Ress is a professional storyteller, a job that’s also one of the oldest surviving art forms in the world.
It’s an intellectually demanding profession that feeds off the energy of a live audience and has taken Ress around the world. But right now, she’s working at a coffee shop.
“I tell people I’m a storyteller masquerading as a barista,” Ress says with a laugh. The coffee shop—or “The Oasis” as Ress and her patrons have dubbed it—is part of the Hillside Market.
Because the market is part food co-op, part art gallery and community gathering place, Ress saw it as the perfect setting for cozy nights of storytelling—and this is coming from a storyteller who’s performed everywhere from huge theaters in front of thousands to the White House lawn.
“Having been based in New York City for 42 years, there are certain things that I’m looking for in a community,” Ress explains. “And I’ve found a beautiful community here. There’s not a lot of places I would leave New York for, but Santa Fe is definitely one.”
Ress landed the barista gig like a lot of “gigs” are landed here: a friend of a friend who knows someone who’s doing some event and needs someone that can do this or that—you know the drill. She later put on a storytelling event for a Healing Voices Personal Stories fundraiser at the Hillside Market.
Ress found the venue to be the perfect setting to settle as a sort of resident storyteller-cum-barista.
For now, Ress splits her time between Santa Fe and NYC, where she teaches storytelling classes at New York University. Ress has a background in theater (and not just any background—she’s performed on Broadway, Playhouse theaters and everywhere in between), but storytelling, she says, is a vastly different ballgame.
“It is a performance art, and it certainly uses some of the same skills, but it’s a lot more flexible. I don’t need a production behind me, and I can do it on the spur of a moment pretty much anywhere,” she says.
On a crowded bus in Mexico en route to a storytelling festival, Ress, who’s fluent in Spanish, remembers giving an impromptu performance with a few other storytellers right in the middle of the heap.
“As for the response of the bus patrons, they either loved it or they tried to hide.” Ress lets out a wry chuckle now, but on a more serious note, she explains the importance of playing off an audience’s energy.
She says that successful storytelling isn’t just a monologue routine, but an interactive conversation. Ress likens it to jazz music, in that there are certain notes in the story she must hit, but there’s also room for improvisation.
“It depends on the audience and the circumstance. If there’s something going on in the larger world, and I can address it, then I will in storytelling, and you can’t do that in theater.” Ress recalls a recent performance at the Hillside Market that took place just after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. In the crowd that gathered, she saw the need for an alleviation of pain and anger, so she searched through her mind for the most appropriate stories to prescribe.
The tales she picked were “stories of love and light. And [I] ended with a story from Haiti about a little girl saved by her community.”
She credits those stories for giving her a space where she could address everyone’s grief without being explicit. “There’s the story, and then there’s what the story’s really addressing,” she says.
“I tell a lot of traditional stories because they are the metaphoric stories that address these big issues without having to directly say, ‘And now, let’s talk about these children who were murdered.’ We need stories. It’s how we make sense out of life and how we get through things.”
You could say that being able to recognize the healing power of storytelling is what led to Ress’ many achievements throughout her career.
After 9/11 in New York, Ress put on workshops for addressing trauma with Mercy Corps; and her usual partnerships with the New York Botanical Gardens and the New York Public Library, where she regularly performs, took on a more somber tone to help begin the healing process.
On a very human level, Ress’ stories are often molded to fit the needs of the audience. Whether she’s telling awe-inspiring stories from Aztec mythology to a theater of adults or classic Beatrix Potter tales to a semi-circle of kids, Ress whittles down all the complex theatrics to one simple formula: “I like to take people on journeys,” she says. “That’s really what a storyteller is doing—taking those people on a trip.”