Chi Lives: a storyteller's tale | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: a storyteller's tale 

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Mark Kater was always determined to follow an unconventional path. As a teenager in Naperville he decided against college, which carried serious repercussions in the late 60s. "I was prime meat on the hook for the draft board," he says. After receiving his draft notice in 1969, he enlisted in the air force and became a radio and television production specialist. After a year in Texas making training films, Kater was sent to the other side of the world: Tainan, Taiwan.

The base there was "the supply point for Southeast Asia, the planes that carried supplies back and forth, C-130 transports," says Kater. "My job was to entertain the troops." As the disc jockey on the midnight to morning shift, Kater developed a cult following, playing songs by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones when his superiors weren't listening.

In 1972 Kater was reassigned to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. He got a civilian job at a local radio station and worked as a cartoonist, photographer, and writer for the base newspaper. Military regimentation had made him long for open spaces, and after his discharge in 1973 he moved to Colorado, then to Champaign to study dance at the University of Illinois. There he met Liz Malecki, and the two married and formed a small company that performed religiously influenced work.

In the early 80s Kater moved to Chicago, balancing a job as a short-order cook with gigs as a dancer and occasional choreographer. But difficulties with alcohol and substance addiction eventually contributed to the collapse of his marriage. The turning point in his life and art came in 1994 when Kater entered a private clinic for treatment. "The first thing they had you do there was write out your story, as honestly as possible,

and then sit in front of everybody and tell it. That was very frightening, but also very free."

At Link's Hall in 1995 he staged a dance called "The Child's Peace," about a man whose alcoholism results in physical abuse against his wife and child. The experience taught him something: "I realized what I had been doing with my dancing was storytelling."

Kater spent a few years performing and studying dance, traveling to Ghana and living in Taos, New Mexico, and adjusting to sobriety. In 1997 he enrolled in a storytelling program at Emerson College in Sussex, England. "Our lives are about stories," Kater says. "In every culture, that's where they told their lessons. They taught their mythology, their belief systems, before the written word. For instance, one of the stories I do is the 'Jack Tale,' a variation of 'Jack and the Beanstalk.' Every culture has their own 'Jack Tale,' but it has different cultural, social,

or personal relevance."

Kater's stories originate in part from his own experiences, but he also adapts short stories from published collections. He discovered one story, "Sally and the Insects," about a young girl's near-pathological fixation with bugs, in a collection called Five-Minute Frights. Others are traditional tales from various ethnic groups. He also does extensive research to give nuance and texture to his performances. Last month Kater walked the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Indians' forced march from the southeast to Oklahoma in the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839.

Kater, who says he never tells a story the same way twice, combines the rhythm and inflection of his voice with an animated, physically expressive style. "There's another tradition in storytelling where the storyteller sits in the chair and just tells the story. There's no characterization or stylization.

I can't do that, not after having had the experience I've had in moving and dance," he says. Close physical proximity, he says, is vital to making an impact. "One of the things I like about storytelling is looking into the eyes

of the audience, and that's something you can't do from a stage," he says.

Kater says telling stories has helped him to achieve a deeper understanding of his own identity. "I have emotions and I don't have to

be afraid of them. Fear, love, and anger, I just take all of those emotions

and channel them."

On Saturday, Kater will perform at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, 2430 N. Cannon Dr. At 11:30 AM he'll perform European stories; at 12:30 PM, African stories;

and at 1:30 PM, Cherokee stories. Admission is $6, $4 for students and seniors, $3 for children. Call 773-549-0606. Kater also performs on the third Monday of every month at North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski (312-744-5472), at 7 PM. Admission is free. --Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mark Kater photo by Dan Machnik.

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