On a barren stage, with his guitar and sometimes a Celtic harp, John M. "Odds" Bodkin greets an audience of children and parents for the final performance of his four-week fall season at Manhattan's Lincoln Center. "You have to see the story in your mind's eye," he tells the children. "Look inside and unleash the power of your imagination."
It has been a successful run for Bodkin, one of the nation's leading storytellers, whose shows mix music, song, and centuries-old tales into spellbinding theater. Dressed all in black, with his hair slicked back and goatee neatly trimmed, he makes an imposing presence on stage. He takes the audience on a ninety-minute journey to a witch's lair in Italy, to the South African veld with a famished herd of animals, and finally to the familiar fantasy world inhabited by the Three Little Pigs and a ravenous wolf. Bodkin plays his rock 'n' roll interpretation of the classic tale, with children in the audience singing the rousing chorus.
The Lincoln Center season, which took three years to plan, included performances of stories based on Homer's Odyssey, love stories, and tales for Halloween, Christmas, and Chanukah.
" It's about making it in New York," says Bodkin backstage one evening in his dressing room. "There's a wonderfully literate market here, and I wanted to be here long enough for some of them to find me."
He didn't plan to become a storyteller while studying marine zoology at Duke, but he did discover the magic of the twelve-string guitar, which he played for hours in the stairwell at Brown House. "The echoes would run up and down the stairwell, and with those acoustics, I imagined I was in a great concert hall," he recalls.
After graduating, he became a teacher in New York, a freelance environmental educator who used Central Park as his classroom. He later took troubled youths on character-building wilderness trips, where he found that he was adept at telling stories around the campfire.
By 1982, he'd written his first musical, Earth Song, which was produced by National Public Radio for Earth Day eight years later. Since then, he has developed about 150 stories drawn from Greek mythology, folk legends, and fairy tales from around the world. He has also produced eighteen recordings of stories and has written four children's books, which are available through his website.
It is his live performances, filled with sound effects, multiple voices, and a positive message, that are the core of his work. Bodkin knows the beginning and end of every story, but he doesn't work from a script, so his stories always change as he improvises on stage. "That keeps it fresh," he says. "The characters can change, their dialogue will change, and the musical accompaniments are always breathing around them."
Bodkin, who lives in Bradford, New Hampshire, with his wife, Mil, and three teenage boys, no longer teaches in the classroom, but says that he has never given up connecting with children. He says his stories provide the kind of stimulation that nourishes young minds. Listening to a story, he says, lights up a child's brain far more than watching television.
" You see the children's eyes get a little glossy, their mouths drop open slightly, and they become absolutely still, active listeners. They are entertaining themselves with their own creativity."
Over the last year, Bodkin worked with educator Nefretete Rasheed, a New Jersey arts group, and several New Jersey schools to create a curriculum that uses the mythic story of Hercules to explore the issue of rage in teens. The five-day unit encourages teens to reflect inward to identify the nature of rage in their lives. Bodkin says too many teens are brimming with bogus rage churned up by harsh popular music, violent movies, and some video games.
" Media can produce a false rage that comes from all this pounding on an inexperienced mind," he says. "Kids need to know it's there, and they need to guard against it. The curriculum teaches them to name what makes them experience rage and shows them strategies to deal with it."
Wilson is a New York-based freelance writer.