The craft of storytelling

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storytelling
SJSU students compete for Kaucher-Mitchell Fellowship
text / images: Raphael Kluzniok

An empty stage, the heat of the spotlight, a waiting audience — to some, this could sound like a bad dream, but to the participants of the Kaucher-Mitchell Event, it is the fruits of their labor.

“I love the adrenaline rush. I’ve always had this thing — an enjoyment for public speaking,” said Cynthia Espinoza, the current Kaucher-Mitchell Fellow and winner of last year’s event in storytelling.

“As long as I make you laugh, or make you feel something, or get goose bumps, I think I’ve done my job,” she said. “That’s my favorite part. That’s what I feed off of — when I hear people laugh at something that I’ve said or when I have everyone (is) just dead quiet.”

The Kaucher-Mitchell Fellowship exists to recognize a student who has shown dedication to promoting the oral tradition and awards students who display excellence in storytelling and oral interpretation.

The Kaucher award was first given on April 5, 1951 to Ursula Schindler by Hugh W. Gillis and made possible by an anonymous donation from an admirer of Dorothy Kaucher’s work in speech education.

A professor of speech at San José State College from 1930, Kaucher earned a doctorate from Cornell University in English and speech. In 1951, when presenting the first Kaucher Award, Hugh Gillis commented that wherever he went to California on various duties, former students of “Dr. K.” inquired about her work and wellbeing.

Upon Kaucher’s retirement in the late 1950s, Professor Noreen La Barge Mitchell took over the event, adding the storytelling category.

“She worked tirelessly on the Kaucher contest and directed a readers theater production each semester and always gave students free reign for experimentation and creativity and in rehearsal,” said Beverly Swanson, storytelling and oral interpretation lecturer and current director of the event.

As a student, Swanson entered the event multiple times when she was Mitchell’s student and won in 1982.

Swanson joined the SJSU staff in 1992 to find that the event had stumbled since Mitchell’s retirement.

“Oral interpretation was not being offered when I came aboard. You can’t have a contest for an art form about which students have no clue. Storytelling was alive and well, so I began with that. I got the oral interpretation class back and eventually intertwined the two into one class,” Swanson said.

Swanson added Mitchell’s name to the title and breathed new life into the event, honoring her beloved mentor.

“She was my teacher and my mentor and I loved her deeply,” Swanson said. “Besides teaching me to be a decent (performer), she taught me to be an inspiring teacher.”

Today the event takes place each semester, usually during the last week of school, and features two distinct categories: oral interpretation and storytelling. Theater arts major Kyle Hoffhines, winner of the storytelling segment, said in order to qualify for the storytelling category, “a piece must have a defined beginning, middle and end, and it has to be able to stand on its own. The performer is able to make any edits they want to the piece.”

For the oral interpretation category, “a performer is not allowed to make any edits. It’s generally excerpts from a greater whole,” Hoffhines said. “O.I. is performed with a black book in hand which has the script to symbolize that we are respecting the author’s intent.”

Many of the participants are first introduced to storytelling through Swanson’s storytelling class, TA131, where Swanson maintains her mentor’s tradition and uses experienced students and past Kaucher-Mitchell finalists to promote an oral tradition in both her class and on campus.

“She (Mitchell) always had time for her students and always had advanced students ready and willing to work with new ones,” Swanson said.

The current Kaucher-Mitchell Fellow, Cynthia Espinoza, is excited to be hosting this semester’s event, adding, “I’ve always had a passion for this event but since the fellowship, I’ve really tried to focus on the craft of storytelling. I’ve done a lot more research on this art.”

Espinoza will be performing her first original piece this year.

“Because of the fellowship, I really want to try something new. I’ve just been focusing on honing in on this craft, making it the best that it can be from my end,” she said.

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