Sunday, July 30, 2000

Telling tales with Rhonda Rae Smith

Avondale woman gathers, builds tales she hopes are teaching, not preaching

        Rhonda Rae Smith, former pipe fitter turned professional storyteller five years ago, entertains under the stage name Pied Piperess.

        Makes it pretty fitting then that she worked out a deal with civic groups in Hamelin, Germany, to visit, tell stories and gather new tales.

        Hamelin, recall, was home to the original Pied Piper, the guy who in 1376 piped the rats, then the kids, out of town.

(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
| ZOOM |
        So, off she went to Hamelin, bearing gifts — Cincinnati chili, CDs by local musicians, local art, posters — and stories to share.

        Ms. Smith, a 41-year-old Avondale wife and mother of two, is as interested in kids and rats as the original Pied Piper was.

        “Rats in Hamelin contaminated the town and kept people indoors. We don't have those, but we have rats — gangs, drugs, apathy, selfishness contaminating our society.

        “The way I can make a difference is to tell kids my stories and show how we all have a common mind-set — common hopes and fears, things that drive us to do what we do. If I can simplify that for kids, and I think stories are the best way, I can take them to a higher plane.

        “I take them to a place I love to go — security, self-esteem, the recesses of the mind. If I can get them there, then the rats fall into the river.

        “Kids, even adults, see themselves in stories. If they see themselves in the context of a hero, maybe they'll emulate that.

        She says is is a small thing she is doing. “Maybe it will only make a small difference, but it's a difference.”

        Making a difference wasn't always the top priority. Ms. Smith moved here from her hometown of Cleveland in 1979 to attend the University of Cincinnati as a biology major with an eye on medical school. Then a husband. Then babies and no time for school.

        She became a union pipe fitter and spent 14 years doing two things on the side:

        • Earning a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's degree in education.

        • Telling stories.

        “You get to be a storyteller the same way you get to be a singer. You open your mouth and sing. If people like it, you're a singer. It's the same with telling stories.

        She started by telling stories in church, dressed as biblical characters. Then it was on to schools, where she talked about being a female pipe fitter.

        “Soon, I was looking forward more to telling stories than going to work, even though I loved my job.”

        Then, and now, she continues to study her favorite storytellers: Aesop (“a cook and a slave who could impart profound messages”); Brothers Grimm (“They were gruesome, but they turned storytelling into an art form”); and Christ (“The best; he told stories that brought out a spiritual truth that people were willing to embrace”).

        Ms. Smith doesn't work like the classics. She goes the interactive route.

        For example, she'll ask someone in the audience to give her a time in history, a job and a situation. She might get Middle Ages, blacksmith, he left his family. Then she digs into her repertory or builds a new story around the suggested elements.

        If it's an affluent audience, she adds a message about sharing and not looking down on those less fortunate. If the group's less affluent, she adds something about using creative ability to tap a world of abundance.

        “Either way, I try to slip in a moral without preaching.”

        Sounds a bit like teaching.

        “It is teaching, but I would never teach in a school. Only in the story format. Teachers have their part, I have mine.”

        Her trip to Hamelin nabbed her an invitation to return for Christmas 2001.

        One of the best things about the trip, she says, was the chance to pick up new stories from audiences — she tells one, then someone tells her one.

        That collecting is a major passion with Ms. Smith, and the reason she likes talking to senior citizen groups.

        “I love all age groups, but I think I like the seniors best because they give back. Their eyes grow bright and they're a child again, and that's giving back enough, but then they share some story from their youth and there you go — I have another new story.”

        She has found what she was meant to do. “And that makes me the happiest person in the world.”


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