Telling Tales

Celebrated Storyteller Believes in Therapeutic Value of Expression

By Peter Anderson
September 2018

There is an oracle in our midst. In the 40 years Mary McGrath has called Sacramento her home, the seasoned storyteller has brought relief to abused women, entertainment to classroom-weary youngsters, and self-esteem and confidence to adults yearning to perfect their oratorical skills. This summer, she received a prestigious award from the National Storytelling Network honoring her four decades of distinguished and passionate work.

How and why did she choose storytelling as a career? The twinkle in her eye is enough of an answer. But she also adds, “Well, I’m Irish!”

The Omaha native, who loves Sacramento for its Midwest-style topography and no-nonsense, plain-speaking citizenry, has performed locally, nationally and internationally at a variety of venues, including festivals, schools, conferences and storytelling groups.

She has also written and produced several storytelling programs, and has taught the art of storytelling for schools, libraries and museums. She wrote the syllabus for a course in storytelling at Sacramento City College, demonstrating how to incorporate her craft into everyday teaching skills.

After earning her master’s degree in early childhood education from Sacramento State, completing extended courses at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, and attending workshops at the National Storytelling Association in Tennessee, she did what every exhausted grad student would do post-degree—she jumped on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Not to party, but to offer on-board courses titled “Telling the Story of Your Life” during four-hour sessions at sea. The passengers enjoyed her lectures so much that the cruise line signed her up as an official on-board storyteller. “Pretty tough duty for someone who loves to stare at the ocean all day,” cracks the Irish lass.

“Storytelling can be about anything under the sun,” says McGrath in a soothing, evenly paced, crystal-clear voice. There are no strict boundaries in the world of storytelling. McGrath believes in the therapeutic value of being able to express oneself, be it at home among family members gathered around the dinner table or in a more private setting like a therapist’s office. To articulate the story of one’s life, including travails, humor, upsets and victories, is the beginning of personal success.

“My favorite collaborator in most of my work,” says McGrath, “is my husband Robin Aurelius, who knows exactly when to finish my sentences in storytelling, and, more importantly, when not to!” The couple live in East Sacramento and have three children and four grandchildren. They have appeared at Luna’s Café in Midtown, the bohemian gathering spot that encourages poetry recitals, as well as at The Avid Reader on Broadway, where McGrath uses her book, “The Healing Art of Storytelling,” as an impetus for verbal engagement.

“I can’t emphasize enough,” exudes McGrath, “how women especially seize upon public storytelling as a way to combat their demons from abusive relationships as they strive to heal themselves back into more complete and functional living. It is extremely gratifying for me to see them use these tools of communication to become the people they so desperately want to rediscover.”

One of the more exciting presentations McGrath gave was in 1998 at the California Sesquicentennial Gold Discovery Days Celebration at the state Capitol, where she presented a dynamic series of stories and music depicting Gold Rush characters and their experiences. Later that year in Coloma, the heart of gold-fever country, she presided over a similar exhibit at a reconstructed Gold Rush Village. McGrath also told stories at the 2000 River City Art Town Storytelling Festival in Reno, and, in 2002, she wrote and produced a program for the Fall Leaf Festival in Spokane, Wash.

On July 27, McGrath received the National Storytelling Network’s Regional Excellence Award, which “recognizes the creativity, professional integrity, and artistic contributions of tellers who have greatly enriched the storytelling culture of their region.”

And that’s a tale to be cherished.

Peter Anderson can be reached at 49peteranderson@gmail.com.

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