First comes the voice.
Like a hunter working its prey, a good storyteller has to set the bait. Ken Oguss employs “the storyteller voice,” a cadence of speaking that works to pull in the audience.
Using that tool, the storyteller’s job is to take people to a place and a time, creating characters and situations that the audience will care about.
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Then, spring the trap and have people hanging on every word you say, Oguss said.
“You lure the person in to that environment, then you introduce the unknown — something a little unpredictable,” he said. “Even though people might know where the story is going, you build up the drama and the tension.”
Oguss has built his life around telling stories. He does storytelling performances, has made film about the oral tradition and hosts a podcast sharing his favorite tales. Though he enjoys all kinds of stories, it’s the scary ones that get the heart racing — both his and the audience’s.
He will bring his storytelling prowess to the Johnson County Museum of History on Oct. 15, when he unearths the Halloween classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for audiences young and old.
“I’m going to take them on a ride. I will take the audience back to that time period, and introduce them to the characters and their sensibilities and the rivalries and the wonderful sensory information that wafts its way through that story,” Oguss said. “Then I’ll serve them some scary tidbits in the form of other short stories people expect this time of year.”
Oguss’ foray into “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” happened almost accidentally. He received a frantic call from organizers of the Irvington Halloween Festival, asking if he could fill in for the storyteller who normally recited the tale for people.
Oguss was familiar with the basic story, having seen the animated Disney cartoon of the Headless Horseman as a child. But he never realized how long and detailed Washington Irving’s original writings were.
He had to compact it into a 20-minute show for people.
“To read the whole thing aloud is an hour and 20 minutes. It is long. So I read the story, I outlined it, broke it down into its components, and I made it mine,” he said.
The program went so well that Oguss was invited to come back the following Halloween for the festival, adding a few other scary stories to his repertoire. He was also invited to do about an hour’s worth of storytelling at Conner Prairie’s annual Headless Horseman event.
At this point, Oguss knows “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” intimately. That only makes his connection to the audience deeper.
“You have to do with your voice what a movie score does with its music. You have to let them know that this is a scary part, but it’s not the last scary part,” he said. “You fill them with the images and then you introduce the scary elements. You have them.”
Oguss, 62, grew up in a household of storytellers. Traditional folk tales and fairy tales were very popular in the Oguss household. His parents were always spinning yarns and entertaining people with a good story. His older sister, Fran, also exhibited a talent for it.
“She was 12 years my senior, and was sometimes put in charge of watching me and my younger brother,” he said. “She discovered, part from the example of my mother, who was very creative, that one way to keep kids calm and controlled were to tell them a story.”
So with so many people telling stories, Oguss first became a master of listening. That was the best way to learn how to tell stories, to carefully listen, imagine the details of what’s being told, and then recalling them later.
His first opportunity to really connect with people via story came when he was 10. Away at Boy Scout camp, he and his best friend were sleeping in their lean-to after a counselor-led round of scary stories.
His friend was crying, a combination of terror from the stories and homesickness. In an attempt to help ease his fears, Oguss launched into his own story — a Czechoslavakian tale called “The Man with the Iron Head.”
By the end of the long story, his friend was calm and had fallen asleep.
“That was satisfying in and of itself. But when I stopped telling the story because he was asleep, there was a rapping sound from the side of the lean-to. Boys from the lean-to next to ours had been listening, and wanted to know what happened next,” he said. “That’s how I knew I was a storyteller, too.”
From that point forward, stories dominated Oguss’ life. He told stories every Saturday night around the fireplace at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin as a student. He was involved in theater and drama and taught himself folk music songs on the dulcimer and autoharp.
“My early style of storytelling incorporated different art forms — folk music, puppetry, mime, juggling. It was deliberately to hold short attention spans by having a lot of visual variety,” he said.
Much of the material for Oguss’ stories came from his life. An anthropology major in college, his first job was at a research facility in Nevada teaching sign language to chimpanzees as part of Project Washoe.
He also worked in public libraries, joined a touring theater troupe and hosted a television program of traditional storytelling in Virginia.
Oguss has had a wealth of experiences in entertainment. Most recently, he has served as a professional storyteller, writer and speaking coach. He hosts a storytelling podcast on Soundcloud. In addition to serving as a digital audio editor for the Life Stories Project, an effort to record the stories of every-day people in Indiana.
“Because my life has been so varied, I couldn’t help but become a storyteller,” he said.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
What: Professional storyteller Ken Oguss will present the Washington Irving classic story, as well as other spooky stories.
When: 1:30 to 3 p.m. Oct. 15
Where: Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin