Written and submitted by Kelly March, of Youth Services, for the Richmond Memorial Library.
The Batavia Richmond Memorial Library will be hosting actress, storyteller, playwright, author and illustrator Gretchen Murray Sepik, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 6, when she will be presenting, "Erie Canal Sal."
The program is a theatrical characterization of Sal McMurray, an Irish cook working on a packet boat traveling the Erie Canal in the year 1840.
The program combines Irish folk tales and facts about the canal that are true -- in a very broad sense. You'll laugh while you learn about one of the engineering wonders of the world.
The program will be followed by a book signing of Gretchen's book "Erie Canal Sal."
Gretchen was born in Mercer, Pa., and was raised in the country where she and her brother, Greg, would spend hours playing in the woods and fields that surrounded their home.
"I guess I'm the result of my father's storytelling and my mother's boundless imagination," says Gretchen.
Her father, Michael, worked in a mill and could tell the best stories about the Pennsylvania coal mines, railroads and horses. Her mother, Jinny, was a singer and encouraged her to sing songs, learn nursery rhymes and she always had a box of old clothes for Gretchen to dress up in.
"My mother was the greatest influence in my life and was responsible for guiding me toward my life's work. She was my best friend. Before I was old enough to go to school my mother would ask me each morning who I wanted to be for the day. I could be anybody."
Gretchen jokingly says that she never knew her real name until she started the first grade.
"I've always loved to play 'dress up' and by doing theatrical characterizations I can play 'dress up' for the rest of my life."
Gretchen says her husband, photographer and designer, Walter A. Jakubowski, is her source of strength as he has supported her in all of her crazy ideas; some successful and some not. He also suggests programs, which she should develop, including "Mary Jemison" and "Susan B. Anthony."
"Walt is always saying things that make me laugh. I tell him I'm going to write a book entitled, 'The World According to Walt', or 'How to Achieve a Waltered State of Consciousness.' He's my reservoir of ideas for material and programs."
Sepik majored in modern dance at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, where she also studied acting and writing.
She has performed with the Paddy Toon Modern Ensemble in Pittsburgh, with the Rochester Philharmonic's "Phil Revue" with mime troupe, Flash in the Pan. Gretchen studied with the Bottom of the Bucket, but, currently Garth Fagan Dance, and worked with them as a rookie.
"My storytelling started when a teacher's aide asked me to come into her school and do storytelling. I was too shy to tell stories as myself so I developed Naomi Brown from the Blue Ridge Mountains to tell the stories of Brer Rabbit for me. Storytelling helped me overcome my shyness."
Gretchen does her form of storytelling across New York State and into Pennsylvania and was the cofounder and director of the Flight of Fancy Experimental Theatre (F.O.F.) and is a performance artist working with Young Audiences of Rochester and Young Audiences of Western New York. She presents 200 to 300 programs a year. In 2004, she was honored by Young Audiences of Western New York for her work with students and her commitment to learning through the arts.
The Genesee-Orleans Regional Arts Council awarded Gretchen a grant in 2009 to adapt her script of, “Erie Canal Sal," into a children’s book, which she also illustrated. The book is now available for sale.
Sepik lives in Albion with her husband, Walter, golden retriever/husky Bud, labradoodle Rigley and the cat, named Jinn Chin Lee, in an old 1830s cobblestone house full of antiques and curbside finds. The house is surrounded by flower, herb and organic vegetable gardens.
"I have a great love and respect for nature and I hope that through some of my storytelling I might be able to awaken that love in others."
Along with Naomi Brown and Sal McMurray, Gretchen also portrays Mary Jemison, a white woman who, as a young girl, was captured by the Shawnee Indians and given to the Seneca Indians. She lived the rest of her life among the Senecas and when offered her freedom chose to remain with her Seneca family and friends whom she loved. Mary is buried at Letchworth State Park, which is situated on land she once owned and a statue erected in her honor is located at the council grounds.
Gretchen does a characterization of 19th Century women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony who not only speaks of life in the 1800s, but also comments on current issues.
She also portrays much-loved children's author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, who narrates "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse" incorporating the audience into the story.
"I think storytelling is one of the most wonderfully creative art forms because it allows each person to be who they are and use what talents they have to tell a story. If a person can sing, let them sing, if a person can dance, let them dance, if a person can juggle, let them juggle; as each storyteller weaves a story, their own unique individuality adds to the tapestry of the tale they tell. When performing in schools my goal is to awaken children to the joy of learning, the joy of life and the joy of who they are.”
As one child so aptly put it, “someone finally got me to like history.”
Gretchen's new project is "Mother Nature" who will be dispelling the myths and misconceptions that have plagued humanity for centuries. This program will be done in a stand-up comedic style for adult audiences.