Stephanie Holman — Ellettsville-based children's librarian, professional storyteller and advocate for the "spoken artform" — was a bit flattered when Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society commissioned her to develop and perform a story/monologue on Red Skelton, the Hoosier-born comedian, clown, TV star ... and painter, short story writer; the list goes on.
And also a bit apprehensive. She says they picked her for the next installment of their Sharing Hoosier History through Stories series because she "likes to play with voices" and isn't "shy about silly expressions." But "would I deign to be Red," she asked herself. Would she deign to do some of his routines, perhaps unfamiliar to recent generations, but seared into the minds of TV, movie and radio consumers of a certain age?
Well, no, and she decided to go another route informed, appropriately enough, by the concepts of storytelling and oral transmission so much at the core of Storytelling Arts and IHS's work.
"I told myself that the majority of the audience would be people who know and love Red already," Holman says. "So I decided to show how his life in Indiana, his childhood, developed him into that comedian we all know and love."
Holman structured her story into three acts, each narrated by a different woman who played a key role in Skelton's life.
First up: his middle school friend Norma Grubb, who will gesture toward the scandal that surrounded Skelton's family before his birth, and tell of the key role her mother and two grandmothers played in rearing him.
The second act will belong to Velma, his teenage crush, who will pick up the story based on letters Skelton sent home from the road during his first foray into show business.
His first wife, Edna Stillwell, will close out the story, taking things up to Skelton's breakout moment, when his "Doughnut Dunkers" sketch, developed on nightclub and vaudeville stages, was filmed for a Hollywood revue.
Holman plowed through biographies and archival materials in preparing the story, doing some research at the Indiana History Center. Not that it's so easy to get at the truth of Skelton's life. He maintained that his father — who died before his birth and was identified in an obituary as a grocer — was also a circus clown. The historical record seems not to support Skelton's claim, but as Holman puts it, "what better way to connect with the father you never knew, especially if you're encouraged left and right to act the clown."
"One of the reasons I love telling Red's story is he was not just considered one of the world's greatest clowns, and one of the world's greatest comedians of the last century, but he was also a storyteller," Holman continues. "Both on stage and in person, he could not help but embellish."
Live storytelling, at least the way Holman does it, has more in common with improv comedy than a typical stageplay in this sense: While Holman is starting from a written story that's 15 pages long, she'll spend the remaining time before the show first memorizing that narrative, and then learning it well enough "so that I can see it like a movie and describe it to the audience, being sure to keep track and not miss any key part of the story."
It's that process of translating from the "written word to the spoken art form" that's part of the magic of live storytelling for Holman. The rest is up to the audience "to take in the story and make it live."