Gratitude: for my mentor

Something remarkable happened that July, in 2014. It was my first time at the National Storytelling Network conference — that year it was down the street in Mesa, Arizona. Naturally, in a place like that, the excitement is palpable. For me, that excitement was mixed with a clear sense of wanting to grow as a storyteller. I had known since I was 14 this was what I wanted to do, and so I was determined to make the most of my time there.

On the one hand, making the most of it meant attending workshops and swapping business cards. But it also meant taking the time to make real connections. It also meant taking risks. One workshop time slot, I wasn’t attending anything. Instead, I was sitting at a table with a storyteller who is always very invested in the young people joining. Her name is Judy Sima — and if this were my hero’s journey, she would be one of my guides. In fact, she helped set a whole tremendous chain of events into motion.

She asked me, “Have you heard of the mentorship grant?” I told her that I had.

“Are you going to apply?” she asked. I told her that I wanted to, but I hadn’t found a mentor yet.

“You must have someone in mind,” she said. I did. His name was Antonio Rocha. Like me, he’s a mime and a storyteller. I had heard a radio interview of his and was just blown away. As I sat there in the sweltering lobby of the hotel telling Judy all of this, I could feel my energy rising. I knew that Antonio was the one I wanted to work with. The rest, however, was still a mystery (and I was just some young upstart, anyhow).

“Well,” Judy finally said, “have you asked him yet?” I remember my response was somewhat flippant. “Oh, of course not. I doubt he’d want to work with me.”

“You might be surprised, kid.” Judy always has a sort of warm, radiating smile on her face, but even now almost two years after this event, I still remember her smile and the gleam in her eyes in that moment. I wonder if she, like Antonio, saw something in me that I am blind to.

So, with a lot more cajoling, Judy convinced me that I should ask Antonio to apply with me for the mentorship grant. She also insisted that I be prompt. Just a few days after the conference ended, I found myself on the phone with Antonio. I had already sent him information about the grant, and he had already requested to see a rough cut video of one of my performances. In the 45 minutes that we spoke on the phone, we discussed stories, festivals, Antonio’s mime teacher Tony Montanaro (who also trained one of my main professors at NYU), and how I hoped to grow as a performer.

At the end of that conversation, two things were clear: I had found my storytelling teacher, and he would work with me whether or not we got the grant. The excitement — no, call it joy — made me speechless by the end.

We began immediately. I would send Antonio clips, and he would email me back feedback and ideas for improvement. Then, coaching sessions over Skype began. That same energy I had talking to Judy at the conference would reappear every time we were working. I felt — and still feel — that I am sitting at the feet of a master when learning from him.

We didn’t win the grant, but we have continued to collaborate. This past July, Antonio and I met in person at the annual storytelling conference (now in Kansas City). It was incredible. Not only did I get to witness his profound talent in person, but I also felt the palpable support of the storytelling community. Many friends and colleagues by now had learned of Antonio mentoring me, and would come up to express their enthusiasm, support, and friendship. Then, two weeks ago, Antonio was in Phoenix. I got to attend his workshop — The same one I would have attended with mentorship grant funds. In a way, then, things have come full circle. That conversation with Judy that lent me the courage to ask Antonio for his guidance and mentorship happened here in Phoenix. Here in Phoenix, I took the workshop I had been hoping to take. But in the interim, I have gained so much more. In the last 18 months, I have gained more confidence in my stories, and more grace in my telling. I have learned from an incredible and one-of-a-kind mentor, and I have earned a rare friend.

On many occasions, Antonio has spoken to me about his mentor, Tony Montanaro. He speaks of him with great respect, fondness, and gratitude. Above all, gratitude. He tells me, “I studied with Tony for 15 years. And I never stopped learning.” Recently I got to tell Antonio just what I hoped for: that my friendship and learning with him might follow that pattern. Like an apprentice who studies with a master for a lifetime, I hope to study with Antonio for as long as he will have me.

And, like Antonio speaks of Tony, I offer my teacher profound gratitude. Fondness, respect, amazement, joy, and all the rest, yes — but above all, gratitude. His teaching has become a part of how I inhabit stories, whether teaching or performing. As I continue to discover and develop my voice as a storyteller, and my place in the next generation of tellers, I hear his encouragement ringing in my ears. As I practice and hone my craft, I hear his loving insistence to believe in myself and trust my instincts.

What more might a young teller ask for? Thank you, Antonio.