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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Time with Antonio

If you have been to any of the larger storytelling festivals such as the one at Jonesborough or Timpanogos, the chances are you have seen Antonio Rocha perform. He is a regular at the big ones. However, he is also a frequent teller at the medium-sized ones… and the small ones, too. On Saturday April 29, we had the Bay Area Storytelling Festival, which was once pretty big, but as those who organized it for more than thirty years began to retire it began to diminish a bit. Then Covid hit, and the festival was no more. However, last year, under the leadership of Linda Yemoto, Sara Armstrong, and Claire Hennessy, it came back… as a small festival. And this year, it grew a little, perhaps inching its way into the category of medium.

Antonio was the reason that many made the trip to Orinda from all over the Bay Area.

Antonio hails from Maine, but a quick look at his biography, not to mention his repertoire of folktales, which he pairs with personal stories, reveals his Brazilian origins. He moved to the United States in 1988 to study mime with the master, Tony Montanaro, on a Partners of the Americas grant. Mime forms a core to his storytelling to this very day, and he often performs a purely mime short segment as a “palate cleanser” between his longer spoken pieces.

As a board member of the Storytelling Association of California, which formed more than thirty years ago to support the Bay Area Storytelling Festival, I had the pleasure of hosting Antonio at my home for two nights. And this meant I got to bring him to my high school classroom for a day of fun with my students.

At eight thirty in the morning, on the Friday before the day of the festival, my students dribbled in. Some were scarfing down food, some were jousting with one another with their lacrosse sticks, and many were scrolling on their phones. One barely made it to her desk before collapsing in a heap with her head in her arms. I don’t think any even noticed the tall man wearing all black standing next to me at the front of the room. The students, to my chagrin, seemed particularly scattered and unfocused… and here was this gift that I was sure they would be unable to appreciate.

But Antonio worked his magic. He immediately had them on their feet. They were holding an imaginary point in space. Then the point became a stick, which they swung slowly up and down, using their eyes to keep the length of this imaginary baton consistent. Antonio started with their bodies, telling simple, short narratives, and then before we knew it, we were hauling in invisible fishing nets full of invisible fish, and climbing up rock faces, using belay ropes to steady other climbers and transport gear.

In one of my classes, which is titled “Authentic Voices,” and devoted to creating true stories for live performances and recorded podcasts, Antonio told a full length story. It seemed to start as a folktale… or possibly a legend. It was set in the past, but how long ago I couldn’t tell because of that timelessness that is in these genres. The story began when Antonio announced this was a story about a horse who saved six people’s lives. Our next character, in keeping with a folktale, was another animal, the villain of the story. Brazil is plagued with a particularly vicious kind of snake called a fer de lance. Antonio could capture the deadliness of the snake with his hands, which became the jaws and coils of this dangerous animal. Its bite meant death for most. Then we were introduced to a family. There was a young girl who was devoted to her parents, especially her father. But she was particularly fond of the family’s horse, which we expected would go on to save the six lives.

The young girl dutifully brought her father lunch every day and helped him at his place of work. She had just set her father’s meal on his desk and was sweeping up the shop when her broom caught on something. And then she fell. The audience knew immediately this was the fer de lance, and it was now coiled in a ball around the girl's ankle, its head pumping her full of venom… full of death. The father felt hopeless as he removed the head of the snake from her foot, but he had to try. An hour away was a pharmacy, and the pharmacist was the young girl’s only hope. So he rode the family horse. He rode it faster than it had ever gone. Then the pharmacist mounted the horse with his materials, and the horse, sensing the urgency, only galloped faster and harder, collapsing when it arrived. The pharmacist was able to administer the antidote, and the girl lived. The horse had saved her.

It seemed like the story was over, but Antonio reminded us that he had started the story by saying that the horse had saved six people. Antonio told us that this became true when the girl went on to marry and have five children. We all smiled. She would not have had the children if she had died, so that did make it five.

Then Antonio turned the whole story on its head. It wasn’t a folktale after all. It wasn’t a legend about a loyal horse willing to give its life for its owners either. It was a true story!

“Yes…” Antonio continued. “The girl went on to have five children, and I am the youngest.”

This had been a story about his mother. There was an audible gasp of joy mingled with disbelief and wonder.

