Call of the Valley: The evolution of Donna Marie Todd's storytelling
For Donna Marie Todd, storytelling is a source of universal significance. But she had to go through a number of phases in her life before arriving at this realization.
As a child, growing up in the eastern region of West Virginia, she was adept at mimicking people and their conversations and was able to sing. In time, through the auspices of her high school vocal teacher, she focused solely on music, gained admittance to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and trained in performance art.
“You see, my parents were very musical and taught me to read music when I was just 3 or 4,” Todd said. "At Peabody, I studied with a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera, took part in productions and finally decided I didn’t like the people. They were very snotty and audiences didn’t seem to relate to librettos in a foreign language.”
A first marriage brought her to her husband’s home town of San Francisco where she discovered international culture, performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and landed a role in a PBS children’s show about computers that was filmed in Memphis. There she fell in with an improv company where she finally utilized her ability to mimic conversations and people’s behavior, married for the second time and had a child.
“From this point, storytelling just naturally evolved, Todd said. "My little boy was much more interested in hearing a story than reading it or looking at pictures. I began incorporating classical, timeless tales and, being a pastor’s daughter, got interested in indigenous creation stories as well. I found I could put music to it and play characters which drew me to the national storytelling conference in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where I discovered people were doing this as a living and so could I.”
In 2003, prompted by the fact her second husband frequented Montreat in the summers, the couple was taken by the number of “unbelievable characters” milling around Black Mountain and the ideal place to raise a child and decided to take up residence.
“All the artists and mystics who abide here are magnificent,” she noted. “I am very spiritual, so that it matches me very well and this place is a wonderful home base for my storytelling ventures.”
Unfortunately, her husband suffered two strokes in 2007, and her whole world changed. Left alone to take care of her son, her husband’s death led to a profound deepening of her sense of story. It was a way she processed what had happened to her and she began to realize everyone’s life is a narrative and so did her own life’s journey up to this point.
“We can take any story we tell ourselves and find great sorrow and/or great joy and a way forward," Todd said. "You can discover your own truth and where you want go from this point. Which story do we choose? In time, I began setting up retreats for women in this area, helping them identify their special odyssey. For instance, the first three years of your life form your core: are you loved, are you safe? Einstein asked, is the universe friendly? If the answer is no, it takes you on an entirely different trajectory.”
Todd found that her story mirrored other people’s stories, and truly meaningful stories about life and death are always universally themed. As for performing, she discovered festival and church groups all related to and enjoyed these stories. For instance, when she started out with her widow’s tales, she found her story was highly relatable.
From there, she went on to trace her journey from childhood to the present day and learned to “find meaning, pull up her pants and get on with her life.”
Todd has won Storytelling World Awards. She has also taken part in the biblical storytelling network, and on and on it goes. She went on to note that many choose to live their lives on the surface skimming around any discomfort they encounter. However, like pearl diving, you have to go deep down in order to truly appreciate the natural difficulty in the production of a single pearl.