Storyteller shares her love of the spoken word

Posted: Sunday, June 25, 2000

To Carol Ford, stories are far more than mere yakking. The stories people tell share what makes us truly human and help us come to terms with life's important issues.

"I'm a storyteller because it's fun," she said. "But I deeply believe in it, too.

"My philosophy is that everyone has stories. We live by story if we know it or not."

The diminutive woman from Nikiski is known for comic theater roles and entertaining children with her stories, but her inspirations are serious. Her interests in faith, philosophy, nature and history have influenced her art in subtle ways.

"It's all tied in, to me," she said. "It is a process to make sense of the world, to make it clearer what we are here for."

That inquiring bent of mind inspires her to seek out stories and plays that raise issues and probe what life is all about -- in serious or humorous ways.

"Usually both," she said.

A versatile and vivacious performer

Ford tells stories, acts, directs, writes and promotes oral history projects. During 20 years on the Kenai Peninsula, she has performed for children and adults, coordinated the Central Kenai Peninsula Communities of Memory Project, taught at Kenai Peninsula College and served on the Kenai Performers' board of directors.

Don Nickel, who has worked with her for years in theater, described her as "a spark plug."

"Carol is a very vital person," he said. "She has just got that one touch of scatterbrainedness that makes her so endearing."

He praised her enthusiasm, openness and ability to involve others.

"She thinks quickly and is enthused. She gets these ideas, and she just bubbles."

Another fellow thespian, Jerry McDonnell, praised her innovation, professionalism and upbeat attitude.

"It's great fun when you get on the stage with Carol," he said.

Ford always has loved performing, but living in Alaska has led her to explore oral history and the concept she called "stories of place."

She took a college class from the late Peter Kalifornsky, the Dena'ina linguist, who encouraged her to tell Dena'ina stories. Working with tales from a culture other than her own is a challenge she wrestles with, she said.

"I call it like introducing another woman's child," she said.

Her background led her to become the coordinator for the Central Kenai Peninsula Communities of Memory Project, sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum, beginning in 1994.

The project's goal was to encourage and preserve the stories of communities in Alaska. In 1996 and 1997, she and other volunteers set up get-togethers for people to tell about memorable experiences. They collected stories from more than 100 people. The results are preserved on audio and video tapes, plus a calendar of excerpts from the tales.

The Communities of Memory Project is not altogether finished. Ford hopes to publish a series of the transcribed stories, but for now that aspect of the project has no funding, she said.

"It kind of got put on the back burner," she said.

Those experiences came into play this past winter, when the Kenai Performers asked Ford to direct "Fiddler on the Roof." She worked on the project full time for about 3 1/2 months.

"What a humongous job," she said.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the course of working on the show, Ford traveled to Anchorage and met with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss the story, which is based on stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem about Orthodox Jewish villagers in czarist Russia a century ago. Working on it reminded her of her studies with Kalifornsky, which led her to see "Fiddler" in a different light and to treat it with more depth and respect, she said.

Recently, she learned that the parents of Shoshana Cotler, who played the role of Golda in the production, live in Israel and presented mementos of the show to Topol, the actor who won international fame for his portrayal of the main character in the musical's film version.

From stage struck

child to theatrical pro

Ford was born in what was then the small farming town of Paso Robles, Calif., where her father was a mail carrier. She was raised there along with three brothers.

From the beginning, she was drawn to performing.

"I guess it's something I've always loved," she said.

Her parents had met doing their high school senior class play and, although they did not pursue theatrical careers, they sang duets and passed the theater bug on to their daughter.

In those days, after school activities for girls were limited, so Carol found her outlet in music, acting and storytelling.

"'Horton Hears a Who,' which is one of my mainstays, I accidentally memorized when I was 8 years old," she said.

Although she froze up the first time she tried to tell it to an audience, she went back on stage to tell the classic Dr. Seuss tale and never forgot the words again.

As she grew up, she played in community theater, sang in the choir, told stories to Sunday school classes and performed small town gigs her grandmother arranged.

After high school she attended a nearby community college for a year and a half, then transferred to Chapman College where she graduated with a double major in English and drama. Before picking up her diploma, she walked down the matrimonial aisle with Larry Ford, whom she had met in the community college band.

The young couple moved to Montana, where Carol earned a teaching certificate and spent a couple years teaching high school drama, English and girls physical education before resigning to focus her energies on raising a family.

Later she worked for a specialty publishing house that produced scholarly journals dealing with theology, which became a lifelong fascination for her. She began taking advanced courses in the subject at the university and seminaries and collected an impressive library on the topic.

In 1980, the Fords and their young son, Ethan, followed Larry's parents to Alaska. Larry took a job at Tesoro, where he still works as an instrument technician.

When Ethan began kindergarten, his mother began volunteering at the school, sharing stories with the children. Within a few years, she got involved with Kenai Performers, as well.

When her second son, Alden, was a baby, she auditioned for a role. When the group found out about her background, they asked her to help direct. In the years since, she has directed or been in a couple shows a year on average, she said.

When Alden grew, he became her partner on stage. The two shared an interest in drama and worked together as storytellers.

Ford has been involved in productions big and small, at the Kenai Central High School Auditorium, the school's Little Theater, the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and area malls. Stories and theater take her on the road from time to time. She has worked formally and informally as an artist in the schools around Alaska, most recently doing a play in Kalskag.

"I'm always surprised when I look at my resume," she said.

Ready for the next act

This is a time of transition for Ford.

"I've just been so busy the past year," she said, speaking in the living room of her quiet home on the shores of Daniels Lake.

In addition to her work on "Fiddler on the Roof," she is on the Alaska Humanities Forum Speakers' Bureau because of her work on Communities of Memory. Through that she served as a storyteller and historian on a cruise of the Inside Passage. She also works with individuals on preserving their own oral histories. And in October, when the Oral History Association held its annual national meeting in Anchorage, she was a featured speaker.

Her younger son, Alden, finished high school in May and is off to the Lower 48 for a theater internship before heading to college in Washington state in the fall. Ethan is a senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying wildlife biology and Russian.

Ford said she has mixed feelings about her children growing up and moving out but sees an opportunity to branch out and pursue more travel, writing and projects aimed at adults.

"I think it will free me up to do some things," she said. "A lot of my time for the last 20 years has been spent in schools."

She is working on a new project called Prime Time, which promotes family reading through storytelling and discussion. Her partners on the project are musician Mike Morgan and Kenai librarian Corey Hall. The six-week program will debut in the fall. The project has been a growing success in other states, and Kenai will try it out for Alaska, she said.

Another project she intends to pursue is her writing. After years working with spoken words, she is eager to develop the craft of putting them to paper.

"I love to write," she said. "I'd like to get something published and see how that works.

"I always have a lot of stuff going on," she said.

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