And Christopher Maier segues into character like a folksy Robin Williams, taking on a Pied Piper brogue one minute and a Walter Brennan patois the next.
Along with seven other Front Range yarn spinners, Phelps and Maier are members of the Spoken Wheel troupe, a professional touring wing of the Rocky Mountain Storytellers Guild. The group, which formed about a year ago, will present Speaking of Love..., an adult-targeted Valentine's Day program, this weekend in Denver and Boulder.
Phelps, a Garrison Keillor buff whose own version of Lake Wobegon is a fictional Ozark community called Cricket Ridge, is the proverbial man of many trades: A Presbyterian minister from Oklahoma with a doctorate in biblical storytelling, he is also proud of being an official member of the Cherokee nation. His repertoire ranges from self-written tall tales to Indian legends culled from a wide cross-section of tribal traditions, and he accompanies himself on Native American flute, lute and recorder.
As you'd expect, Bailey Phelps enjoys hearing stories from a variety of cultures. "To hear another culture's story is to understand the heart of that culture," he says. But creating his own material is a personal journey of another kind: "In my case, it either lodges in my mind or it doesn't. Stories seek you out--you and the story find each other, you discover a fit and you're there."
Does he have a favorite story? "I have hundreds of favorites," Phelps says impulsively, before scaling back his answer: "Well, dozens of favorites. Most of us in the troupe are long-term professionals. My bet is each one of us has close to a hundred stories that could be told off the top of our heads, in the middle of night."
Maier, on the other hand, was a playwright, flamenco dancer and poet before settling into his present work. The Maier ethos evolved from quite a different equation: He grew up in Southern California before going on to too many years of graduate school. After completing a Ph.D. in performance literature, Maier had enough of academia and forged into professional life. "I wanted to do culture," he says, "not write about culture."
How he settled on storytelling is a story in itself.
Maier makes no secret of his dramatic bent. In the beginning he viewed storytelling as a "colloquial, down-home" kind of art.
Seeing a Massachusetts storyteller, Jay O'Callahan, perform changed all that for Maier.
"He contradicted that, showed you can use poetic voice," Maier says. "He was the first storyteller I saw that worked theatrically; he paints pictures like the lyric poets, with a feel for Dylan Thomas's music of language. It was important for me to see that, to say that I could do it, too.
"Time [magazine] called him 'a man of unparalleled wit, elegance and grace.' I'd be happy if I could get just one of those adjectives."
Like most of his cohorts, Maier now considers work in the schools his bread-and-butter vocation, but his chief goal as a storyteller is to reach what he feels is an untapped adult audience. "Americans are a particularly storyless people--especially white Americans," he says. "There's a feeling that if we are non-ethnic, we're characterless, because we lack a tradition of stories that we belong to."
While some storytellers seem to have arrived at the occupation overeducated, some spent their formative years educating others. As a junior-high teacher, Esther Acosta found that telling stories from her own life to her students brought them out of their shells. It was that connecting spark that led Acosta to pursue storytelling as a professional.
"I wanted to motivate my students to read and to learn about different cultures," Acosta says. "So I chose books to share with them. But the kids seemed more interested in my own stories--they could relate to them. Then they wanted to share their own stories."
"A personal story lets you think and match and explore and share emotional things. Afterwards, it can make you feel all alive. Or you can think, 'Thank goodness that wasn't me!'"
Acosta's friend Carol Hampson was also a teacher, working in special ed. Both were storytellers in a program for at-risk teens, visiting juvenile jails and crisis centers.
"I love audiences where you're dealing with people without a lot of material advantages," Hampson says. "In some ways they're not as jaded. They're more open to experience--they just soak it up."
Storyteller Elena Hoffrichter also has a way with kids. She dives into her Scotch-Irish roots, favoring Arthurian legends and Celtic stories about "elves and fairies and the magic forest." At four feet, seven inches tall, the pixie-voiced Hoffrichter has no trouble getting into character. "The fourth-graders are taller than me--they love it," she says. "Plus, I'm good at still playing make-believe. I'm still child enough to play with them, and they accept me as one. I can go into the world of make-believe with them."
Like Phelps, Hoffrichter intimates that storytelling is a calling that simply found her. She offers the "short version" of her own introduction to the world of tale-telling: "I went to John Stansfield's Rocky Mountain Storytelling Festival in Palmer Lake, and I just fell in love. I knew this was it, what I'd been waiting for," she remembers. "I saw so many great storytellers there--I came back talking in tongues."
Though Hoffrichter taps into the fanciful side of human nature, she adamantly defends storytelling's importance as a way of forming and nurturing a very real sense of community. "Stories hold the heart of a culture, and the storyteller holds that heart in his or her hands," she says. "The ways a culture feels about religious beliefs, moral beliefs and behavior are all held in stories--they're like our safe-deposit boxes."
The Spoken Wheel members love to acknowledge their differences. Since they all auditioned for a spot in the troupe, the group's innate diversity happened by accident, and the resulting blend juxtaposes a world of cultures, stage styles and points of view. Above all, they don't see themselves as actors or performance artists or children's entertainers. They are storytellers.
"Performance artists come from a modernist bent--they like to start from scratch and invent something from nothing," Maier explains. "But the storyteller says, 'Heck, no, I'm just one in a long line of tradition, keeping it alive.'"
Spoken Wheel in Speaking of Love.... 8 p.m. February 13, Washington Park Community Center, 809 South Washington Street; 8 p.m. February 14, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 3700 Baseline Road, Boulder; $10 at the door.