Talking with Heather Forest, you immediately understand how much she loves her work: artfully combining folktales, the art of storytelling, and, often, music. In our interview with beloved storyteller Heather Forest, we talk about the roots of Heather's fascination with folktales and story and how she transformed these passions into a career.
Emilie: Let's talk about storytelling in your childhood. How has storytelling influenced your childhood and how did that bring you to pursue storytelling as a career?
Heather: When I was young, no one told me folktales and fairytales. I grew up reading folktales and fairytales in books I borrowed from my local public library. My imagination was thoroughly satisfied when I entered those realms. I also especially loved Greek mythology and found that I could remember what happened in those stories and could tell them in my own words to anyone that would listen. My family wasn't a storytelling family. I did however hear the traditional Jewish holiday tales in season. When I was a teenager, I discovered folk music, which was the pop music of my day. It was the kind of music I heard playing on the radio. I heard traditional story ballads— English and Scottish Child ballads, which have a plot. I became very attracted to folksongs because they reminded me of folktales.
E: Do you have a few favorite folk artists?
Heather: Oh, I grew up listening to the women of folk music: Judy Collins, Joan Baez...
E: Are you a Joni Mitchell fan?
Heather: Yes! Yes! The folk music that was popular in my youth and on the airwaves in the early 1970s began to shift from folksingers like Peggy Seeger and Joan Baez singing traditional folk ballads to singer-songwriter type artists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan who created original ballads that were modeled after traditional folksongs. These types of songs were popular in the protest movement and counter-culture of my college years.
In these, my formative musical years, the style of music I heard was folk music sung by a single voice accompanied by folk guitar. A self- trained musician, I sang traditional ballads and wanted to be a singer-songwriter too. I remember in my twenties thinking "I make art. I could try and make songs." I wrote ten love songs and then I ran out of material. I was young and didn't have a whole lot to say about the world at large.
Like others of my generation, I was involved in the anti-war movement and in the environmental issues of my day. I did not write protest songs—there were already wonderful ones in existence. Casting about for a song topic about which to write, one day I came upon the idea: “What if I took one of my favorite folktales and made it into a song?”
At that time I had been reading a book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. The stories in the book were short Japanese spiritual tales that I found very moving and insightful. I thought: “Maybe I can take a folktale and make my own story-song using a plot about which I cared. I had grown tired of singing folksongs about things outside of my life experience such as medieval battles at sea or the Springhill mining disaster—when I've never been in a mine. In trying to find songs to sing, I decided to start creating my own plot driven vocal material.
After a bit of experimental song making, I went down to the local coffeehouse and sang some of my early story-song pieces at an open-mic showcase. The patrons were not interested. The story-song pieces I performed unfolded as a plot. Unlike a folksong there was no chorus with which the audience could sing along. I was out of step with what was popular at the time. But I was very interested in exploring how to bring these old tales to life for modern ears. It was a fascination that began in my early twenties. I'm 67 now and I haven't lost interest or stopped exploring the concept of delving into ancient material and making it relevant for modern eyes, if it's a book, or ears, if it's a listening experience.
I seem to be engaged in that process once again in writing Ancient and Epic Tales—going back to some of the oldest plot material on the planet, tracking it to its earliest literary form, and then taking my turn retelling the tales. In the process I seek to find evocative language that allows the stories to be effectively spoken aloud.
E: Yes, that sounds like something you really love. So, from there I'm wondering how you take that interest and you find yourself building a successful career as a storyteller and author?
Heather: When I graduated from college as a visual art student in 1970, I tried to figure out what I could do to earn a living. What I saw in the world was disconcerting—our country was at war. We'd just bombed Cambodia. As a “back to the garden” environmentalist, I was distraught by the way that pesticides were being used and concerned that wild natural resources were being destroyed. I was disheartened by the violence I watched on the evening news as television brought the war in Vietnam into people’s living rooms. It was a very difficult time for people my age who were trying to figure out how to find a useful place in the adult world. Many “dropped out.” I made a commitment to myself at that time that instead of “dropping out,” I wanted to create something positive.
