A “TRANSCENDENT AND EFFORTLESS GIFT”

It’s four hours and ten minutes long and sticks with kids all their lives. I still perform it, although not in one sitting. It’s The Odyssey: An Epic Telling. No, it’s not Homer’s verse in ancient Greek or a scholarly translation to English, but as a Dartmouth classic professor once wrote, “it’s the closest thing we have to a genuine Homeric performance.”

The reason? Scholars think that Homer, the great Singer of Tales from 700 B.C., created character voices and played music as he performed. In my case, it’s a 12-string guitar and Celtic harp, not a lyre, but the effect is the same. An epic imaginative experience.

As I do each year, this past September I performed the story’s first scenes at Loyola University Maryland for the Classics and Honors students. Before I went onstage, two tall young guys passed me in the hall, not knowing who I was. One said to the other, “I hear this one is actually fun.”

Let’s hope, I thought, and twenty minutes later went out with my Taylor guitar and sat down before two hundred college students and faculty. Seventy-five minutes later I exited my quasi dream state and the show was over.

Upon my returned home, I received a forwarded message from Martha Taylor, Chair of Classics at Loyola. A freshman student had sent the following email.

“I also wanted to talk about how fantastic the Odds Bodkin performance was! I didn’t know what to expect and I was completely blown away by the whole thing. The way he told the stories was so captivating! With all of the sounds he was able to make, the unique voices of each person, and intricate guitar playing…it was unbelievable. I was hanging on each and every word and if possible I would have stayed all night long. I can’t wait to go next year if he comes to Loyola again!!! With all of the sensory details he provided it really was as if I was there, during ancient times, transported to 700 B.C. in the “Belly of the Beast” so to speak. I absolutely loved his Polyphemus voice, the old man/priest in Apollo’s temple who gave Odysseus the brandy, the men who accompanied him during the travels, the people in the lotus flower scene within the ivy of the sickly-sweet perfumed island–everything! The way he created such a vivid scene made imagining a transcendent and effortless gift. While I don’t think I blinked for five minutes straight because I was in complete awe of his talent and skill, other times I would close my eyes for a brief moment to fully picture it.”

I guess it was fun, I thought.

You can find the full-length recording of the tale here.

Odds Bodkin’s Odyssey epic $24.95 this week

Storyteller Odds Bodkin’s 4-hour epic telling of The Odyssey is on sale at 50% off this week through Sunday, June 25th. Visit Odds’ Shop.

Absolutely Gushing

The highest hilltop in Greenwich, Connecticut is the location of Sacred Heart, a fine school for girls. On the sunny day I was there last week, Long Island Sound was visible in the distance. In the school’s big empty auditorium, as I warmed up my 12-string guitar to perform The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, the doors were open. The PA was blasting and the music was lyrical, and as I played onstage I noticed girls peering in from the hall to listen. It takes me a half hour of playing to ready my hands for the seventy-minute story, and whoever’s in earshot gets to listen. They smiled and waved and I waved back. Sacred Heart School enrolls elementary through high school girls, and I’d been told by Megan, the English teacher who’d brought me in, who I’d not met before, to expect 5th and 9th graders. 5th was studying Greek mythology. 9th was reading The Odyssey.

 

So to give them something to listen to as they filed in, I decided to play them an overture. It’s a free-flowing exploration of my story’s musical leitmotifs. The 5th and 9th graders sat, but then other grades began to arrive. 4th graders, I found out later during the Q&A, 7th graders, and others. The auditorium kept filling up, which was fine with me, of course. I think it was the music’s Siren Song that wooed them in. That and a very civilized faculty willing to let them go, I suspect.

 

Afterwards I drove home on the Merritt Parkway in rush hour traffic and arrived back in New Hampshire five hours later, somewhat bedraggled and too tired to wonder how the show went. The next morning I received this email. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if things go well. That afternoon, I think things did.

Dear Odds, 

This morning all of the students arrived to school absolutely gushing about yesterday’s performance. In my classes this morning, all the girls wanted to discuss the wonder of the performance. We were all absolutely captivated. It was a magical and transportive experience. Thank you so much for giving us such a gift. We hope you will be able to visit us again. 

Kind Regards,
Megan Monaghan

 

Megan gave me permission to share her letter. Reactions like this remind me of why I got into this business, and I’m still in it, enjoying every rarefied moment. It’s an aesthetic delight for me, and kids never forget this show. If you know anyone who’d like to invite me to tell The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast at any elementary, middle school, high school or university, send them to this link. Kids don’t forget it. Why? Because their Muse has been summoned. It shocks them, since often it’s the first time they discover they’ve got one.

