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Walking Through Fire

According to a Chapel Hill storyteller, telling tales is more than just entertainment

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Although Webster's dictionary defines "story" as an account of incidents or events, story à la Chapel Hill's Milbre Burch is an indoctrination in living. This 47-year-old mother of two has a long list of credits, eight audio-recordings, several publications, and over 20 years of storytelling experience to her name. If nothing else, it makes her an expert. But, Burch is more than that. She's legendary. Earning numerous awards, including the Circle of Excellence award from the National Storytelling Network as well as a Parents' Choice Gold Award, and teaching or touring with institutions from New York to Los Angeles and abroad, Burch has solidified her placement in the storytelling arena. She has also developed, with her husband, writer Berkley Hudson, a remarkable storytelling component of Princeton University's Cotsen Children's Library, and has assured perpetuation of her work with her independent recording label, Kind Crone Productions.

Listen to Burch talk about her passion for spinning yarns and it's clear that her objective is anything but acquiring fame and fortune. Expressively unpretentious, the brown-eyed brunette--or, as she quips, "brown in every category"--artist radiates candor that is characterized by a marked interest in tales that are humanizing, from "Jack and the Beanstalk" to Dragonfield by Jane Yolen, whose works Burch often interprets. One of the things stories allow us to do, according to Burch, is "give the human psyche a chance to try on a variety of experiences and come away with a sense of what it's like to really live." To take courageous steps in life, "walk through fire and come out on the other side knowing what it feels like to be burned, but still able to walk." She's not suggesting that stories take the place of experience, but merely that they offer a profound, theoretical and, in many cases, actual rehearsal for life that makes us stronger, better and more resilient. "If you grow up hearing about Jack climbing the beanstalk and escaping the giant, it's a little easier to understand when somebody bigger than you is screaming in your face--that you may just survive this moment and get the better of this beast."

Anyone can appreciate Burch's work. She performs at exhibition openings, chamber concerts, conferences and book fairs, in classrooms, churches, nursing homes and hospitals--even prisons. Using an imaginative refined art form known as kinetic storytelling, Burch combines props, language and gesture to channel stories in their purest form--from sparkling bits of wit and whimsy to homespun wisdom and common sense. She draws on a rich background in movement theater, dance and miming to become the characters in her tales, encouraging us through metaphor and multi-dimensional themes to celebrate the whole of ourselves--our good, our bad and especially our differences.

Cultural coexistence is an important theme for Burch. She admits she has witnessed a multicultural movement in certain communities where "you're invited in to tell stories, but are told not to mention devils, or death or whatever." For Burch, that's hardly a celebration of multiculturality, and cropping the uniqueness of any culture is never an option. "When someone says 'come celebrate multiculturality, but don't mention this, this or this,' my response is 'you're asking me to bring you only stories and images you're comfortable with from your own cultural experience,'" she says. "I will not vanilla a story so that a person isn't challenged to examine it differently than how they might have experienced it." This is evident in her recording of "wonder tales and trickster stories," The World is the Storyteller's Village, in which she animates family-oriented tales from Native American, Asian, European, Latin, African, and Afro-Caribbean cultures.

Burch has also searched for stories that had female protagonists. "I was so inspired when I first found feminine protagonists who did something besides lie down," she says. Initially, she resented the helpless, fragile image of women needing to be awakened or rescued. But, after learning more about metaphor and how stories as metaphors represent all aspects of human beings, "using female and male parts of us archetypally to represent the whole person," she no longer takes traditional tales so personally.

Yet it was her initial stance that propelled her to reexamine male-versus-female roles, women's work and the female psyche, and to discover juxtapositional gems like "Sleeping Ugly," a literary story with a delicious moral ending by Yolen, in which Plain Jane is the heroine and the prince is flat broke. Burch's discoveries allowed her to better appreciate how the brain, particularly in women, is capable of processing experiences through storytelling. "It is a rare occasion, I think, for women to get together and see each other without saying 'oh, here's what happened to me'--to be able to tell somebody about it and kind of work through whatever wound it is," she explains.

That's storytelling at its best, and the kind Burch vivifies from the first utterance of In the Family Way, her collection of poetry and tales of family relationships and "the world history of the baby boomers," to the last nuance of Mom's the Word: A Journey in Meter and Centimeters, an insightful sequel to In the Family Way in which she examines the marvel of birth and child rearing, and sheds new light on "some of the best-kept secrets of womanhood." In her bijouterie, Burch hands us the essence of family, womanhood, relationships and humanity, and she proves stories are intended to not only talk about the concept of being human, but also provide a panoramic view of life itself--one that gives us an unskewed view of each other and ourselves. "Stories unite us, heal us and feed the soul," she says and readily adds that we, as disengaged people, house famished spirits.

"Long ago when people were more connected," she claims. "Magic and science were the same thing. Spirituality and sexuality--the same. Education and family all happened together. People would lie down in the field to fertilize the soil." Comparing this idyllic primal existence to a piece of cloth that today has been "torn asunder--where you can't believe in magic and science; in sexuality and spirituality," Burch insists were are in need of a cure, if not a magic potion, for what ails us.

As a visiting artist at California women's prisons, Burch often administered doses of storytelling to correctional populations, presenting stories that were very different from the ones inmates had been told in life, "like you're ugly, you're stupid, you're worthless, you're a druggie, you're a bad mother kinds of stories." After watching her perform a Scandinavian folktale about a woman who not only rescues herself, but saves the prince as well by the choices she makes, the inmates had a striking response. "Hispanic, Caucasian and African-American inmates alike acknowledged that they could see images of themselves in the protagonist, even though most were noticeably unlike her on the surface," Burch says.

The women were then asked to write about themselves as they really are, and they did so with staggering acuity. "There was so much in those women that they didn't even know was there, the part no one had ever talked to them about." And, according to Burch, one of the best ways of helping them find it was by telling them stories; ones that showed choice and consequence, and illuminated the good within them, the part of themselves they still respect.

Throughout her work, Burch incarnates stories that become lessons on how to author our own lives--perpetuating the richness and beauty inherent in us because they are our fantasies, our fears, our epiphanies, our hopes. They possess the part of us we believed in once upon a time, and preserve the characters that make us real. EndBlock

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