As a student in the seminary tasked with delivering a sermon, Denise Bennett decided to recount the story of Paul in prison from Acts 16 in a rather dramatic fashion — with a cappella songs and special voices for the different biblical figures. People loved it, even her stodgiest professors. When she graduated from Union-PSCE Theological Seminary in 1999, she'd found her calling, but it wasn't as a minister. “I ended up not going through ordination,” she says. “I'm a lay chaplain. I really think that my vocation is a storyteller and a story listener.”
As a storyteller, Bennett shakes off unnecessary adverbs when a simple gesture or facial expression will do. After the initial writing process, she finds that the story always changes when she tells it. “My telling voice is generally more natural and less wordy,” she says. “And you can drop a lot of he-said, she-said stuff.” She's found that if she can see the story unfolding in her mind, her listeners see it too.
In 2000, Bennett joined the newly formed Richmond storytelling group, the Tell Tale Hearts. A one-time theater major at Birmingham Southern College and now a chaplain at the Hermitage retirement community, Bennett finds storytelling a powerful way to convey humor, wisdom, culture and meaning. “I think it's the same reason we love Facebook,” she says. “It's human contact. We're all rushing around and yet when we listen to a story, we're invited to stop and just be there. There's a Scottish Travellers' proverb: ‘A story is told eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart.’ I get so much from my audience — it's almost like Holy Communion.”
Bennett guesses that she's learned, adapted or written about 50 stories for both children and adults, kept at the ready in her interior library. “I tell all different kinds of stories,” she says. “Sacred stories, personal stories, my version of folk tales — sometimes with fairly significant changes.” The longest in her repertoire is “The Heart's True Scale,” an 80-minute fairy tale for adults that she wrote that incorporates original songs and harp music with the tale of a red-haired minstrel who stumbles upon misfortune in a dark cave. Which sounds like the process of writing itself. “You go down in the dark and you don't know what the hell you're going to find and you feel like you're going to die,” she says. But what emerges is oral tradition, melodic and enchanting, almost tribal. You can't pause it, text it, surf it or tweet it, but you can learn it, and pass it on. S
Denise Bennett will perform “What Is This Thing Called Love?” at Henrico Theater on April 16 at 7 p.m.; “The Heart's True Scale” April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Shady Grove United Methodist Church; and “Healing Stories for Kids” at the Tuckahoe Library April 25 at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The Tell Tale Hearts Storytellers Theater celebrates its 10th year with a concert at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, April 25 at 7:30 p.m. For information, visit www.storiesbydenise.com.