The face is unmistakable. It’s the face of a stately academic from a bygone era. The parted strawcolored hair, thin-rimmed spectacles and scraggly goatee do little to hide the exaggerated expressions that shine out from underneath. He bounds across campus with ramrod posture, distinguishable by the fedora he wears and the pocket watch he clutches. But Ben Kemper’s face isn’t what makes him a campus icon. What attracts crowds by the dozens, seizing the attention of all who bear witness, is his voice.
Kemper, a 20-year-old freshman from Boise, Idaho, is a self-proclaimed and fully practicing storyteller. Since the moment he was old enough to say “Eugene O’Neill,” Kemper has honed and perfected the art of narrating tales before audiences. Whether it’s folklore, history or a chapter from his own life, Kemper never fails to captivate anyone within earshot.
“He acts with this rare kind of gentlemanly disposition, and people can be pretty shocked by it at first, but once you get over that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by him,” says McCormick freshman Nick Broady, who met Kemper on the Freshman Urban Program in Summer 2011. On the program’s last night, Broady says, Kemper held an impromptu storytelling session in the student hostel lobby.
“People started to come out of their rooms to listen and were curious and murmuring in the beginning,” Broady says. “But after five minutes, every single person in the room was absolutely amazed, enthralled. They dug him and they couldn’t take their eyes off him.”
Kemper discovered his passion for live stories as a 6-year-old, when a local storyteller came to his school and told an allegorical tale of two opposite neighbors and their interactions with a hungry mouse. From that point, Kemper researched and practiced his own stories, performing for other kids on the playground and opening for assemblies. By the time he reached eighth grade, purveyors of festivals all over Idaho recognized Kemper’s talent and invited him to perform his stories. He traveled from festival to festival, entertaining audiences as large as 2,000 people.
After high school, Kemper applied for a paid grant from the Idaho Humanities Council to spend a year researching an event in Idaho’s history and fashioning it into a story, complete with vivid descriptions and multiple characters. Kemper says such stories can be much more effective at teaching history than straightforward lessons.
“There’s an old proverb I like to retell: ‘Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.’ And a good story involves the audience in the history,” Kemper says. “It’s about making them feel like they’re there. You build a world, you build an image and you toss it into someone’s mind. And they work to take your words and gestures and unfold it in real time.”
From Kemper’s first days as a Northwestern student, he gave small public performances whenever possible to involve more audiences in the worlds he creates. Since then, he’s held “Chestnut Hour” four times. The event is named for similar sessions held by Massachusetts- based storyteller Jay O’Callahan. At each session he tells three 20-minute stories from a common theme, from Halloween to Japanese folktales to “Star-crossed Lovers.” He has enlisted a small group of students, including Broady, to help him manage the events.
In conversation, Kemper speaks in paragraphs. He sounds like a Victorian gentleman in court, choosing only the most sophisticated and appropriate words for what he’s describing. But when he tells stories, Kemper’s voice transforms. His tone ebbs and flows from solemn growls to tittering enthusiasm to panicked shouts, depending on how much suspense he wants to draw at any one time. With each new character he introduces, Kemper employs a wildly different pitch to represent them. The mouse’s voice is squeaky and eager; the grim reaper’s voice is grave and methodical.
Associate Professor Rives Collins, who teaches The Art of Storytelling in the theatre department, says Kemper’s talent is unlike any other on campus.
“He performs with great empathy, and with great understanding of the human condition,” Collins says. “Here’s a young guy who has a gift for bringing stories together with beautiful language. For him, words are like keys on a piano, and he improvises like a jazz musician.”
As talented as he is, Kemper doesn’t want to be the only student telling stories on campus. He has plans to build a coalition of storytellers willing to tell their own stories at Chestnut Hour performances.
“I don’t want it to be ‘Ben Kemper’s Chestnut Hour.’ Once I find the time and get all my ducks in a row, I want to branch out and give workshops to people to help guide them in the art of storytelling,” Kemper says. “Anyone can be a storyteller, but it’s a little bit of practice and a little bit of technique to be able to do it well, and I’ve found a great number of people here who can be really excellent tellers.”
Telling stories, Kemper says, gives a personal benefit that can’t be matched by any other art form.
“You take a story from your life, you shape it up, you give it life and flavor, and it’s crystallized the memory — it gives you a warm rush of relief, a truly fantastic feeling,” Kemper says. “It’s like milk; it’s good for you. Have a little story every day to stay healthy.”