Barbara Aliprantis jokes that she started listening in utero. She was born with a superb memory, an expressive voice, and a vivid imagination – the recipe for the perfect storyteller.
“I remember the day I left the fishing village of Paros, Greece, when I was two and a half, as though it were yesterday,” she says. “I was on a donkey and my sister was on another donkey…my mother was crying – everyone was crying – that image stayed with me all my life.”
It was 1937 when Aliprantis left her native island in the Aegean Sea with her mother, brother, and sister, to join their father in New York.
“I found myself in a neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn…I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood,” says Aliprantis, explaining her Jewish-NY accent.
Her immigration story was the first she ever told. It all started when her first grade teacher asked her to introduce herself, and her different background, in front of the class – and she’s been telling that story ever since.
“I didn’t even mind an audience even then,” she says, laughing. “I loved to tell stories and put on a show at the drop of a hat, and I’m doing that now. A teacher affects your eternity. It’s so important to let children know it’s good to be different.”
Aliprantis did not know at the time that telling her story would eventually lead her to becoming a professional storyteller who would produce workshops and events, in voice and sign language, in theaters, schools, libraries, community centers, and festivals all over the country.
“I have worn many hats in my life,” she says about her life before professional storytelling. “Being a Greek girl growing up in a Flatbush, Brooklyn [in the 1950’s] I [was expected to be] a nurse or a secretary. Three months into nursing training at Brooklyn College, I decided it wasn’t for me. I went to business school to study typing – it was probably the saddest part of my life.”
She then went to business school for six months, while what she really wanted was to get a job in show business.
“My first interview was at CBS,” recalls Aliprantis as if it were yesterday. “I was so nervous, I failed the typing test.”
She says she ended up getting a job at a corporation working for six men.
“Being a girl of the ‘50s – oh my God – it was whatever they wanted,” she says about the job that paid $85 a week – enough to pay the rent for her apartment in Queens. “It was a different time.”
Aliprantis married at 21, and 10 years later – in 1968 – she quit her job and went to Greece to adopt a baby boy. Three years later, she gave birth to a son. She says it was one of her dreams to be a mother – so she decided to stay at home and dedicate her time to raising her two boys.
In 1980, when her boys were bigger, she took a full-time position as a storyteller at a school for the deaf in the Bronx.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” says Aliprantis. “I started learning sign language on the job. I loved it. It changed my life.”
After 10 years there, she left to work with high schoolers in Queens.
“I will be forever grateful to the students and staff at both schools who taught me new ways to listen to the world and tell my stories,” says Aliprantis.
Back in 1985, while working at the school for the deaf, she had enrolled in Queensborough Community College to finally study acting and theater production – what she had always wanted to pursue as a young girl.
“I was the oldest one in the class, and the only one who did all the assignments,” says Aliprantis, who two years later enrolled in SUNY Empire State College and graduated in record time. “I got 89 life experience credits, and graduated in a year and a half with a BA in the performing arts and concentration in sign language and performance.
After graduation, Aliprantis taught an introductory course in sign language communication and storytelling at QCC for almost 30 years. Throughout the 1990’s she was a member of QCC’s Professional Theatre Residency Program and co-founded a not-for-profit community organization called the American Center for Theatre and Storytelling – now called the New York Story Exchange.
“In 1997, I established the Second Tuesday of the Month Evening Series at the famous Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village,” she says. “It is the longest running evening series for adults in NYC.”
The program entails three featured tellers, plus ‘Open Telling’ for three or four volunteer tellers to share a 5-minute story.
“The biggest misconception about storytelling is that it’s just for children,” says the woman who was honored at NY City Hall for her work. “It brings people together.”
What advice about life would she tell her younger self if she could now?
“Nothing is ever lost,” says Aliprantis.” Everything happens for a reason. Every obstacle is for a reason. Sometimes the reason doesn’t reveal itself until later on.”