San Francisco is a city of storytellers. It has been for a long time and it still is today. Storytelling keeps the city alive and helps to save it from its narcissistic self, and from the tears in the social fabric that officials—from Mayor London Breed to the new district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, successor to Chesa Boudin—promise to fix but have not yet done. Author Peter Walker and others insist that cycling can save the world. Jean Shinoda Bolen, a feminist and a psychiatrist, argues that trees will save the world, which certainly needs a lot of saving. Storytelling and storytellers will help. Democratic in the best sense of the word, authentic stories are an antidote to fake news, prefabricated Netflix narratives and the boredom of everyday life.
No one seems to keep a tally of the exact number of storytellers in San Francisco, but there seem to be more of them, at more venues and with bigger and more diverse audiences than ever before. On a Saturday morning, about one hundred kids and their parents show up to hear stories and be tickled pink. Not surprisingly, listeners ask, “How do you tell the storyteller from the story?” Maybe you don’t. Maybe that’s part of the power of stories and storytellers.
For much of the time that Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy told stories in the city, she was a single mom, raising three kids and holding down several jobs. Before she became a professional storyteller and made a living by telling stories five days a week, she held 36 different jobs—no exaggeration, she says— including one in a prison where her audience was literally captive.
“She is a local treasure,” says Kathryn Grantham, the owner of Black Bird Books. “Her ability to transport her listeners to faraway lands and epic adventures within minutes is real magic.”
The more stories she told, and the more storytelling classes she taught to adults at “San Francisco Village,” the more she learned about the art of storytelling, which needs little if any technology and for which anyplace can serve as a stage. Hackett-Shaughnessy says that the enormous changes in technology in the last 40 years have not altered the way children are entranced by storytelling.
The Ohlone, who populated the Bay Area before the arrival of Europeans, sang their songs, including one with the line, “Dancing on the edge of the world.” That’s what many Californians still do. Early Spanish explorers dispatched their exaggerated reports to Spain and boosted dreams of empire. 49ers from Chile and China and everywhere in between, huddled around campfires and regaled one another with tall tales, and in 1882 San Franciscans heard Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, decked out in lavender pants, make headlines when he said, “Anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”
Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy—or just plain “Olive,” as everyone calls her—has been drawing on myths, fairy tales, folk tales and truths, and performing in San Francisco, for 40 years: in schools and farmers’ markets, on the dunes at Ocean Beach, in Grace Cathedral at Christmas, and at Kaiser Permanente’s Mended Hearts support groups. She’s as much a part of San Francisco’s landscape as the fog, and more down to earth than the opera and the ballet.
Thousands of San Franciscans, both old and young, have heard her in person, listened to her CDs, found her on Spotify and read her written work on her website, olivestoryteller.com/.
These days, Olive tells stories for free twice a week: at Black Bird Books on Irving the first Saturday of every month, and in the open air at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market on 37th Avenue every Wednesday starting at five. Sometimes she’ll tell stories more than twice a week at a school or special event. Curiously, no one has ever told her story, which is worth telling, if only because parents, who heard her decades ago, now bring their children to hear her. How’s that for continuity? Ages ago, when Olive performed her stories for the first time to kids at Sunset Nursery School, Joanna McClure, a Sunset teacher, told her, “If you can tell stories to two-year-olds to five-year-olds and hold their attention, you can tell stories to anyone.”
I was raised in a family of storytellers, a longtime fan of oral tales, and I’m amazed by Olive’s ability to connect instantly to listeners. There’s something about her voice that calls to infants still nursing and to seniors with diminished hearing. Though she has been telling stories professionally longer than any other living storyteller in SF today—including the campy Drag Queens who wear makeup and costumes—she does not and would not call herself “the grandmother of all contemporary storytellers.”
Once upon a time, not long after she first listened to Joy Tampanelli, a Jungian, retell Greek myths and recycle classics like Cinderella, Olive came to the conclusion that “it’s not the story itself that matters most, but the heart behind it.” Tampanelli breathed new life into an old fable when she turned Cinderella into a rebellious teenager and thereby inspired Olive to become creative.
The San Francisco artist and filmmaker Starr Sutherland has been listening to the city’s stories for decades. He’s now making a documentary about City Lights Books and is recording dozens of stories about it. Everyone, from Russian Hill, Hayes Valley and North Beach, has a City Lights tale 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 makes for diverse storytellers and storytelling.
If and when you put your ears to the streets of the city, you’ll hear San Franciscans tell stories in English, Spanish, Chinese and in nearly every language spoken in California. They tell them on Muni and BART, behind bars, at libraries, cafes, restaurants, churches, AA meetings, Buddhist circles, public and private schools, retirement communities, baseball games, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras, and on Facebook and by texting. San Francisco is a storytelling city that likes to tell stories about itself and its storied past.
For Olive, every place and everything in the city is a story or could be. Walk into her home and look at the lavender flowers in a vase and the art on the walls, and before you sit down, she tells the history of the building itself, how it was built in 1908, soon after the earthquake, as a grocery store with a stable for horses next door.
One of Olive’s grandfathers, an Irish immigrant, along with her own father—a Boston Brahmin who served in the Marines—had the gift of gab and a flair for telling oral tales. As a young woman, she was inspired by folk singer Pete Seeger when he played the banjo and recounted the story of Abiyoyo, who menaces a village until a boy plays a ukulele and puts the giant to sleep.
Olive’s children have inherited her gift for language, and Olive herself has kept alive much of her own innocence which helps to make her a lively 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 bones. 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 can sing the same words, but make the song sound all their own and unlike anyone else’s.
Telling stories during the pandemic has changed the way Olive and other storytellers, such as Mimi Greisman—who uses puppets and who plays musical instruments—tell stories. With masks on the faces of listeners, it’s difficult to read their reactions and so it’s more challenging than in pre-COVID times to know how best to deliver a story.
“I want kids and parents to enter the beauty of a story through words and images,” she says. “I want kids to understand that it’s OK to go inside their heads and daydream, and also OK to go into their hearts and experience their emotions.” She adds, “Fairy tales are about interior landscapes.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Olive prepared for a gig at a local high school where she had been invited to teach composition, which she explained “is somewhere between oral storytelling and writing on paper or a screen.” After all these years, she is still stoked when she goes back to a classroom and meets young students. “I call what I do magic,” she says. “And it’s all done with words.”
If you want to become a storyteller, here are five suggestions:Listen to the stories people tell; practice and rehearse your own stories; pay special attention to the sound of your own voice, your body language and facial expressions; use words that conjure pictures; enjoy telling your stories.