From my seat on the sidelines in my own classroom, I had a rare perspective on the twenty students who had entered the classroom that morning. As Antonio worked his magic, as my students slowly let go of their exhaustion, their phone addiction, their rambunctiousness, and as they concentrated on Antonio, my frustration with them, something all too familiar, changed into compassion. They became bright eyed, youthful children, full of wonder and excitement. And I am filled with appreciative kindness toward them and all they have to do in a day – their sports schedules that keep them on campus until ten at night, their rushed mornings, and, of course, the demands of their texts and emails and snapchat accounts that beep and vibrate impetuously.

The students left the class calmly and quietly, many of them thanking Antonio on the way out. I noticed none of them were on their phones.

After three classes (two were ninth grade while the elective “Authentic Voices” was mostly twelfth graders), Antonio met with three students privately. These were the students who were part of the youth panel I was hosting at the Bay Area Storytelling Festival the next day. It was to them that he imparted some of his deepest wisdom. As they ran through their pieces with him, he revealed something that really forms the core of all of storytelling. In just half an hour, between these aspiring tellers performances, he described the difference between storytelling and all other genres of live performance – whether it be acting or poetry recitation. It is in the eyes of the storyteller, or, more accurately where the eyes of the teller are looking.

“The eyes go to three places,” Antonio said. “When you are narrating, your eyes should be past your audience, almost like the back wall is a movie screen where the pictures of your story are playing.”

He went on to mention that if your eyes are not on the imaginary picture screen behind your audience, they should be on the audience itself, but only when you are addressing them directly. This is a big difference between storytelling and recitation as well as storytelling and acting. He gave examples. A teller might be describing a canyon as deep and vast and dark. The teller should be seeing the canyon on the imaginary screen. But then the teller might interrupt this by suddenly looking at members of the audience and saying something directly to them, like “It’s a bit like the Grand Canyon. Have you been there?” Or, “Deep canyons fill me with fear. It is like swimming over the dark depths of the ocean for me.” (Antonio used different examples).

And then, if the eyes of the teller are not on the imaginary screen behind the audience, or on the audience itself, they should be on a character or object on the stage. If there is a scene where the teller is talking to someone, they should be seeing the character. They should angle their vision forty-five degrees to the side and down if the character is shorter than them… or up if the character is taller than them. If the teller is holding a gem, they should be seeing the gem in their index finger and thumb. This is the part of storytelling that is akin to drama and acting.

It was amazing how much crisper and more organized the student tellings became… immediately! One student had been dramatizing a conversation with her mother. She used the indirect discourse of the written page.

On the night before my junior year, I was lying in the fetal position on my bed. You see, junior year is the worst. My mom sat next to me. I said, “Mom, I can’t go to school tomorrow. I’m not ready. I’m not ready for AP Physics, Calculus, or the SATs.” Then my mother said, “You don’t have to be. That’s tomorrow.”

My student was reporting all the “she said/I said” phrasings of indirect discourse. This was a perfect opportunity for Antonio’s story framework. The first line was narration. My student looked to the imaginary screen behind her audience for the line, “On the night before my junior year, I was lying in the fetal position on my bed. My mom sat next to me.” Then she could directly address her audience and inform them that the junior year was supposed to be the hardest. Then Antonio told her to hunch her back and raise her arms, imitating the fetal position and simply deliver the line. Now she was like an actress on the stage. When her mom answered, my student simply lowered her arms and turned her head, casting her line of vision down at her side, where my student would have been lying from the mother’s perspective. All three of these “modes of delivery” – narration, direct speech to the audience, and dialog – were present in this short sample of her story. Recognizing this, gave all three of my student tellers much more confidence. They now longer let their gazes wander with uncertainty. They simply had to decide whether they were narrating, acting out dialog, or speaking personally to the audience.

My students were joined by two who studied with Kirk Waller in the drama program he runs at the Fellowship Church here in the Bay Area. And these five students were joined by a slam poet who works with the organization Youth Speaks. The panel was very well attended and well received.

Of course, Antonio’s performance was a big highlight of the festival. He did an hour-long historical story about a ship from the early nineteenth century named the Malaga. The wood had been cut in Maine, and the ship’s dark history included transporting slaves from West and Central Africa to Brazil. Antonio and the ship shared the bond of having roots in these two parts of the world. There were many powerful moments when the ship and Antonio spoke directly to one another, through time and space, confiding in one another, at times comforting one another over the terrible human tragedy of slavery.

When I said goodbye to Antonio, the events of the three previous days – all the laughter, the stories, the wisdom – flashed before my eyes. Throughout the entire time, I kept saying to myself how lucky I was to get to spend time with a storyteller who is a legend in himself.

Sonoma Academy Visit on April 28, 2023 and the Bay Area Storytelling Festival on April 29, 2023


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