A heightened version of himself

  • Davis Bates performs as the narrator of “The Old Man and The Old Moon” in Ashfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Davis Bates in “The Old Man and The Old Moon.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Bates performs in Ashfield Community Theater’s production of “The Old Man and The Old Moon.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Bates performed this past spring with musician/performer Roger Tincknell at the Energy Park in Greenfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Davis Bates and Roger Tinknell with Greenfield Public Library Children’s Librarian Kay Lyons at the Energy Park in Greenfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Bates and Roger Tincknell performed together recently at the Energy Park in Greenfield. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Davis Bates COURTESY TRISH CRAPO

  • Davis Bates COURTESY TRISH CRAPO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/16/2019 10:08:18 AM

Davis Bates may seem like a shy guy when you first meet him, but ask him to tell a story and you’ll get two or three, maybe more if you’re lucky.

The professional storyteller from Shelburne Falls claims to be an introvert, but you’d never know it watching him as he exudes energy and passion on stage.

“I’m a heightened version of myself when I’m performing,” Bates said. “I got over my shyness after my mother tricked me into taking dance lessons in sixth grade. She said my best friend was going, and he was and we had a great time. Watching my dad taught me how not to be shy, too.”

A man who wears a long gray beard, Bates, who was born on Long Island, N.Y., and grew up in Sudbury, started storytelling when he was in his final year at Hampshire College in the late 1970s. He had done theater there and loved it. He took a year off to travel with a theater troupe, and one of its performances was about unions and coal mining. The troupe went to coaling mining towns in Appalachia, he remembers, and the troupe talked to the people there about their experiences in the mines.

“It was a very emotional story we told,” Bates said. “Three miners died at the end and their wives vowed to fight on. When the lights came up, there was no sound from the audience — everyone was crying.”

He said the miners in the town who had attended the performance helped the cast and crew take down the set afterward because they were so appreciative.

“I talked to a woman whose boyfriend died in the mines,” Bates said. “It was just heartbreaking.”

The performance was filled with songs and storytelling, and Bates said that’s when he really felt in his element. He said he loved theater but didn’t like living in the city, where most theater productions are centered. When he returned to Massachusetts, he took a workshop in Somerville — an acting class with masks and giant puppets.  

“For eight weeks I traveled back and forth to Somerville,” he said. “I learned how to make up stories, and how to remember family stories. It was a safe place to learn with a lot of encouragement.”

Bates said participants would tell stories to each other, and though he thought at first it was going to be boring, he quickly learned that everyone has a story to tell — in their own way — and most are pretty interesting.

“Everyone is different as a storyteller,” he said. “Everyone brings themselves to a story. Some are loud and lively, while others are shy and more quiet about it.”

Bates said he always tries to bring a little of himself to his storytelling — his eyes shine, his body becomes animated, his voice rises and falls with the tide of the story. As he speaks to the audience, he tries to make every person feel like the story is “just for them.” 

He said his father and grandfather were storytellers, as well. They didn’t perform, but family and friends always enjoyed their stories.

“My grandfather told stories about the family,” he said. “Some of my favorites my dad had to tell were of his time in the Army, a couple of which I told at a Veterans Day program at a senior center once.”

He said he learned his father was dyslexic and that’s why he would start reading Bates a story and then stop and finish it by just telling his own version.

“That was early preparation for becoming a storyteller — listening,” he said.

Bates fine-tuned his craft by working in libraries and other venues that would let him tell stories for $25 a session, and sometimes he received a larger stipend.

“I did a lot of after-school performances,” he said. 

He decided to move to the country — Shelburne Falls — and started reaching out to local schools so he could hone his storytelling skills for younger children.  

“It felt natural to me to tell stories to adults and older kids, but I wanted to expand on that,” he said. “With younger children it’s all about repetition, movement, being playful and, of course, music. I hadn’t done a lot of that, so I wanted to get better at it.”

He said with younger children, a storyteller has to expect the unexpected, like when a child relates to something the storyteller is saying and decides to pipe in during the story.

“Sometimes your story has to take a side trip,” he said. “So, you take a couple of minutes and then you bring the story back around. You find a way to answer children’s questions, though sometimes it’s tricky because of the subject matter.”

But, he said, you have to let them talk about their problems. He’s happy he can provide that kind of venue — not to provide any kind of therapy, but just let them release some feelings. For instance, he once was talking about his living situation — he is divorced — and that led to children talking about their own.

“I listened, answered whatever questions I could, and then moved on with the story,” he said. “There’s a real power in storytelling.”

Bates said he has learned a lot in the 40 years he’s been telling stories.

“I’ve learned how to respond to an audience, how to keep connected and communicate with people,” he said. “A story doesn’t exist without someone listening to it, so you have to keep them awake.”

Bates did theater when he was in college, and he did some community theater after he graduated. Just recently, he returned to community theater as the narrator in the Ashfield Community Theater production of “The Old Man and The Old Moon.” 

Over those 40 years, Bates has performed at schools, senior centers, outdoor festivals, anywhere and everywhere.

“I’ve done a lot of work in schools,” he said. “I love getting kids interested in storytelling. I’ve also done a lot of summer reading programs.”

He said seniors also love his performances.

“They love folklore,” he said.

He said when he performs, no matter who the audience is, he always tries to get listeners of all ages excited about the cultural traditions around them. He said he’s careful to listen to his audience because sometimes that helps him decide which stories to tell. He can also tell within the first five minutes or so whether an audience is going to want just storytelling or a few songs thrown in.

“Body language is important — I watch them closely in those first few minutes,” he said. “After you sing the first song, you can tell by their body language whether they want songs or not.”

He has done an evening of sea songs and stories, railroads and mining. He’s talked about his grandfather, parents and children. He said people seem to love when he shares a piece of himself.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “You have to be relaxed and just pull back and talk. They’ll come along with you. I’ve seen new storytellers, and they typically try to do too much at first. I know, because I was one once.”

Bates said believe it or not, there’s power for a storyteller in silence.

“You have to be able to pause and feel comfortable with that,” he said. “You have to give the audience time to form their own pictures of what you’re telling them.”

Bates said he thinks of his stories as a series of pictures. 

“If I keep describing something and you already have a picture in your head, I’m going to lose you,” he said.

Bates said storytelling is his retirement plan. He said he will keep doing it until he no longer can.

“I just hope everyone’s still open to a really old guy telling stories at that point,” he laughed.

As of today, Bates does not have a local performance until Oct. 16 at Field Memorial Library, 1 Elm St. in Conway. In August and September, he is performing throughout Massachusetts.

For more information about Bates or to book a performance or find one to attend, call 413-625-0202 or visit davisbates.com.

Anita Fritz can be reached at afritz@recorder.com.




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