Telling The Odyssey to Eight Hundred High School Students

I’m looking forward to it. This coming Friday I’ll drive down to the Dana Center at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH. This is the hall used for presidential primary debates and other performances, and I’ve been onstage there many times, sometimes for the college itself, but this time to perform The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast for the New Hampshire Classical Association’s hundreds of high school Latin students for Classics Day. They come in buses from all over the state. I guess this is my 8th time doing this. Maybe more times than that, I’m not sure.

 
The stage has a thrust. Like a ship’s bow, it sticks out into the waves of seats that slope upward into the eight hundred seat space. Way up there is the balcony. And it will be filled with kids who’ll be asked to turn off their cellphones as I wait backstage, taking the last few passes at tuning the 12-string before I step out, walk to my chair there at the bow, and hit the summoning motif, which I’ll play for a few seconds before saying anything. Two elemental bass notes at the bottom with harmonic sparkles at the top. This motif is meant to launch my listeners into a receptive level of consciousness, heroic and somewhat dark as it is. The promise of things to come.

 
Briefly I’ll describe how in 700 B.C. in ancient Greece, not many people could read, books had yet to be invented, and people either told stories themselves or relied upon professional “Singers of Tales,” the most famous of whom was Homer. I’ll mention how in Homer’s time, when he was performing his Odyssey and Iliad poems with character voices and a lyre, his stories weren’t myths, but were more like forms of religious worship. How he and his listeners believed in the gods and goddesses of Olympus as surely as we believe whatever we do today. And how like William Shakespeare, writing about Julius Caesar long after the fact, the Trojan War was already five hundred years in the past in Homer’s time.

 
And then the story will begin. I’ll enter the dream, which lasts about an hour, become all sorts of characters, play the 12-string guitar like a bat out of hell and emerge at the end ready for something new this year. A Q&A. In the past I’ve just stepped offstage, but Flora Sapsin, she who arranges for my performances, has asked me to take questions from the kids and teachers this year. Usually high school audiences have all kinds of good questions. How do I remember all that? Did I make up that music? How do I change my voice? Do I have a favorite color? Do I own a dog? Why did I become a storyteller? On and on they’ll go until we run out of time, since I’ve done this sort of thing with lots of young audiences. It’s always fun and rewarding and I’ll try to crack a few jokes along the way.

 
And then I’ll pack up and drive home, too exhausted to do much else for the rest of the day. As I said, I’m looking forward to it.

 

You can purchase an mp3 of the entire four hours of The Odyssey here at my shop, if you’re interested.

WHEN A GUITAR SOUNDS SYMPHONIC

I’ve been playing 12-string guitars to accompany stories for a long time. Nowadays I play a Taylor 12 and a custom-built Ron Ho made in Port Townsend, Washington, both great instruments. This coming Sunday night I’ll be using the Taylor to score The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, tuned to a modified open E, a unique tuning that allows the guitar to sound, well, symphonic. Or at least that’s the goal.

 

The music is like a second voice, adding drama to the spoken words, much the way a movie score works. Leitmotif is a cool word coined by Richard Wagner denoting themes for characters and emotions, and The Odyssey is filled with many of them. One is a soothing, broad oceanic theme meant to relax my listeners. Another is a haunting, melancholy theme of longing that signifies Odysseus himself, wishing he were home even as he’s facing terrifying dangers. Polyphemus the Cyclops has his own music, too, bursting atonalities played in double-stops on the bass strings. Musicians tend to enjoy the accompaniment as much as the tale itself.

 

The show is at 8 pm on Sunday, April 2 at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. If you know anyone in New England who might enjoy this performance, please pass it on.

 
Tickets are $20 here.

Eye of the Cyclops

He’s as tall as twelve men standing on one another’s shoulders. He sees the world through a single, malevolent eye in his forehead. Although tender with his own flocks, this giant shepherd is quite happy to tear men apart and eat them raw, spitting out the heads as slightly too crunchy. He’s Polyphemus the Cyclops, a character I’ve had fun portraying for years whenever I perform The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, which I’ll be doing on April 2nd at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA.
Some listeners find him quite sympathetic, they tell me. Perhaps that’s because to me, he’s a gigantic child of sorts, living a simple, solitary life until Odysseus and his men, searching for food, show up in his cave when he comes home. For some reason my right eye always closes and remains shut whenever this character speaks in his deep, roaring voice. Whatever I can see of the audience out there I see through my left eye, often with retinal projections of blood veins, which are actually mine, not fictional in any way. Stage lights cause this strange effect.
Call it solidarity with the most renowned cyclops of myth!

 

Tickets to the Grendel’s Den show are available here.

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.