SEEKING ‘A BIGGER IDEA’: Burch.
Milbre Burch came to Providence in the early ’80s to visit a friend. She’d no sooner set down her suitcases than she crawled under a dragon costume for a midsummer celebration, and she thought, “This is the place for me.”
Burch was a Southern gal, but she’d ended up in Rhode Island in a cluster phenomenon of storytellers who called themselves the Spellbinders, in order to book gigs together. One of those gigs was Girls’ Night Out, which will present its 23rd annual concert on Sunday, March 2 at 7 pm at the RISD Auditorium, with Burch joining old friends for the program.
When Burch first arrived here, she ran into high school friends who worked at the Providence Journal, and she met her husband Berkley Hudson, the former Sunday Magazine editor, through them. They left Rhode Island in 1988 for work in California, where their two daughters were born, then Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and now Columbia, Missouri, where Hudson is a professor at the University of Missouri. In each of these locations, Burch has drawn on her strong background in theater and mime, her interest in traditional folk tales, and her personal experiences to write, research, and perform stories and to teach the writing and telling of stories. She has received many awards and recognition for her work, including a residency at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and a recent Grammy nomination for her 13th solo recording, Making the Heart Whole Again: Stories for a Wounded World.
Asked about the importance of storytelling in today’s world, Burch replied, in a phone conversation from Missouri: “One of the things that stories bring us is the sense of a bigger idea, another option, a different way of seeing something, a different path to follow. They can really widen our perspective and as
a result, we are better authors of our own lives.”
Certainly Burch has learned this from the stories she’s written and the stories she’s adopted. One tale that she heard someone else tell, Odilia and Aldaric, is about a willful daughter of a willful father, and “every image was like a harpoon that pinned me to the chair,” because she recognized herself and her own father in that story.
“I’ve come to believe with the Jungians that the metaphors of folk and fairy tales are about wrestling with our psychic demons,” she noted. “The value is to speak about it; it’s a psychic rehearsal for the real stuff.”
Burch has also drawn on her own life as a mother and wife (Mom’s the Word: A Journey in Meter and Centimeters), as a daughter and sibling (In the Family Way), and as a concerned citizen of the planet (Making the Heart Whole Again).
“Humanity has struggled with its inability to get along with itself,” she reflected, “and I don’t think that’s going away. The peacemaking we have to do arises every day of our lives. Perhaps you don’t ever make peace — you continually strive for it.”
One of her favorite stories, and one she’ll most likely tell at RISD, is drawn from her years in Providence. Though loosely based on the legend of St. Martin, Meeting Martin was shaped by Burch’s encounters with several homeless people on a RIPTA bus ride. It’s told in the voice of a homeless person and, in her words, “It’s a love story to a place, the birthplace of my young adulthood and artistry and a number of relationships, not the least of which is my husband.”
Burch may also perform a story titled Sop Doll that she wrote in response to a Jack tale — “part of my work at midlife is to redeem the witches.” She’s currently working on a novella titled Wolf Chapel, inspired by the Red Riding Hood story.
“I’m interested in what the old stories can tell us and in a new envisioning of them,” she emphasized. “Writing is one of the ways I get ideas out of my body, and getting them published means they go further than where I could take them on my own lips.”