Learning to Tell THE ODYSSEY

The letter arrived from a teacher in Norwich Vermont, addressed to storytellers across New England. David Millstone, a fifth grader teacher, who ended up writing a great book called An Elementary Odyssey, was searching for someone who could tell a few episodes from Homer’s great epic. The Sirens, maybe. The Cyclops. Maybe the Test of the Bow. I didn’t know any of them, but immediately wrote him back claiming I could tell the whole thing. Hire me! I’ll tell the entire epic in three hours, I told him, two half-hour shows a day for three days.

When I was a kid I’d seen a movie, Ulysses, with Kirk Douglas. Made in 1955 with early stop-action monster effects, it was a mixture of tan guys in knickers, sword fights and beautiful women filmed among blue waters and craggy islands, most of it on a sailing ship with oars. It was a hazy memory at best.

After I’d walked out to the end of this limb, he wrote me back fairly quickly. I was hired. The residency was in three months.

Imaginative work is really good if you can get it, and here I had the perfect excuse to create a new spoken-word tale, but a really big one this time. A storytelling longer than a movie. I’d never tried to stow anything quite that large in my hold, so I bought the Fitzgerald translation and set to reading, jotting down essential details I thought were either crucial to the story or gratuitously gory and fun. I ended up with 42 episodes in all, but still, they were spread over thirty pages in my journal. If you’re trying to forge mental images and remember them while playing a 12-string guitar, a mess like that doesn’t help.

“I need to be able to see this whole thing in one place,” I told myself, and so for my own sanity and the feeling that yes, this was manageable, I forced myself to write the essentials of each scene in teeny tiny script, cramming them all onto a 2-page spread in my journal.

Here are those two pages from many years ago. It was the beginning of an odyssey of my own.

PS: I’ll be performing The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA on April 2nd
at 8:00 p.m. It’s the first 75 minutes of what is now a 4-hour performance. You can buy tickets here, if you’d enjoy such a show. From the Walls of Troy to the Cave of the Cyclops.