IM this article to a friend!

April 22, 2004

Deaf performer to appear locally

From: Johnson County Sun - Overland Park,KS,USA - Apr 22, 2004

By:Elaine Bessier, Sun Staff Writer

Peter S. Cook , an internationally known deaf storyteller, could hardly have found a more difficult profession to pursue.

"It was an accident," he said. "I was working on my one-man autobiographical show, called 'Your Eyes, My Hands,' in Chicago. As I was performing it, I realized that I was more into storytelling than acting out. I was talking to the audience directly. That is the power of storytelling.

"I gradually became a storyteller as time went on. My first storytelling event was the Illinois Story Telling Festival in the summer of 1995."

Cook learned to tell stories by watching other tellers at work. "I watched how they played with the audience and how they controlled their stories. I learned as I went on."

His works incorporate American Sign Language, pantomime, storytelling, acting and movement.

Cook has many stories to tell about funny things that have happened in his unlikely career.

Perhaps one of the funniest: "Once I was at a festival, working hard telling stories, moving from one tent to another. Everyone was behind the schedule so we were running around. I arrived at one tent and started to sign my stories. For awhile, I thought it was strange that everyone was so quiet. Then I realized that everyone was blind. It was a group of blind people! Why did they put me, a deaf teller, in front of blind people? That was an awkward moment, but it worked out."

The most satisfying part of storytelling for Cook is the reaction from the audience.

"Their laughs and their smiles. If they are refreshed and energetic after the show, that's my reward. Also, seeing the eyes of deaf children gleaming while I tell them stories. That makes my day, too."

In addition, he loves telling stories to his son, 8-year-old Ethan Hart Cook.

Cook is also grateful for his work because it has brought him to so many different places and he has met so many different people.

"I learn a lot about life," he said. "It is a very exciting road for me."

The greatest difficulty for Cook is the language.

"Not many people know American Sign Language," he said. "I have been invited to many festivals and I have to bring an interpreter who can interpret my sign and voice them out. It is not an easy job."

It is hard to find a good interpreter who can translate well and be able to play with voice, Cook said. "Most tellers tend to play with words or sounds. I play with signs instead of sounds. The hearing audience is not used to that."

The way a deaf teller uses a punch line is also completely different from most tellers, according to Cook.

He changes his material depending on the audience. If the audience is hearing and doesn't know sign, Cook incorporates some teaching into his stories so the listeners can learn about deaf culture as well as the language itself. If he is performing for an audience that is deaf, his material will be different.

"It will be more deaf-centered humor that will not work with the audience that has no idea about the deaf culture," he said.

Since 1986, Cook has traveled extensively throughout the United States and abroad with the Flying Words project to promote ASL Literature. He also has appeared on Live from Off Center's "Words on Mouth" (PBS) and "United States of Poetry" (PBS) produced by Emmy Award winner Bob Hollman.

Cook has taught at Columbia College, where he received the 1997 Excellence in Teaching award. In 1998, Cook created a video production company, called PC Production, based in Chicago. He also teaches at Purdue University.

He has been featured at storytelling events nationwide, and has worked with deaf storytellers and poets in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Japan.

In 2003, Cook was invited to the White House to join the National Book Festival.

©The Johnson County Sun 2004