Before becoming a storyteller, Norfolk's early career took some interesting twists and turns: He worked as a writer, a stand-up comedian, stage actor, television host and even a park ranger at the Gateway Arch. All of those experiences played a role in his eventual vocation as a storyteller.
St. Louis Sprout & About recently caught up with this lifelong St. Louisan to learn more about his career and his thoughts on his hometown.
You've been a storyteller for more than 30 years. What is it about storytelling that you enjoy?
For me it is the actual performance. There was a study done several years ago that involved a focus group of kids with electrodes attached to their temples to measure brain activity. They wheeled in a television for the kids to watch, and their brain activity just flat lined. Then they brought in a storyteller and the brain activity was off the charts. Synapses were firing just from hearing the story.
When I'm telling a story, I watch the kids lean forward, their eyes widen and the muscles in their jaws relax. It's story hypnosis, and it's magical. Once it begins, it can only be broken by a loud noise in the back of the room or someone walking between the audience and the storyteller. That's the reason I love it – the spell that is passed over the audience. I had principals come up to me and say that they couldn't believe that I could have 300 kids listening quietly. When I'm telling a story, you can hear a pin drop.
How did you get your start as a storyteller?
It was a long journey. I worked as a performer for many years and as a writer, too. All of those aspects of my career played a role in becoming a storyteller. And then came the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, which got its start in 1979 at the St. Louis Arch where I was working at the time. So, really, storytelling found me. It all took off from there.
Through the years, I'm sure you have told thousands of stories. Do you have a favorite type of story?
I love the kinds of living-history programs that I learned while working at the Arch and the Old Court House. I love stories about the Plains Indians and the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and westward expansion. I also really love folk tales and fairytales. These kinds of stories have power.
The human brain is hard-wired for stories. John Lennon was a storyteller. Jesus, when he talked to the masses, he talked to them in parables. A synonym for parable is story. All the lessons we learn in life are story.
What do you want kids to take away from the experience of seeing you tell stories?
The themes I emphasize are humanity, respect, teamwork, cooperation, compassion and honesty.
Where are some of your family activities around St. Louis?
When my son Damon, who is now 37, was growing up we would always hang out at the St. Louis Public Library and local bookstores. I wanted to raise his literacy level and his imagination.
And of course, we always go to the St. Louis Storytelling Festival, the thing that got me started as a storyteller. It's held every May and includes several different events over a three-day period. It concludes with a big event at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus. And it's all free!
Another place we like to hang out is the University City Loop. We really love Asian food, and there are a lot of great restaurants in and around there like the Gyro House, the Thai Café and the House of India. There's also a very fine Indian restaurant near the airport – India Palace. We love to eat there. Mai Lee is our favorite local Vietnamese restaurant.
We have some Forest Park sites as well: the Saint Louis Zoo. I love it. It's one of the best zoos in the nation, and it's free. In my travels I've seen few other zoos of its quality.
Of course after we get hungry at the zoo, we go to the Boathouse for a bite to eat.
We also really enjoy the Missouri History Museum, which is an excellent museum.
Those would be the highlights of our touring around town.
Have you introduced your kids to any places in St. Louis that were special to you as a kid?
A lot of the places I enjoyed as a kid are all torn down now. There were lots of little neighborhood theaters in the Ville neighborhood where I grew up, but they're all gone.
Your work puts you on the road quite a bit. Do you miss St. Louis when you're away?
People always ask me where my wife and I go on vacation. I tell them: Home. It's like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." We click our heels and go home. But when I am on the road, I make sure to have fun. I've worked it out with my agent to build some play time in when I travel.
Although you're in demand around the U.S. and around the world, you still make a point of telling stories for kids in St. Louis. Is that by design?
The bulk of my work is in St. Louis and Missouri and the Metro East. That's what I prefer. I've created quite a base in St. Louis. I developed a collaboration with two local groups: Young Audiences of St. Louis and their sister organization Springboard, so I get a lot of local work through them. I manage to stay very, very busy. I wanted to work eight days a week, and I'm doing it. Be careful what you wish for!
St. Louis Public Library, multiple locations, 314-241-2288
St. Louis Storytelling Festival, multiple locations
Gyro House, 6152 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63112, 314-721-5638
Thai Café Restaurant, 6170 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63112
House of India, 8501 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63124, 314-567-6850
India Palace, 4534 N. Lindbergh Blvd., #11, Bridgeton, Mo., 63044, 314-731-3333
Mai Lee, 8396 Musick Memorial Dr., St. Louis, Mo., 63144, 314-645-2835
Saint Louis Zoo, 1 Government Dr., St. Louis, Mo., 63110, 314-781-0900
Boathouse Forest Park, 6101 Government Dr., St. Louis, Mo., 63110, 314-367-2224
Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63112, 314-746-4599