OCTOBER 7 QUESTIONS INTERVIEW: Folklorist and story teller Dale Jarvis

October 1, 2011 Interviews

Dale Jarvis is a professional story teller, part actor, part folklorist and part word magician. In Newfoundland he is indeed somewhat of a legend himself, an intrepid traveler of both the province and the world, regaling his fortunate listeners with tales of the macabre and the mythical.  Although he adheres to a pretty hectic schedule Dale has generously donated some of his precious time to Tuck, sharing his insights into the art of story telling and the cultural oral tradition that is the true root of all literature.


TM:  This summer I had the pleasure of attending one of your most anticipated events: Ghosts of Signal Hill. I found the intimate setting of the battery, as well as the dusk to darkness time frame very effective in creating the ‘other worldly’ atmosphere necessary for conjuring spectres.  During your performance, I watched the audience reaction and it was clear that you really did have them in the palm of your hand with your ability to not only tell a great story but to become the character. When you are doing these performances, are you more an actor or a writer, or are these two parts inseparable?


DJ:  I think of myself primarily as a storyteller, particularly when performing. While I do act from time to time, storytelling is its own art form. Actors act out a story, story tellers create the story in the minds of their listeners, and that is what I always try to do. The Ghosts of Signal Hill show was a bit different for me, because I truly was playing a character, Lieutenant Ranslaer Schuyler, who is a historical figure who fought in the Battle of Signal Hill in 1762. But in writing the show, I had it in my mind that Schulyer was a storyteller himself, which made him easy to play, for me.


TM:  Where and when did your love of storytelling originate?


DJ:  I’ve always loved stories, fantasy, and mythology.  I was a voracious reader as a child, and devoured books on myth, legend, and history. I loved the stories, but never really thought of storytelling as an art form until I was in university, and started to meet professional storytellers. I remember being a young teenager, and watching the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Psycho” with my cousin. We both got terrified, and then made each other even more freaked out by making up stories about an old woman who lived, hidden away, in my grandfather’s attic.


TM:  You are the founder of theSt. John’sstory telling circle as well as being deeply involved in the Intangible Cultural heritage program which was created to preserve those aspects of a community that are often neglected but that are the backbone of the people. Because of the nature of your work, you are a sort of historian, inheriting an already created entity from the past. In a way, you are breathing new life into oral history and thus leaving your own fingerprint on them.  When you are relating these stories in print and in performance how much flexibility do you have to indulge your own creative vision? Do you feel a responsibility to maintain a certain level of adherence to the purity of the stories as they are given to you?


DJ:  As a folklorist working in the field of intangible cultural heritage, I always recognize the need to document and be faithful to tradition, and to honour the stories and the storytellers. I believe in crediting where a story comes from, and in being respectful of people’s beliefs and histories.  As a performer, I generally stay pretty close to the source material. I sometimes put my own flourish on a story, like every storyteller does, but I don’t try to muck around too much with the core of the story. Stories that lived for generations before me did so because they were good stories. I don’t feel I should change them too much, or even need to. This Hallowe’en, I’ll be presenting a series of Victorian ghost stories, and I’ll be telling them pretty much as they were written down a century ago.


TM:  During your performances over the years, in many different locales and settings,  what is your most memorable and why?


DJ:  Earlier this year, 2011, I had the incredible honour of being asked to perform at the remarkable Alden Biesen International Storytelling Festival inBelgium. I got to live, and tell stories, in an old castle, complete with moat and vaulted cellars, for a week and a half, alongside some of the finest European storytellers. It was magical, and definitely the best storytelling experience I have ever had. After that, I left the castle, and travelled to Zwolle,Netherlands, where I did an evening performance of Newfoundland folk tales on a storytelling theatre boat, moored in the canal just outside the old city walls. It was a pretty fantastic couple of weeks of storytelling.


TM:  Each year you also do The Haunted Hike, much to the spine tingling joy of those brave enough to take the walk with you. In my opinion this was a brilliant concept that works beautifully inSt. John’s, simply because of the age of the city and sordid past it enjoyed. Where did the idea for the hike originate and did have any indication that it would become so popular as well as a tradition for both Newfoundlanders and tourists alike?


DJ:  In 1997 I visited the city of York, England, and a friend there suggested we go on a ghost tour. I had never been on one, but was hooked immediately. I came back toSt. John’sthinking about how perfect a haunted hike would be through the old streets. So I did the research and started the tour that summer. I had no idea if it would work or not, and I certainly never imagined it would take off like it did. I’ve run the Haunted Hike ever since, and it seems to grow in popularity every year. I started out running 4 tours a week, for about 6 weeks that first summer. This past year, I had a staff of three, and ran three different shows, with a show six nights out of seven every week, from the start of June to the middle of September.


TM:  I was delighted to learn of your involvement in education, opening up the world of story telling to children in grades 4-6. In teaching youngsters the value of telling their own stories, do you feel this is part of the dynamic of keeping a culture’s past vibrant and alive?  Do you think this active participation for kids will have a longer lasting impact on how they view their role preserving their history and culture rather than by simply being passive observers?


DJ:  Kids love stories and are great storytellers themselves. I do think that learning and telling stories helps kids understand their own culture better, and helps them become active participants in making their culture live, and mean something to them personally.


TM:  Final question: Who is your favourite writer/story teller?


DJ:  There are a lot of writers I admire, and my favourites are a pretty eclectic lot. I love Robertson Davies, Mark Helprin, PD James, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the Brothers Grimm, Ian Rankin, and Margaret Atwood, but I could probably keep adding to that list for a while!  In terms of storytellers, it is the same thing, I like a wide range of tellers, from professional to traditional. If I had to name a few, I loveNewfoundland’s Alice Lannon as a traditional teller, and I could listen to Edith Josie, from Old Crow,Yukon, for days. In terms of performance storytelling, I was very impressed with British storyteller Hugh Lupton when I heard him in Toronto a few years ago. I heard England’s Jan Blake when I was  in Belgium, who was a treat to listen to. The best storytelling performance I’ve ever seen, hands down, was the two-man retelling of Beowulf done by Copenhagen’s The Telling Theatre, with Jesper la Cour Andersen and Troels Kirk Ejsing. I’ve been very impressed, overall, with the professionalism and quality of a lot of the European story telling I’ve seen over the past few years. I think that we storytellers in Canada have a lot that we can learn from what is happening in Europe in terms of performance storytelling.  And at the moment I have a story telling crush on Ivan Coyote, who is probably my favourite Canadian story teller of the moment. She is coming to St. John’sfor this October’s festival, and I’m delighted.

TM:  Thank you so much Dale, it’s been a thrill to do this with you.


In addition to this interview you can hear and see Dale telling a traditional tale about the origin of Death in the video on the Tuck homepage.


Dale Jarvis Blog


Haunted Hike Website 


Intangible Cultural Heritage Blog 



1 Comment

  1. Selma October 12, at 04:59

    Fantastic interview. What an incredible person Dale is. That he is a professional storyteller completely enchants me. I can imagine him living in Medieval times travelling from village to village entertaining people with his stories. Wonderful!


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