The Daily Gamecock

Storyteller talks literacy, service

<p>Darion McCloud is a Columbia, South Carolina, native&nbsp;and earned his degree in studio art from USC.</p>
Darion McCloud is a Columbia, South Carolina, native and earned his degree in studio art from USC.

Children love stories. Parents tell stories when children are scared or when it's bedtime. And at some point, children outgrow stories.

For local actor and storyteller Darion McCloud, this is not the case. He tells stories professionally and regularly dresses up in a cape to perform as his super hero alter ego with his storytelling group, Story Squad.

As part of the Leadership and Service Center's "Community Pathfinders" series, McCloud discussed his thoughts on the connection between stories and leadership.

One of McCloud's goals through storytelling is to reduce illiteracy throughout South Carolina. He defines literacy not only as the ability to read, but also as the ability to understand and conceptualize the contents.

"For me, that's what literature really is — the ideas, the concepts of what these words represent," he said.

McCloud thinks that although social media has given people greater capacity to communicate, it has also made the communication shallow. It is tempting to not question online speakers' claims, but achieving better things in life requires more understanding.

"The world kind of demands that we go deeper," McCloud said. "So a lot of what I do is exploring the idea, the concept, of literacy in its different forms."

Literacy is not limited to written or spoken word. According to McCloud any form of art is also a form of storytelling, whether it is digital or visual pieces or a physical performance, such as dance.

When discussing political campaigns, he asserted that they are nothing more than carefully told stories designed to convince people that a given candidate is the best.

McCloud took this argument further and said that everyone is always telling stories, whether by literally telling a friend something that happened or by presenting themselves in a certain way.

"We have been telling stories since before there was spoken language," he said. "We have been telling stories forever. It's in our DNA."

A person's ability to tell their own story is vital. When someone can't speak for themselves, McCloud says, someone else ends up speaking for them, and this eventually leads to stereotyping. He describes stereotypes as "anti-storytelling," an inaccurate, lazy way of telling a story that belongs to someone else. He discussed the many ways in which people had made assumptions about him because of his skin color, his voice or his clothes.

"They don't know anything about me," he said. "But they have melted me down to these stories that they are comfortable with to define me."

While storytelling can be highly individual and self-declarative, McCloud loves it because it fosters such a sense of togetherness. He recounted a performance he gave nearly 20 years ago to a room packed so tightly that he had to step over children on his way to the stage.

"There are moments of it I can remember crystal clear, because we were such community," he said. "It felt like magic because we were sharing ... All of us were sharing at the same time."

McCloud discussed a phenomenon he had heard of called "mirroring," in which, while a storyteller is performing, very particular parts of his brain are engaged, and when he is telling the story well, the viewers' brains are activated in the same areas. To him, this is aspect of storytelling that makes it valuable.

Story Squad, the storytelling group of "superheroes" that he started in 2012, works to put this shared experience to use. They aim to engage families, from the youngest to the oldest members, and McCloud believes that involving parents in literacy will lead to more literate children.

"Basically, it's a rock band for families," he said, "that'll take Mother Goose and smash her up with old-school funk to some newer hip-hop ... It's all over the place."

The group performs mainly at schools, festivals and larger libraries. As the founder and leader, McCloud performs as "The Captain" and wears a cape when he's in character. He said that part of why he wears the cape is to represent the service aspect of their work. He encouraged students to add service to their lives, even amid the chaos of college life.

"If you are a leader, you are serving people, in the abstract and in the practical," he said. "It's never too early to serve ... It's actually easy to just put it in your life. Think about what's important to you."

McCloud's service is his storytelling, sometimes just to entertain people, but more often to connect people and to challenge them. Just as storytelling gives him joy, he thinks that different types of service could give joy to others.

"There have been times in my own life where things have been — whatever you want to call them, rough, dark, challenging, whatever — where sometimes service has really been the bright light for me," he said.