Image: Matthew Martin
Victoria Dworkin’s home in Kailua is a comfortable one. The outside walls are a soft cream color accented with a light blue trim. The ubiquitous piles of shoes and slippers wait outside the front door. The interior walls are filled with photographs and carved ducks. One wall is lined with glassed-in bookcases. A vase sits atop one of them and inside of it an ornate puppet stands with its chin proudly jutting forward, as if it is the lord of the room.
Every surface of the kitchen and living room seems to be occupied either by food or people talking with one another. There are a dozen or so men and women scattered around the area, their voices rising and converging in a chorus of talk and laughter (and at least one vigorous discussion over copyright law). It is a comfortable scene.
But then something happens.
Plates and utensils have been put away and everyone has gathered in a circle in the living room. Dworkin, sitting on a couch, legs tucked beneath her, scratching the neck of a well cared for cat, begins to speak. She is telling a story in a deliberate tone to the assembled group and her audience leans forward at the invitation of her voice. The comfortable house, the windy Sunday night, and all of Kailua seems to fall away as the room is transported across time and thousands of miles of ocean and night to the banks of the Volga River, where a young man watches as the Czar of the Sea emerges from the waters, his mossy beard filled with corals.
The men and women listening to Dworkin speak comprise a floating community of artists, librarians, and at least one magician. Known as Moonlight Storytellers, the group began a decade ago out of Dworkin’s desire to better her own storytelling skills.
Having put in time as a graduate student in American studies, Dworkin began telling stories in classes, albeit reluctantly. “I had always thought of myself as a shy person, terrified of public speaking,” she says. Soon enough, however, she’d become hooked. She joined a storytellers listserv, attended festivals and workshops and eventually began telling stories in public. Along the way she became a children’s librarian, a job that has provided her opportunities to hone her storytelling abilities through community outreach programs.
Still, there was a desire to learn more. Through her attendance at storytelling festivals and conferences, Dworkin had met and befriended a number of storytellers within the Islands, but there was no common group of storytellers in the state. “It all felt very fragmented,” Dworkin recalls. “I could tell just how much a community of storytellers could do for each other and what it meant to have a support network.” In the fall of 1999 Dworkin set about to establish that network.
Along with a fellow beginning teller, Dworkin created a flier, secured space at a café, and invited as many tellers as she could think of. The first meeting was attended by eight people, but, despite the light turnout, Dworkin remembers it as “a magical evening.” The group met again the following month. Realizing afterward that both meetings had occurred during a full moon a group name was soon adopted.
The group’s original goal was to provide a space for tellers to share and improve their abilities, but Dworkin admits that this focus was limiting, “That kept us to a fairly small, dedicated core group, but it also kept us from growing. Now what we say is, ‘Everyone is encouraged to tell, but no one is required to tell. Listeners are welcome.’”
Many meetings are arranged around a theme. This evening’s meeting is romance. The stories range from biography, to history, to folktales, all told in a variety of styles and cadences. Founding member, Yona Chock, also know as The Magical Storyteller, provides some magic as, at the close of her story, she induces a tissue paper rose to smell like the real thing. Chock also provides the one-liners. She passes the rose to her left to let others take a whiff, after it has made it a third of the way around, Chock deadpans, “Don’t inhale that stuff, it’s toxic.” (The convivial atmosphere is enough to make even this correspondent share a story, involving tequila, spit and humiliation, which, for now at least, will have to remain with those who sat around that circle in Kailua).
It perhaps seems silly for a group of adults to sit in a circle swapping stories, but the appeal of the group is immediately apparent. Everyone is bright and well-spoken. The stories are good as are the conversations. Sitting there, one suddenly remembers how good it is to talk with another person, how good it is to be told a story, how good it is to simply listen. One hopes that the Moonlight Storytellers can endure.
For a decade they have, through contractions and expansions in membership, through changes in venue, through recent scheduling difficulties that have pared the monthly meetings down to bi-monthly affairs. Dworkin is optimistic about the future. Moonlight Storytellers are scheduled for a performance to honor the 40th anniversary of Kalihi Public Library this fall. The group’s monthly electronic newsletter detailing local storytelling events, keeps the group’s name viable. And there is always a push for new members. “We have no dues,” says Dworkin. “All it takes to become a member is to show up at the meetings.”
But all of that future activity seems distant at the moment, because now the Czar of the Sea has begun to speak, and everyone sitting in a comfortable house in Kailua leans forward, anxious to hear what he has to say.