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Storytellers make old tales new again


Len Cabral

Len Cabral



Sarah Fowler



Some might argue that storytelling is a lost art, that in the digital age the idea of sitting down for a twenty minute version of the Three Little Pigs or Jack and the Beanstalk might be tedious, mundane even. Some might argue that a piece of technology is required to take your mind to far off places and imaginary lands.  


Those people clearly have not heard a story told by Len Cabral. 


Maybe it's his uncanny ability to master voice impressions, the ability to throw his voice so that if you close your eyes, you would swear a mother, or a child, or in some cases, a wolf were speaking instead of this tall New Englander with dreadlocks and a baritone voice. 


Perhaps it's his stage presence, with sandals on his feet and bracelets glittering on his wrists, as he instantly changes his stature from the small presence of Rumpelstiltskin to a larger than life fire-breathing dragon.  


Whatever it is that makes him such a wonderful weaver of words, Cabral has the ability to draw you in with his stories and entertain children of all ages. He attempted to teach that ability to a small group of adults Tuesday night at Rosenzweig Arts Center as part of the Possum Town Tales storytelling festival, which continues through Saturday. 


With his audience gathered in a tight circle, Cabral asked the crowd what they wanted to learn from the storytelling workshop. One woman responded that her late husband was a storyteller and she wanted to experience that again. A man said he would like to be a better comedian. Several teachers that were gathered said they wanted to learn how to capture their students' attention. 


Over the course of an hour, Cabral said that anyone can be a great storyteller. All it takes is a little imagination. 


Take the classic fable of Jack and the Beanstalk. While most are familiar with the tale of a boy who sells his cow for "magic" beans, Cabral gives the story new life by telling of a well-intentioned young boy who loves to chew bubble gum and a giant who rides a Harley Davidson 350. Instead of the classic "Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!" Cabral's giant bellows "Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell bubblegum!" 


During Cabral's telling of the story, adults burst out in laughter as Cabral made the sound of a Harley Davidson. Unconsciously, they began to lean in, eagerly anticipating what would happen to the bubble gum-chewing Jack.  


Cabral said he tells the same story that he told to a room full of adults Tuesday to children from Kindergarten to high school students. By taking a classic and giving it a new twist, Cabral said you have given the audience a "built-in reward for listening" because instead of the story following the usual plot, there is an unexpected element that has never been heard before. In that moment, Cabral said the audience "just got gassed up," meaning they are once again engaged in the story. 


"Children that we're telling stories to, they've been raised on TV," Cabral said. "They watch TV every day of their lives. They play video games. We've set them up for two minutes, three minutes, then there is a commercial...We have to compete against that. With storytelling, we can." 


In addition to adding new elements to familiar stories, Cabral said creating a dramatic change in imagery helps to engage your audience. To illustrate his point, he crouched down low to the ground and mimicked a child tiptoeing before quickly stretching his body upwards, with his hands above his head as he transforms himself into a fire-breathing dragon. 


"I made myself as small as possible because I know my next character in my story is going to be about two feet above my head," he said. 


Gesturing down low and then reaching up high, Cabral said, "The imagery of there to here, the kids will go "Ah!" and a lot of times, kids will look to see if my feet are still on the ground because their imagination takes off." 


Cabral, who began storytelling when he worked as a day care teacher for a classroom full of 5-years-olds, said he was heavily influenced by comedians. 


"Humor will disarm people," he said. "It will help them relax." 


Growing up, Cabral said he watched variety shows and comedians Red Skelton and Red Fox, Dick van Dyke and Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Durante and Jack Benny. Years later, an audience member approached Cabral after a show and told him his mannerisms were a spitting image of Jimmy Durante. 


Cabral said the explanation for that is simple. "When I'm telling stories, all that comes out," he said. 


While humor is important to any story, Cabral said stories can also be used as educational tools as well as cautionary tales. For example, when Little Red Riding Hood's great, great, great, great, great granddaughter meets the Big Bad Wolf's great, great, great, great, great grandson in an online chat room and wants to meet, all of a sudden, "there's a whole new red riding hood story beginning again," Cabral said. 


"We need to arm our children with common sense and we can do that by storytelling," he said. 


The lesson Cabral left audience members with Tuesday is that "there's always a second story." By taking a classic and adding a little something extra, a great storyteller can be born. 




Possum Town Tales schedule 


■ Thursday, 7 p.m.: Community storytellers (each given 10 minutes). Featured storyteller: Len Cabral 


■ Friday, 7 p.m.: Featured storytellers Kuniko Yamamoto and Carmen Agra Deedy 


■ Saturday, 10 a.m.: Origami Workshop conducted by Kuniko Yamamoto 


For more information, contact the  


Columbus Arts Council, 662-328-2787


Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.



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