Rodent raconteur: Onset entertainer tells groundhog’s story

Feb 1, 2023

It’s hard to pin down exactly what Jackson Gillman does. 

It’s even harder to pin down what he doesn’t do. 

Gillman, who lives in Onset, is a storyteller, singer, songwriter, musician and actor. He describes himself as a “stand-up chameleon.”

He has written a variety of music programs for children and adults, which he performs across the country for preschoolers and prisoners alike. Such programs include “The Magic of Rudyard Kipling,” “BUGS!” and “Halloween Silly Willies.”

In 1994, Gillman penned a six-chapter story about Dreyfus, a groundhog who undergoes a life-changing journey when he becomes obsessed with an otter. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the eve of Groundhog Day, Gillman acted out the story in front of an audience of grownups at the Wareham Free Library. 

The performance, titled “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream,” was part of the Wareham Land Trust’s Winter Wonder program series. 

“There’s magic in nature,” Gillman said, “and immersing yourself in it is worth it.” 

With a litany of funny voices and melodramatic poses, Gillman showed his experience in the complex timing and theatricality of oral storytelling. It was an appropriately hammy performance in honor of an animal that is sometimes called a whistlepig.

Gillman’s wispy mustache flew around as he imitated Dreyfus falling into a gully or swimming in freezing water. 

“All of the climate scientists agree that something major is going on,” Gillman said. “Do we believe them? No! All our money goes on a groundhog.” 

He called the tale of Dreyfus “an adult fantasy” and “a sophisticated story.” 

“There’s a lot of truth to the fantasy story you’re about to hear,” he told his rapt audience. 

It is based on a real incident in Gillman’s life, when he worked for the Center for Northern Studies in Vermont. He spent a week following otter tracks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the animal that so fascinated him. He never saw the otter, but he could tell exactly what it was doing just by looking at its tracks. 

“I got so involved with this creature I never even met,” he said. “The otter I was tracking… made a huge impression on me. Maybe I wrote it for her. She was my muse.” 

Gillman chose the name Dreyfus because it sounded “boring” to him, and therefore perfect for the apathetic groundhog. 

The story opens on Groundhog Day, as Dreyfus is sick of his monotonous life of eating, sleeping and digging. When he discovers otter tracks in the snow, he seeks a connection with the mysterious creature. 

Along with his story, Gillman educated the audience about groundhogs and why they come out this time of year. Make groundhogs emerge from hibernation to claim their territory and search for mates. When Gillman tells the story to children, he says that male and female groundhogs “cuddle for a little while.” 

“An adult might think, ‘Why do I want to hear a story about a groundhog and an otter?’” He said. “Hopefully the people who came thought it was worth it.”