Thursday, January 13, 2022

Interview: American Master StoryTeller Jonathan Kruk - From The Legend of Sleep Hollow to A Christmas Carol and Everything In Between

Interview by Ashton Samson

Jonathan Kruk has become a legend in the tri -state area in his own right for his master storytelling of such legendary works as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a Christmas Carol. Read on about how this former English professor became a sought-after storyteller in this time of electronics and bells and whistles. His style and exuberance captures the viewer's attention and leaves one asking what's next. Find out why.  

Ashton Samson: I understand that you grew up in Westchester County (a suburb of New York City).  Growing up in this area, what legends, stories, or surroundings might have inspired you to pursue your present career?

Jonathan Kruk: The rolling hills of Westchester were a good inspiration. They were certainly not huge mountains, but, you know, they always kind of created the idea that tucked away in the shadows and near the hills was history and stories. And, indeed, there were stories of the native peoples, the colonists, the American Revolution, different skirmishes occurring here and there. So that always intrigued me as a kid.

I lived along the road called Cherry Street, which used to be a native path. And I would always walk along and try to guess where the path really went. Who walked along this as well? Also the thunderstorms there, when they would roll around in the summer, people would often say, “Oh, it's not thunder. It's Henry Hudson's men,” you know, from Rip Van Winkle.

Ashton Samson: I know that you majored in English at Holy Cross, who were some of your favorite authors then?

Jonathan Kruk: 
Well, I read many authors who were not required reading. I loved Chaucer and I was introduced and immersed into Shakespeare by professor Callahan - a very distinguished fellow there. I also read a lot on my own. Kahlil Gibran and C.S. Lewis were both deeply inspiring writers who really moved me. 

Then one day I was wandering in the city of Worcester in Massachusetts and went into a used bookshop. I encountered a book of illustrations by Kay Nielsen, and one featured a kind of majestic white bear, a polar bear, and perched upon its back was this young woman. The story was East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I had never heard of it. When I got back to the dorm, there was a party and I opened up a bottle and in the bottom it said, East of the Sun, West of the Moon - again. 

Another student told me the actual story. It fascinated me. It was kind of like a Scandinavian version of Beauty and the Beast. And that set me on a quest to find these stories that were universal, that were in many cultures  -there's 400 different versions! Cinderella, for instance, is told all over the world. That really intrigued me and moved me to eventually get into storytelling.

Writer Ashton Samson with Jonathan Kruk

Ashton Samson: I understand that you have a Master's degree in Education and that you have worked with various children's groups and teens throughout your career. Can you tell me a little bit more about that time in your life and how that might have led to the unique format of your shows?

Jonathan Kruk: Yes, I went to NYU and studied educational theater and early on, they had me going out into classes to observe and to practice creative drama, which is using acting techniques to teach. So you would have to do problem solving and you'd have to maybe imagine yourself as a character living in, say colonial or revolutionary times. And what would you do if the Hessians were there wanting to barge into your house, maybe find out if you were a Loyalist or a Patriot and either way it might end up getting your house burned down. So what would you do? You'd act it. Those are some of the things I learned and then shared with younger students.

I also got a lot of inspiration going to England for a semester abroad where we got to see many, many plays, from Evita with Patti LuPone, to Bent with Ian McKellen. I mean, it was a remarkable program at NYU. And then little by little, I began to practice storytelling to do little bits of stories. I used to tell my little brother bedtime stories and that kind of helped get me going, and to go back to what I said before, the city inspired me very much. 

I got a little booking through a friend telling stories in a little pocket park, Abingdon Square Park, in Greenwich Village too. Competing with the Good Humor truck, the sprinklers, the passers-by, the buses and the chess players saying “quiet”. I learned that if I could do interactive storytelling, where instead of telling The Rabbit and the Turtle, we'd say, “What's that?” hold up two fingers, make a rabbit, then say “Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom,” hold up a turtle, then say “Go slow and steady.” That drew the kids in. So that's where many of my influences came from and I still try to embody the different characters, as you just saw in A Christmas Carol.

Ashton Samson: How often do you reread the original texts before your performance to refamiliarize yourself and practice?

Jonathan Kruk: 
Well, I do it religiously every year. This is, I think, the twelfth year that I've done A Christmas Carol and I always read it right around Thanksgiving and then listen to a version. I like the Jim Dale version and that really moves me too. I also do the same with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and I have a recording of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a show version that I did last year with Jim Keyes that we filmed of A Christmas Carol. So I listen to both of them and then look at my script and then make adjustments and improvements.

Ashton Samson:  What are some of the factors that contribute to you altering aspects of your performance each year?

Jonathan Kruk: 
I'm always trying to streamline it and sometimes that's difficult because Dickens and Irving are so rich with the descriptions that I want to always keep in. Like the little rant that the ghost of Christmas Present wants him to renounce: “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?” Those are the gems that you have to bring out and polish.
I endeavor to find ways to keep the lovely descriptive language of Dickens and Irving in, but without getting too verbose. It is 50 minutes or so for a show. Any longer and people really begin to fade.

Jonathan Kruk Headless Horseman
Jonathan Kruk                    Courtesy Jonathan Kruk Facebook Page

Ashton Samson: How did you become associated with the Historic Hudson valley?

Jonathan Kruk: A friend of mine knew of my storytelling and asked me to perform at Washington's Headquarters in White Plains (NY). I learned the story of the Battle of White Plains and told it. There was someone there from Sleepy Hollow restorations, the predecessor to Historic Hudson Valley, and they needed someone to do some local lore. 

I got my first engagement telling stories about Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, about Mother Hulda and the Wailing Woman in White. That eventually led to Historic Hudson Valley booking me to do many, many things from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to portraying a 1750 Swedish botanist who traveled through the region named Peter Kalm. So I have done many different things.

Ashton Samson: What specifically led you to pick The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and A Christmas Carol to perform?

Jonathan Kruk: I kind of got thrust into doing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow because they had been doing Halloween celebrations, but they would often have just, you know, actors dressed up like Frankenstein or Dracula or the Wolfman. And they had the Headless Horseman, but they wanted it to become more authentic and they knew that I was beginning to do these local legends. So they asked me to come in and to tell the very short version of the different ghosts surrounding the Headless Horseman, like the Wailing Woman in White, and Andre’s ghost and to tell, but briefly, of the Headless Horseman.

Eventually people wanted to hear more about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It was too long to tell in that outdoor format with people going from one performance to the next - we had witches, we had the Headless Horseman, had Jim doing pirates and I was doing short stories. Then they had a big changeover at Historic Hudson Valley and they wanted to just focus on events that really were popular and resonated with people. They saw how The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was resonating with people. And they asked if I could come here to the Old Dutch Church and do it with Jim accompanying. So that's what we ended up doing and I had to learn how to perform the whole story-but in under an hour.

With A Christmas Carol, my buddy Jim and I were enjoying the success of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and, you know, it was getting to be cooler than October and he said, “you know, we could do A Christmas Carol here.”

I looked and discovered that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was 12,000 words and A Christmas Carol was 27,000 words!  So I had to really pare it down. Plus, Jim was already committed to do another engagement, so he couldn't accompany me. Eventually we got together and this is, I think, the 11th year that we've done A Christmas Carol.  We started The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 2010 and then in 2011 we did A Christmas Carol.

Ashton Samson: As a former English teacher and an educator, do you feel that current school curricula gives adequate attention and emphasis to great works of American literature? And if not, how would you change it?

Jonathan Kruk: Well, I do think that they could bring in more American literature, but as time progresses, there are more and more authors that students need to be familiar with. I think if you could just expose them even to short stories by the likes of Irving, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and then some of the great poets, as well, Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow and Whitman, even in short bursts, that could then spark in the students a desire to read them at greater lengths. They could then go and choose the ones they want to read at a greater length in order to be, not just more well-versed in what came before, but also to understand the craft and the creativity of those authors.

What makes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow so interesting is that it's a little bit ambiguous.
Is it Brom Bones or the Headless Horseman who chased off Ichabod, plus it creates this beautifully detailed picture of American life over 200 years ago, right?  So those are the changes. I would have them read shorter pieces, but more of them to get that exposure.

Ashton Samson: As a follow-up question to that, I am interested in literature and writing, so I really enjoy English class in particular. Many people, in my experience, seem not to be as interested in reading, writing or vocabulary, especially in recent years, compared to before-especially people in my age group. So with that in mind, have you had to tailor your performances as a result of what you might perceive as a decreased appreciation or understanding of primary documents and literature by your audiences ?

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Jonathan Kruk: Well, yes, I have had to adjust over the years.  I've had to make it more interactive and also shorten things too, because attention spans are shorter. Some of the words I use are not that familiar. You know, a wonderful word is when, in Dickens here, when the pudding is brought forth, it's “bedight with Holly” and “bedight” is an old word that Dickens used. It just is like anointed, but, you know, kind of decorated, not anointed, in a sacred way. I like to get those words in to expose people to them, but a lot of times they're like, “what's a ‘bedooought’?”

I get a lot of help from the church sexton here, John Payne, who's very literate too himself and we kind of say, you know, put this little phrase in there. I appreciate that.

Ashton Samson: Do you have a message for high school students who are particularly interested in English literature and History?

Jonathan Kruk: Oh well, it's to open your heart, to these things, to maybe practice at times, when you go to read - some say you should read the first chapter before you cast the book aside - so I would ask them to do that. 

Also, to look at things in pop culture that are connected to literature. For example, although this doesn't pertain too much to high school students - but in a way it does - I was just talking to elementary school kids about the movie Frozen and they didn't know it came from the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Snow Queen.

There are many examples of that in film and in culture. So when they delve into where the sources are of the authors, they'll begin to see connections. The whole world kind of interconnects when you see the different universal themes of love, of heartbreak, of stress, of woe, of joy that have been written about that are being sung and put out now.
They've been in existence forever because, you know, as the Old Testament says, “There's nothing new under the sun.” You should still go and delve into the things under the sun because it’s, well,  enlightening.

Want More? 
Ashton's Review of Jonathan Kruk's A Christmas Carol: