Many moons ago, when I was studying Renaissance English literature, I came across what I thought was the best job title ever: Master of Revelries. I decided that being a Mistress of Revelries was what I really wanted to be. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer. But if there’s anyone who can serve as a model for me, it would be the storyteller extraordinaire, Diane Wolkstein.
For five years Diane was on the NYC Parks Department payroll earning a hefty $40.00 a week. Her job? She was the city’s one-and-only full-time storyteller. During this time, according to a New York Times article, Diane single-handedly “sparked a storytelling revival” and “helped set off a national wave of interest in the ancient art of the yarn.”
She finagled her way into the job, Diane admitted, only to realize how rough a gig she’d created for herself. Recalling her job with the city, she said, “There was no margin for error. I mean, it was a park. They’d just go somewhere else if they didn’t like it.”
A heady blend of teacher, folklore historian, and street performer, Diane visited two parks a day, five days a week and staged hundreds of one-woman shows. Her storytelling equipment was spare: a handful of props and “a head full of tales.” While kids and adults stood and sat around her, she wove magic with words, telling “oldies but goodies,” like Hansel and Gretel, but also pulling from her ever-growing story sack wonderful tales from China, Persia, Nigeria, and Haiti. And all were told with “a spellbinder’s authority.”
When the city decided in the early 1970s to ax Diane from its payroll, she had revived the art of storytelling in The Big Apple by sparking the creation of local storytelling groups and workshops. She helped found the Storytelling Center of New York City, which trains and sends volunteers into the city’s public schools and libraries. She also had a long-running radio show called “Stories from Many Lands.” She also helped foster a Saturday morning tradition: storytelling in Central Park at the foot of the Hans Christian Anderson statue near 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
Not only did Diane tell stories, she also wrote them — about two dozen in all. Most of the books were gatherings of folk tales and legends she uncovered during research trips around the world. She was an enthusiastic visitor to China, Africa, and Haiti.
Diane has passed on, but what a wonderful legacy she has left! During her long romance with storytelling, think how many hundreds, even thousands, of children she inspired with stories that touch the heart and the soul. To bring stories alive is surely a sacred calling. How wonderful to think of all the wisdom and life lessons captured in the simple folk tales Diane told from around the world. She was truly a Mistress of Revelries. Let’s take inspiration from her devotion to the spellbinder’s art — and write on!