Barbara McBride-Smith was born to tell stories
Don’t believe the first reason Oklahoma librarian and adjunct seminary teacher Barbara McBride-Smith gives for being a storyteller since 1987 at festivals mostly in the United States every summer and weekend.
“The first reason for telling stories is it’s hard to quit. Applause and appreciation are my drugs of choice,” she quickly answered last Sunday from her home in Tulsa, Okla. “There’s nothing quite so wonderful as having someone think you did a great job. It’s immediate, very fulfilling. It gives your ego a boost.”
That immediate response isn’t really the reason she moonlights as a storyteller; the 59-year-old already has a full-time library job in addition to the part-time teaching job.
“Mainly I do it because I can’t not do it. I was born into a family that talked stories. Everything we did was a story. The way we learned how to do things, to behave, the way we learned about my parents, about work, about our grandparents, everything we learned was through stories,” McBride-Smith explained. “Conversations always became stories. Instead of rules of behavior, if my mother thought something might be inappropriate, she’d tell me a story.”
Although McBride-Smith sometimes rolled her eyes in response to these stories, she nonetheless understood the inherent lessons.
“I remembered that if someone did something inappropriate, terrible things would happen,” she pointed out. “The planting of the seed was there ” I knew the bad things that could happen if you did something. My mother didn’t have a moral to the story, I figured it out myself.”
Her mother’s style would influence McBride-Smith years later when she became a teacher and librarian. McBride-Smith would give students stories instead of rules so they would understand the expected behavior or tell stories as teaching concepts.
“Storytelling is really a way of life for me. It’s not something I discovered as performance art; a lot of people come to it through a theater background,” McBride-Smith added. “My door was my birth. I grew up hearing stories all my life. I never imagined you got paid to do this, my father would roll in his grave if he knew.”
Her stories are based on Greek myths, traditional tales such as “Cinderella” or “Rapunzel” retold in contemporary times or by including modern references, personal stories and biblical narratives.
The biblical stories feature strong women.
“There’s no teaching of doctrine, no dogma, I look at how interesting the stories are and how they deal with modern issues,” McBride-Smith noted. “The strong women are there, they’re just hard to find sometimes. That’s been a real joy to retell these biblical stories so the women can get a personality.”
As an adjunct teacher at the Phillips Theology School in addition to being married to a theology professor, McBride-Smith has an abundance of research material for her biblical stories: “I’ve always lived in a community of scholars ” these are the people I socialize with. When I go to parties, I’m always asking questions.”
Even though McBride-Smith often tells the same stories on stage, the tales evolve over time.
“Every story has a basic outline. I know how the story will begin, that’s always set; and it will always come out the same at the end,” she explained. “The story will start changing on you, sometimes it’s in the middle of the telling. And the meaning of the story can change over time.”
A story-in-progress which changed its focus, for example, began as a tale about her sister’s relationship to trains.
“Now I’m realizing it’s a story about my sister building bridges with other people, she goes about it like you can’t put the brakes on, she goes where no other woman has. She’s building bridges with other cultures, with the handicapped,” McBride-Smith said. “She was born deaf, went on to be school valedictorian at a time when mainstreaming hadn’t begun. My sister took a job with a shipping company and worked her way up. She’s just an incredible, exuberant person.”
McBride-Smith, who in 2000 was inducted into the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence, hopes audience members add their own spin to her offerings.
“I want listeners to find their own stories within the stories I tell: Where are you within this story? Hopefully my story will connect with their stories. The stories talk about important issues but I don’t cram the moral down people’s throats,” she said. “It’s fairly characteristic to have ambiguities at the end of my story which is a way to say ‘take this story and form your own opinion.’ Here’s what I think but I don’t know…what do you think?”
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