The Power of San Francisco Stories and Storytellers: The Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy Saga
No one seems to keep count of the exact number of storytellers in San Francisco, but there seem to be more of them, in more places, and with larger and more diverse audiences than ever before. A hundred children and their parents show up on a Saturday morning to listen to stories in the fog and get tickled pink. Unsurprisingly, listeners ask, “How do you tell the storyteller apart from the story?” Maybe not. Perhaps this is part of the power of stories and storytellers. The storyteller is the story and the story is the storyteller.
For most of the time Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy told stories in San Francisco, she was a single mother, raising three children and working multiple jobs. Before becoming a professional storyteller and making a living telling stories five days a week, she worked 36 different jobs — no exaggeration, she says — including one in a prison where her audience was literally held captive.
“She’s a local treasure,” says Kathryn Grantham, owner of Black Bird Books in the Outer Sunset. “His ability to transport his listeners to distant lands and epic adventures in minutes is true magic.”
The more stories Hackett-Shaughnessy told and the more storytelling classes she taught adults at the “San Francisco Village,” the more she learned about the art of storytelling, which requires little or no technology and where any place can serve as a stage. While British cycling journalist and blogger Peter Walker insists that cycling can save the world, and while feminist and psychiatrist Jean Shaboda Bolen argues that trees will save the world, the Literay Life podcast argues that stories will change the world. Hackett-Shaughnessy tends to agree. She says the huge changes in technology over the past 40 years haven’t changed the way children are fascinated with storytelling.
The Ohlones, who populated the Bay Area before the Europeans arrived, sang their songs, including one with the verse, “dancing at the end of the world”. Early Spanish explorers sent reports to Spain and thus stimulated dreams of empire. 49ers from Chile and China and everywhere in between, huddled around campfires and feasted on great stories, and in 1882, San Franciscans heard Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, dressed in in lavender pants, grabbed headlines when he said, “Anyone who goes missing is supposed to be seen in San Francisco.
Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy, or simply ‘Olive’ as everyone calls her, has been inspired by myths, fairy tales, folk tales and truths for forty years, performing in San Francisco at schools and farmers markets, on the dunes of Ocean Beach, at Grace Cathedral at Christmas, Bishops Ranch in Marin and at Kaiser Permanente Mended Hearts Support Group. It’s as much a part of the San Francisco landscape as the fog and more down to earth than opera and ballet. Thousands of San Franciscans young and old have heard her in person, listened to her CDs, found her on Spotify, and read her written work on her website (https://olivestoryteller.com/).
These days, Olive tells stories for free and in public twice a week: at Black Bird Books on Irving on the first Saturday of every month; and outdoors at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market on 37e Avenue, Wednesdays from five o’clock. Sometimes she tells stories more than twice a week at a school or at a special event. Curiously, no one has ever told their own story, which is worth telling, if only because parents, who heard it decades ago, are now bringing their children to hear it. . How’s that for continuity? A long time ago, when Olive first told her stories to children at Sunset Nursery School, Joanna McClure, a teacher at Sunset, told her, “If you can tell stories to kids two to five years and hold their attention you can tell stories to anyone.
Raised in a family of storytellers and in the golden age of radio, I marvel at Olive’s ability to instantly connect with listeners. There’s something about her voice that appeals to still-breastfed infants and hearing-impaired elderly people. Although she’s been telling stories professionally longer than any other storyteller living in SF today — including campy Drag Queens who wear make-up and costumes — she isn’t and wouldn’t be called “La grandmother of all contemporary storytellers”. She does not honk herself.
Once upon a time, when Olive first listened to Jungian Joy Tampanelli recount Greek myths and recycle classics like Cinderella, she came to the humble and self-effacing conclusion that “this is not the story she -even that matters most, but the heart behind it.” Tampanelli breathed new life into Cinderella when she transformed her from a house servant to a rebellious teenager and thus inspired Olive to tell myths and stories. legends.
San Francisco artist and filmmaker Starr Sutherland has been listening to the city’s stories for decades. He is currently making a documentary on City Lights Books and recording dozens of stories about it. Everyone from Russian Hill to Hayes Valley and North Beach has a City Lights story to tell. “San Franciscans tend to have more stories than people who live elsewhere,” Sutherland says. “We have a wide range of stories here from a wide range of people.” The diversity of the city creates diverse storytellers and narrators.
If and when you put your ears to the city, you’ll hear San Franciscans telling stories in English, Spanish, Chinese, and almost every language spoken in California. They tell them on MUNI and BART, in prisons and hospitals, libraries, cafes, restaurants, churches, AA meetings, Buddhist circles, public and private schools, retirement communities, football games. baseball, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras and on Facebook and text. San Francisco is a storytelling city that loves to tell stories about itself and its storied past.
For Olive, every place and every thing in the city is a story or could be. Enter her house and look at the lavender flowers in a vase and the framed paintings on the walls, and before you sit down she tells the story of the building itself, how it was built in 1908, shortly after the quake of land, like a grocery store, and with a stable for horses next door.
One of Olive’s grandfathers, an Irish immigrant, as well as her own father, a Boston Brahmin who served in the Marines, had a knack for gossip and a flair for oral storytelling. As a young woman, she was inspired by folk singer Pete Seeger, especially when he played the banjo and told the story of the giant Abiyoyo, who threatens a village until a boy plays the ukulele and puts him to sleep.
Olive’s children inherited her gift for language, and Olive herself kept much of her own innocence alive, which helps make her a living storyteller. “The child in me is still wide awake and in awe of the world,” she says.
She explains that “a storyteller can change some things in a story, but not the bare minimum. It’s like using stepping stones to cross a river. You have to stay on the stones, but you can vary the time on each one. Sometimes she prefaces a story with the remark, “This is my interpretation. She points out that Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga may sing the same words, but make the song sound great and sound like no one else.
Storytelling during the pandemic has changed the way Olive and other storytellers, like Mimi Greisman — who uses puppets and plays musical instruments — tell stories. With masks on listeners’ faces, it’s hard to read their reactions and so it’s harder than in pre-covid times to know how best to tell a story.
“I want kids and parents to step into the beauty of a story through words and pictures,” says Olive. “I want kids to understand that it’s okay to go inside your head and dream, and also to go inside your heart and experience your emotions.” She adds, “Fairy tales are about inner landscapes.
On a recent Friday afternoon, she prepared for a concert at a local high school where she’d been asked to teach composition, which she explained “sits somewhere between oral storytelling and writing on paper or on screen”. After all these years, she is always delighted when she returns to a classroom and meets young students. “I call what I do magic,” she says. “And everything is done with words.”
If you want to become a storyteller, here are five suggestions:
1. listen to the stories people tell; 2. practice and rehearse your own stories; 3.) pay close attention to the sound of your own voice, body language, and facial expressions; 4. use words that evoke images; 5.) enjoy telling your stories.