackler Museum well before the 6pm start time; tickets are free, but they go fast, as you might expect, for an evening that is so much more than "once upon a time."
[Caption: Brookline native Jay O'Callahan launched Harvard Art Museum's storytelling series taking place this month. PHOTO BY CHARLES COLLINS]