Jonathan Kruk is an award-winning storyteller for children who gives more than 250 performances and workshops annually at schools, libraries, and festivals. Using varied voices, creative dramatics, and language of the senses, his shows feature heroes of the Hudson Valley, Greek mythology, and classic fairy tales. Jonathan’s masterful enactments inspire active listening, vivid imagining, and overall memorable experiences.
Brent: How did you get started in your storytelling career?
Jonathan: My kid brother was notoriously rambunctious at bedtime. I’d tell him stories to get him to settle down. We started out life in El Paso, Texas, which is the land of tall tales and daydreams.
Brent: And you were raised in Westchester County, so you discovered the performing arts culture of New York City a short train ride away.
Jonathan: Precisely. Some friends got me a gig entertaining at Abingdon Square Park in the middle of New York City. When kids would abandon the monkey bars, cyclone sprinkler, and ice-cream truck to listen to me tell stories, I knew I’d found my career calling.
Brent: How do you go about memorizing all the details of the stories you tell?
Jonathan: I begin with the story's end. I envision the story as a train being pulled along by an engine consisting of the conflict or problem to be resolved. The story events become cars; the climax is the caboose.
Brent: What an evocative image! Give us an example.
Jonathan: Imagine the story is Cinderella. The engine turns into the plight of the one-day princess. In the first car, I see Cindy cleaning, scrubbing, and serving the stepsisters. Threes are magic in remembering details and for resonating with audiences.
Brent: Right, the Rule of Three. Comedians often use that to set up jokes.
Jonathan: Next, comes the invite to the ball and readying the gowns. The stepsisters’ gowns provide a visual bridge to the fairy godmother. I'll picture a gown on a godmother to make the transition to the next chapter in the tale. Again, I limit the godmother's wishing to three items. I'm seeing rats and mice pushing through a pumpkin shell: ratty horses, and mousy coachman, plus pumpkin carriage. The pumpkin takes the princess-to-be to the prince. I picture him giving three distinct frowns on his receiving line. His droopy mouth bridges to him dancing, only with Cindy.
Brent: I love the way you visually link these elements together in a chain.
Jonathan: On rides the train, powered by the problem to resolve, and the track consists of series of images and alliterative words.
Brent: Do you ever write the stories out by hand for added reinforcement?
Jonathan: I review lining up the pictures and words in order. I try to avoid writing things down. This forces me to rely on the mental pictures and words. If I do write, I wind up picturing my actual notes.
Brent: Interesting. How much of your storytelling is improvised versus scripted?
Jonathan: My stories always are structured improvisational pieces. Each telling differs from the previous, in subtle ways. Again, I rely on the "story train," the magic of threes, and alliterative pictures.
Brent: How do your costumes or props serve as memory cues?
Jonathan: My costumes truly snap me into character and turn on the story. I can perform "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" without my 1790 frock coat and breeches, but it lacks the charm and nuance compared to when I’m wearing the garb. For example, at the end of "The Legend," I hint that Ichabod Crane “may have suffered a fate worse than a chase by a headless goblin, that is [grip lapel dramatically], he became a New York City lawyer!” I need to grip the long lapel of my frock coat to get the pause for the coming laugh, as well as give myself a physical cue.
Brent: I know that hats are also an important part of your wardrobe.
Jonathan: Indeed, changing hats in "The Legend" puts in my head the character voice I'm to use. When performing A Christmas Carol, how I hold the hat right before turning into one of the 30 plus characters helps launch each one.
Brent: Do you have a colorful story about committing an especially elaborate story to memory or recovering from forgetting your lines?
Jonathan: Many times when I am very tired, fatigue forces me to leap ahead. I must be on track when describing the barn dance to Ichabod Crane's race with the ghost to the church. I may wind up saying the fiddler brought music from heaven into the "church" when I should have said "barn." I'll back-pedal and say something like, “well, the fiddler turned the barn into a church full of music.” Most of the time, however, pretending you meant to say the right thing convinces the audience subliminally to hear the right thing. This does not always work.
Brent: How so?
Jonathan: Once upon a time, while performing an original story for a family audience about a boy who loved dinosaurs, I got in too deep. I'd contrived a wonderful series of ways the boy wore everything dinosaurs. I went head to toe: a Triceratops cap, a Big Al the Allosaurus image on his sweatshirt, Plesiosaurus pants, and Stegosaurus sneakers complete with spikes on the tongue. He even sported “socko-don” socks and “underwearasaurus”! I got into a routine of saying his head got topped by the Triceratops cap, chest by the big Allosaurus, etc. This flowed right into an easy prefacing for the underwear. I actually said, "The boy who loved dinosaurs wore over his 'penisaurus' underwearasaurus!"
Brent: Yikes! What happened after that?
Jonathan: It took a moment, but parents and kids looked stunned and laughed themselves out of their chairs. I still have friends who were there twenty years ago laughing over my slip!
Brent: Congratulate yourself on creating a story that people still recall 20 years later. Thank you for being so generous with your storytelling!
Jonathan: Thanks for your interest!
Read more about Jonathan’s performances at www.jonathankruk.com.