Scary Tales

David Novak brings his spine-tingling storytelling skills to ArtServe just in time for Halloween

"A shade filled the door, and I knew him at once," David Novak utters in his spookiest voice. "It was old, cold Mr. Grim. Death had entered the room. I motioned to him to join me...."

Audiences expecting tales that begin with "once upon a time..." and end with "and they lived happily ever after" are out of luck at a performance by Novak, one of the leaders in the revival of storytelling as art form. The Fort Lauderdale native and veteran entertainer left South Florida in 1976 to complete advanced drama degrees. He returns this week for a session of stories at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, where his company, A Telling Experience, is producing a spoken-word series that will run through May.

Novak is known for his fluid, transmutable voice and his unfailing ability to surprise audiences. The latter he learned in part through his experience as a mime: "As a street performer, I learned that the element of surprise is a law of survival. To hold the attention of pedestrians who aren't at all committed to watching you is the biggest challenge. Fire-eating, pennywhistles, string figures, masks -- I learned that, when I surprised my audiences, my tips went up."

In addition to miming, Novak brings to the stage an extensive background in theater arts that includes Shakespeare, clowning, creative dramatics, playwriting, and directing. His original stories are as diverse as his training, varying in style from circus high jinks and iambic pentameter to the simple spoken word. An experienced actor, Novak turned to storytelling because it didn't feel contrived. "[Storytelling] has the intimacy and presence of a conversation," he says. "Both parties are aware of the other's presence. This is what distinguishes an actor from a teller.

"In the earlier days, the hearth was the warmth of the home fire," Novak continues. "This has been replaced by the glow of the TV. It's a cold hearth. It doesn't give feedback. The warmth of the storyteller replaces the cold hearth."

The series at ArtServe begins with an evening of stories called Hounded, in which Novak shares encounters with phantom dogs, wolves, and "the other world," as in the excerpt above. In December Novak will present A Teller's Carol, his new look at the holiday classic A Christmas Carol, aimed at kids. In February he'll tell tales about love and the loss of innocence in Chaste White and Blush Red. The series concludes in May with the innovative National Yakkers Theatre Ensemble, in which Novak is joined by Nancy Donoval and Gerald Fierst for a daring evening of improvisational talk-theater called "yakking."

For now, though, ponder this haunting question from Hounded: "Why are we afraid of the dark? Is there something there? Yes. The dark is there, and the dark is where we put all those things that we cannot bear to look at."

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Mia Leonin