Grad brings epic tales back to Stevenson
Stevenson High School grad Brian Rohr returned to his former high school Sept. 5 for an evening of myths, folktales, and fairy tales. Rohr is a professional storyteller, and specializes in ancient fables. | Michelle LaVigne ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 12, 2012 1:29AM
LINCOLNSHIRE — Brian Rohr had a busy day scheduled, headlined by a speaking engagement at his alma mater Stevenson High School.
He really did not have time to tell old stories, but when asked, he could not resist.
There is an old fable from Tibet, he began. It’s at least a thousand years old, Rohr continued, probably a few thousand, really — no one knows for sure, because it is older than Tibet’s oldest documents. It starts with a prince who has to master the use of several different weapons to become a man.
He succeeds, said Rohr falling deeper into the tale, and while traveling through a town in the kingdom that will someday be his, Prince Five-Weapons learns about a giant, living in the woods nearby. The villagers warn him: Do not go in the forest, or you will have to face the gargantuan.
You can guess where the prince is going, Rohr said, but don’t assume you already know how the battle will end.
“These old stories, they’re not rational,” he explained. “The ones that I’m attracted to tend to be a little more complex. They have contradiction in them, they have many different layers of meaning.”
Rohr withheld the ending last week because he needed to save it for the performance he was about to give in Lincolnshire.
The 1995 graduate of Stevenson and ancient folklore storyteller returned to his alma mater Sept. 5 at the invitation of the Vernon Area Public Library and the Stevenson High School Community Foundation.
His show, “Drumming the Mythic Heart: An Evening of Storytelling,” drew a crowd to the West Auditorium, one of the school’s larger venues. Rohr said it was an honor to return to his old hallways as an attraction.
“To be able to go back, and both show who I am now and offer some of what I’ve learned along the way, to my old community, I’m very excited,” he said.
Rohr has been a professional speaker for the past three and a half years, having studied the art of recounting seminal fables from instructor Daniel Deardorff in Washington. Since the method Deardorff teaches involves both words and music, Rohr took the SHS audience through a collection of tales while he played a single drum. The combination, he explained, adds an ambiance of primitivism and strength to his vocal rhythm.
Catherine Savage, head of integrated communications for the Vernon library, said the district was excited to present such an atypical entertainer.
“What Brian does is a narrative form that isn’t as common as others,” Savage said. “If you see storytelling done, typically it’s for children. What Brian does is for a more mature audience. It just doesn’t happen very often.”
And it nearly did not happen for him, either, he said.
While in high school, Rohr admitted that he may have been a little long-winded when faced with even simple questions. At the time, he said he was set on learning fine-art photography.
“I always spoke in story form,” said Rohr, but he struggled to find something that came naturally to him as a career option.
He studied photography at Illinois State University, but his mind was more attracted to massage, and from there further into the healing arts. He was working as a massage therapist in Chicago in the summer of 2007 when he decided to attend a Jewish revival gathering of 800 rabbis, teachers, musicians, thinkers and storytellers in Albuquerque.
“I’d just been curious about storytelling,” he said, though he mainly went to learn more about Jewish healing.
Deardorff taught a class, which Rohr decided to attend. The class changed the direction of his life.
“I didn’t necessarily rationally understand it, but my body understood it, my heart understood it,” he recalled. “I quit everything and uprooted and moved to Washington state so I could study with him.”
In those studies, Rohr has learned dozens of age-old stories about many civilizations and from all regions. He has learned breathing techniques, drumming and the sometimes multi-tiered meanings that the stories have taken on through generations.
“They’re stories that talk about the human condition,” he said. “Stories that really teach us what it means to be an adult.”
Like the prince who could not heed the villagers’ warning — just like the storyteller who got started with a tale he knew he did not have time for — Rohr went ahead and finished.
The giant eats the prince, he continued. But as Rohr’s Stevenson audience found out last week, the old Tibetan fable concludes with a parable that cannot be gleaned simply from hearing its beginning.
“To me, that’s fascinating,” Rohr said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”