As an art student, I decided that I would create my art without even using up resources. At the time I was a potter and a printer. I used inks and paints and clay and glaze. I also enjoyed modern dance and I was very involved in writing songs and singing them. It occurred to me that song, dance and spoken word pieces didn't really use any resources but time and space. So I decided that my raw materials would be time and space instead of things like paint and clay. I started to work in time/space performance mediums that I felt could contribute positively, as opposed to destructively, to the world. It was politically very satisfying at the time.
At first I didn't have a place to display the new performance work I made because it wasn't printed on paper. It wasn't recorded. My artistic work consisted of just me, in time and space, standing there sharing my words and melodies with whatever audience would listen. I discovered that being in a coffee house or in a bar where people were sitting at tables and talking to one another wasn’t an optimal setting for the performance work I was creating. My story-songs required a person to listen from beginning to end—to follow me on an imaginative journey. I discovered that the stories worked better in a theatrical setting where the audience’s intention was to actually listen.
So I approached a local theater troupe in my town of Huntington, NY that let people rent their theatre for special projects at a very minimal cost. I decided to stage an event. I put posters up all over town and did a storytelling concert at the theatre one Sunday afternoon. To my absolute surprise, by the end of the well-attended concert, there was a collection of little people with their chins in their hands leaning on the edge of the stage listening, intently. I had no idea that young children would be that interested. I hadn't intended the performance especially for children. I just told fairytales, folktales, and spiritual stories that touched me.
I recall that a parent of one of the children approached me as I packed up my guitar and asked if I would come to their elementary school library and tell some stories. I was shocked at the invitation and I said "If you think the students would like it, I'll come." To my even greater surprise, she offered to pay me to come tell stories!
That event, by word of mouth, led to many more invitations from other schools in the community, and soon I had invitations coming from all over the Long Island, NY area. One person would tell another that they enjoyed this “new,” very old art form, which at that time seemed novel. There weren't a lot of people in my community telling stories as a performing art in 1970. So I found myself exploring in a vacuum. I didn't know any other storytellers. I thought I was doing some kind of unique, nostalgic resurrection of an old art form. I knew that there were balladeers, minstrels, jongleurs, and bards from ancient times, and I thought "Well, maybe I'm just part of that long line."
A few years later I discovered that there were other storytellers in the country. I did not know this when I started building my repertoire of tales. Someone heard me tell stories at a coffee house in Connecticut and, by that time, I had learned a little bit more about how to keep an audience interested in listening, even when they were sitting and chatting at tables. The concert was a fundraiser for an environmental organization, United Citizens Against Nukes. My pay for that concert was not money. It was a framed print that still hangs on a wall in my farm house. It says, "People before Profits." Both of my children want that print for their inheritance. "People before Profits" offered a clear perspective about earning a living in the world. Rather than making a fortune, I wanted to make a difference.
An audience member came up to me after the concert and said "You’re not just a singer, you are really a storyteller. You ought to go to the National Storytelling Festival!" I responded incredulously, "There's really such a thing?"
And so in 1979 I went to the festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee and I was absolutely amazed by the fact that there were many other people doing what I was doing. Not stylistically the way I was doing it—I was singing and using poetry and song and movement—but with the same intention—telling a story out-loud for listeners. I sent a recording of some of my work and a promotional flyer to the N.A.P.P.S (National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling) office. I was invited to be in the national festival the following year. That invitation launched me into the wider storytelling community and invitations to numerous regional festivals followed.
Stylistically, at that first festival, I told my stories in a unique way that was considered “radical.” My telling had a compositional formality to it and didn't look and feel like someone sitting casually on a back porch telling Jack tales. However, the work that I presented, rooted in folkloric plot, had a feel of antiquity too. I shared Zen koans, Sufi stories and wisdom tales from around the world. My physical training as a dancer came out in my gestures and my mime-like body postures. Also, I wasn't always just talking. Sometimes I would flow back and forth between singing and speaking, prose and poetry. The fluidity of that fusion was interesting to me—to be able to move between the mediums of sound to keep people's interest.