The lights in the grand, old Woodstock Opera House cast an orangish glow that reflects off Jim May's face as if he were settling in next to a crackling campfire to tell scary ghost stories. And so he does.
"Orson Welles used to talk with his dead father's ghost on this stage," May says, spinning the true story of how the young Welles began his acting career in his Todd School for Boys production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and later returned to this stage to direct and star in that production and others.
An Emmy-winning storyteller and author, May finishes that tale, walks to stage left and picks up another story.
"She stabbed herself here," May says, reaching the climax of the story of how the actress playing the murderess mother in "Kabuki Medea" plunged a sword into her gut and pulled out red ribbons to symbolize her entrails.
"It's horrifying," May says, telling another story of how fellow storyteller and actress Megan Wells brought "Dracula" to life on this stage last Sunday during her one-woman performance of Bram Stoker's classic tale of terror. As for a "real" ghost story, well …
"Elvira watches every production on this stage from her seat in the balcony," May says, telling the story of a woman rumored to have leapt to her death from that balcony after being jilted by her actor lover, or perhaps in the crushing disappointment of not landing the role she wanted. "Nobody knows for sure."
Either way, the story is good.
"Imagine how many people died on this stage," May says. A teacher in his earlier life, May's voice is firm enough to give the impression that imagining those deaths actually is a homework assignment. He doesn't have a booming voice, or even a commanding voice. But just as a gentle wind can turn a field of wheat into rolling waves, May's stories have the power to move people.
Founder of the Illinois Storytelling Festival and a full-time freelance storyteller since 1986, the 66-year-old gets hired to tell stories about 200 days a year. He's told stories in France, Great Britain, Mexico, Canada, Ireland and seemingly every school and library throughout the suburbs. May tells stories he's picked up from his travels, his former jobs, his family and even his early childhood on a dairy farm outside Spring Grove.
"Some of the best stories I've learned come from construction workers and farmers," says May, who lives with his wife, Nancy Seidler, a visual artist, in a converted mid-19th-century barn with 46-foot hand-hewn beams. The couple have two daughters and two granddaughters.
May discovered the power of telling a simple story for himself back when he was a fourth-grade teacher and spent a weekend at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn.
"I learned one story and I told that story to my students," says May, who incorporated the tale in his lesson plan. "They said, 'This guy's a lot more interesting than he was Friday afternoon. What happened to him over the weekend?'"
In our modern world, the joy of hearing a story often loses out to the ease of watching videos of cute cats and epic fails playing on hand-held devices. Even our nation's elected leaders often seem incapable of comprehending any words that don't come out of their own mouths. "In a lot of ways we've stopped listening to people," May says.
Whether talking legends with an old farmer in Scotland or chatting with a woman who remembered the dragon story told to her by the last queen of Hawaii, May was listening and learning. "I found these people and sat at their feet," says May, who majored in history and political science in college before his abbreviated stint in law school. The twist in that story is that May later was hired by his old law school to teach public defenders how to tell stories so that their arguments stick with jurors.
Storytelling isn't just an activity to amuse toddlers, it's the way adults get their messages across. Corporations hire May to teach salespeople, instill a work ethic and make employees realize the history, pride and teamwork that lead to future success. The medical community uses storytelling to make doctors better listeners and help patients heal quicker.
At 8 p.m. Nov. 16, May will join rising storyteller Natasha Tsoutsouris for an Old School, New School production at Mrs. Murphy & Sons Irish Bistro, 3905 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago, presented by producer Scott Whitehair and the This Much Is True and Story Lab Chicago storytelling groups. Whitehair notes that storytelling has made a comeback in Chicago, which is home to 40 storytelling shows each month.
May, who includes videos of him telling stories on jimmaystoryteller.com, figures he knows a couple hundred stories. "If you count jokes, I have 500," says the man who wears a T-shirt sporting the likeness of the late comedian Andy Kaufman, whose sister lives in the suburbs and is a fellow member of Illinois Storytelling, a network of professional storytellers. May doesn't memorize stories, and they change with every retelling.
"You memorize the landscape of the story. You don't memorize the path," May says. "That way, if you wander off the path, you know how to find your way back."
People have been telling stories since the first cave man wanted to explain his painting on a cave wall, May says. Today, on Halloween, when our senses are inundated with special effects-laden, loud, gory, slasher movies, a simple ghost story told by someone holding a flashlight under his chin might be scarier.
"The fear is inside you. It's not on the screen," May says. "There's nothing like your imagination."