By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Brian “Fox” Ellis knew what he wanted to do with his life, but it took him a while to understand the definition. In his job description, he takes on the roles of historian, naturalist, author, poet, researcher, actor, museum consultant and educator. More simply though, you can sum it all up into one word – storyteller.
Fox was born and raised in Ohio. Growing up, he loved theater and performed in every play during high school. He mostly left theater behind when he attended Oberlin College and Wilmington College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. Though his degree is in education with an emphasis on storytelling, he had seven unofficial minors including biology, comparative religion, literature, political science, agriculture and psychology.
He got started telling stories around the campfire while working as a summer camp counselor during college. As he honed his craft, he drew on his past experience exchanging stories with his childhood friends as well as memories of adult family members telling their own stories. “Eventually,” he said, “I was making a living as a storyteller years before I realized that it was a profession.”
Fox is far more than a storyteller. To tell the story, he first has to find it, and research is one of his favorite aspects of the craft. He usually starts his research by reading biographies written for children, trusting that the authors will have already sorted out the most engaging and important stories. He may spend a year or more searching the internet and visiting libraries to collect background information.
Not content with simply reading about the characters, he takes every opportunity to walk in their shoes. In the process of researching Saint Francis, he traveled to Italy and walked the streets of Assisi. While researching poet Walt Whitman, he spent time in New York where he could read Whitman’s poems in the places they were written and written about. “Try reading a Whitman poem on a busy street corner in Brooklyn, and being loud enough for people to hear you,” he said.
“The hardest and most wonderful part is looking for treasures,” he explained. “You know when you’ve found those stories; they just jump out at you.” While every character is different, “there’s always some revelatory moment that leaps out at me and becomes a hook I can use to pull the audience in.”
Once the research is done, Fox uses a wide range of media to bring the stories to life. He’s widely known for his live performances where he portrays the character on stage. But, he’s also written 15 books and hundreds of magazine articles, recorded numerous CDs and videos and even hosted a pilot for a TV series. As Fox says, he “tells stories in most every media available.”
When Fox performs, he loves to watch the audience watch the performance. “You know when it works, and I love watching the light bulbs come on.” There’s a constant feedback loop. As he explains it, “If they’re with me I stretch it out and expand the story. If they look bored, I’ll change up. There’s a lot of room for improvisation.”
One of Fox’s goals is to help others become better storytellers. He believes that “we are all storytellers.” He has worked extensively with schools, organizations and museums to help educators and museum guides learn to use the tools of the storyteller to enhance their listeners’ experiences.
Fox’s repertoire includes 400 stories illustrating the lives of more than a dozen historical characters, but he’s amazed at the amount of interconnections between the characters. While a few of the characters clearly knew each other, many more of them knew of and were influenced by each other. For instance, while there’s no evidence that Charles Darwin and John Audubon ever met, Darwin was in the audience in England when Audubon spoke there.
More recently, Fox has teamed up with local musician and history buff Barry Cloyd to create the Prairie Folklore Theater. Their goal is “to entertain and to educate the curious about the rich layers of history found in the Midwestern prairie, spinning stories and songs together to create musical theatre.” They hope to draw the audience into “an intimate experience that teaches about regional history and ecology while stirring in them a longing to sing their own song and tell their own tale!”
For more information, visit the Fox Tales International website at www.foxtalesint.com and as well as the Prairie Folkore Theater website at www.prairiefolkloretheater.com. Fox is also a regular performer on “The Sprit of Peoria” riverboat cruises.
Pictured above left to right, Fox Ellis portrays three of his favorite characters, Charles Darwin, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman.