From the beginning of her career in 1967, Diane Wolkstein occupied a unique place in the world of storytelling and literature. Through her performances, teaching, books, and recordings, she played a major role in the renewed interest in mythology and the modern storytelling movement.
In 1964, Diane went to Paris to study pantomine with Etienne Decroux, whose best–known student was Marcel Marceau. She also took many jobs to pay for her classes. The one job that changed her life was teaching Sunday school classes at the Temple Copernic, where she told the children stories from the Bible.
When she returned to the United States in 1966, while studying for her M.A. in Education from Bank Street College in New York, she told ecumenical stories at All Souls Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The following year, she was hired as a recreational director within the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Diane described that moment in The Horn Book Magazine (November 1992 issue):
I began in McCray Park in Harlem, standing in front of a crowd of about a hundred children. Radios were blaring and water pistols were firing. I skipped through my carefully–memorized rendition of Peter Rabbit to improvise the Nigerian folk tale Fattest of All.
There was once a girl who was very, very, very, very, very, very…
I dont recall how many verys I said, but at a certain point the radios were turned down, and the children were saying very with me. We were laughing and very–ing together, and my career as the Official Storyteller of New York City began.
Her new job took her throughout the city, and caught the attention of The New York Times and the Associated Press. That fall, her summer job became a full–time career, and Diane told stories at schools, hospitals, day care centers, senior citizen centers, and parks. And her own radio show, Stories from Many Lands, premiered on WNYC–AM/FM in 1968, and remained on the air until 1981.
In the early 1970s, Dianes search for stories led her to Haiti where she collected over four hundred stories and later published three books: The Magic Orange Tree and other Haitian Folktales (1978), The Banza (1981), and Bouki Dances the Kokioko (1997). The Magic Orange Tree, in particular, is memorable not only for its poigant stories but also for the personal vignettes of the Haitian storytellers. It is now considered a classic in both the storytelling and the publishing worlds. Each year, several of its twenty–seven stories is reprinted in a major anthology.
A year after The Magic Orange Tree was published, Diane was drawn to the myth of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the goddess of love, war, and fertility as well as the morning and evening star (Venus). This epic, written on cuneiform tablets, dates back to 1900 B.C.E. It is the worlds oldest written epic as well as the only epic of a woman. Diane worked on the text for three years in collaboration with the eminent Sumerologist, Samuel Noah Kramer. In 1983, HarperCollins published Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. Inanna became a major part of Dianes repertoire, and she told it in New York, London, Crete, Austria, Australia, and Israel (often with the musical accompaniment of the late composer/performer Geoffrey Gordon). Dianes version is still frequently cited, and excerpted, in books dealing with religion, literature, healing, and goddess spirituality. Inanna was published in many languages, and was later made into a ballet and an opera.
From 1983 to 1990, Diane worked on the seven epics to be published in her book, The First Love Stories: From Isis and Osiris to Tristan and Iseult (1991). Her research took her to Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. She began telling these and other large stories in theatres and museums for adults. In 1995 Diane traveled to Australia to work on an Aboriginal creation story — Sun Mother Wakes the World — and to live in the desert in preparation for writing a collection of Jewish stories. The project grew into an eight year adventure, during which time Diane went to Israel to study Hebrew in order to understand the Jewish calendar and its relationship to story and ritual. In 2003, Random House/Schocken published her last book, Treasures of the Heart: Holiday Stories That Reveal the Soul of Judaism.
Throughout her forty–five year career, Diane Wolkstein was known as a storytellers storyteller because of her wide range and knowledge of storytelling. Her programs included folk and fairy tales for children and families at schools, libraries, parks and festivals, and epics and myths for adults at festivals, theatres, museums, and libraries. She was a sought after speaker/storyteller for keynotes and celebrations.
In addition to her performing and writing — and in a desire to create a community of learning for storytellers — Diane founded the first educational conference for the National Storytelling Institute in Jonesborough, Tennesseee in 1978, and co–founded the Storytelling Center, Inc. of New York City in 1983. She started the first storytelling course at Bank Street College in 1972 and taught storytelling there until 1996. She also taught courses in mythology at Sarah Lawrence, The New School, and Pacific Graduate School. For eighteen years, she taught mythology at New York University and toured internationally giving workshops on myth and the art of storytelling.
Diane was also the Epicycles editor for the quarterly journal Parabola, and directed the storytelling programs at both the Statue of Hans Christian Andersen in Central Park in the summer and at Scandinavia House in the winter.
In 2007, Diane began work on a new adaptation of the Chinese Monkey King Epic, also known as Journey to the West — a project that was still in progress when she died in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on January 31st, 2013. She was seventy years old.
This website is dedicated to Diane Wolksteins memory and her storytelling legacy. We thank you for stopping by and your interest in Diane’s legacy.