Not only considered one of the best ’80s movies but one of the best family films of all time, The Neverending Story has endeared and entertained audiences for years. Because of its stunning visuals, venturesome storyline, deep undertones, and its ability to entice the audience’s imagination, The Neverending Story has become one of those special movies that has had a lasting impact on pop culture and in our hearts. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the film stars Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Gerald McRaney, and Tami Stronach as the Childlike Empress. Recently, this reporter had the pleasure of speaking with Tami on the The Neverending Story, her family entertainment company (Paper Canoe Company), and the power of art.
To have a conversation with Tami Stronach is an experience in itself. She chooses her words carefully, enunciating and emphasizing them with specific intentions. With elegance, humor, honesty, and humility, Tami speaks as she is — a storyteller, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, and an artist. Through dancing, acting, and music, she has virtually spent her entire life submersed in art. While talking to her, it didn’t take long to figure out that she has a deep passion for people and their experiences, her craft, her family, and that she embraces every inch of life. Tami is one of those rare individuals who you speak to, for a single conversation, and you leave wiser and inspired.
Trust Your Imagination
When we first began our conversation, Tami explained how she was currently filming a music video for a song off Paper Canoe’s first album, Beanstalk Jack. As she described the video, you could feel the essence of the kid that is still well alive inside of her.
“I’m making a music video this weekend with my daughter starring in it, which is pretty awesome and hilarious. She’s six—so, you know—it could go either way; we could just have a huge meltdown and nothing will happen, or it could go really well. The video is a little bit of an homage to Toy Story; a little girl is trying to clean-up her room and keep it tidy, and then when she leaves the room all the toys come to life and mess it up. Eventually, she realizes that they are alive and she dances with them—in particular an enormous teddy bear that Tami squeezes herself into. Then the mother comes in and the animals pretend they’re lifeless. She asks, ‘What’s going on with your room?’ And the girls says, ‘Dance with me.’ Then they dance, and at the end the mom gets so into dancing on her own that she doesn’t even notice the enormous teddy bear come back to life to give the girl a hug. Success—they got mom to let loose and dance.
“It’s been really fun to work with toys, and just expanding different things that I’ve been doing. I was choreographing for a really long time, and with Paper Canoe I get to kind of be a kid again; I get to play, and sing, and choreograph objects—because, stop-animation is a lot of really fine, little movements that you’re choreographing—so I’m parlaying a lot of different things in a new direction which has been really nice.”
Although she received many offers after co-starring in The Neverending Story, Tami never pursued a Hollywood career. She and her family were more concerned about stability, rather than fame and celebrity. Tami realized that what she loved so much artistically about being in The Neverending Story was the creation and telling of the story. So she decided to pursue dance, and the acting she preferred at the time was that of the stage.
“I grew up dancing and acting pretty much equally, and then after The Neverending Story I dove more heavily into dance through my teen years. But I did do a fair amount of live acting. I joined a theater company that I was with for seven years, and we toured throughout the United States. But I did a lot of live theater as opposed to film. There’s just a little more time put into each show, in a way. Obviously with a film there’s years and years of prep, but the actors are kind of just plopped-in for their moment. I feel with theater there’s a sense of ensemble, and a team really building it from the floor on up. That’s what I really like; I like that comradery.”
Tami has been a film actress, a stage actress, a dancer, and even a university professor. And in 2014, she decided to start the Paper Canoe Company with her husband, Greg Steinbruner. With humor and great enthusiasm, Tami expounded on her motivation for forming Paper Canoe.
“I did form Paper Canoe with my husband—that’s madness! Who would do such a thing? It’s funny, we met in the theater scene and after we got together, I was really adamant that we weren’t going to work together; I had my dance company and he had his projects, and I was going to keep everything really separate, and then I just found that I never saw him. It was like this weird reality of the modern world. We had just enough time together to pay the bills, get the kid to school on time, and then we would run off to a gazillion appointments. We only had fifteen minutes to discuss taxes, and other really interesting subject matter, and I was like, ‘I married an artist because I wanted to be creative together, and I wanted to be able to appreciate that part of who you are.’
“So we decided to form the company, and also for our daughter. She’s really interested in theater and dance. We’ve done a lot of shows together actually. We did a Mother’s Day show where we gathered together a variety of professional dancers who all had really small children. We did an improvisation together and performed that at a bunch of festivals in New York. She’s such a ham; she just walked out into the audience and threw her arms open. I thought, ‘Uh oh, here we go.’
“There was something about forming Paper Canoe that it felt like a way to bring all of the things I’m really passionate about under one umbrella. I’m really passionate about my family, my husband, my daughter, and spending time with them, thinking of inventive stories and playing with puppets. The things that we normally do at home and expanding that outwards.”
Tami explained the creation and concept for Beanstalk Jack and how Paper Canoe is expanding to digital content.
“My husband is the one who composed the music with a friend, Jake Silver. I produced the album, so my role was to update the story and make it relevant for kids today, and also the artistic direction of the live show. My husband wrote the lyrics, and my husband and Jake wrote the music. I contributed some bridges, harmonies, and melodies here and there, because everyone is hanging out in the living room and you’re just like, ‘How about this?’
“Beanstalk Jack is the story of Jack and the Beanstalk told as a folk-rock opera. It starts with a bluegrass section as Jack is living in a shack, and then when he goes up in the clouds it’s a Vegas or Dubai kind of world because he’s up in the fancy clouds. We did a lot of gentle nods to our favorite ’80s sounds, so the Giant kind of sounds like Tom Waits. We shifted the story around a little bit; we have it with a boy and girl twist. So when Jack goes up the beanstalk, instead of stealing all of the Giant’s stuff, he steals the Giant’s daughter—he steals her heart. And they want to be together and form a band, so we call her Harmony, and she’s a cross between Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry from Blondie.”
“What I love about Paper Canoe is the kinds of shows that we’re doing, and the audiences we’re attracting. They’re moms, dads, and kids, and the theaters we’re performing in are intimate. So after the show I always have a craft activity that is related to something we did in the performance. So all the actors come out and they interact with the families, and they interact with the kids, and we end up making a project with the kids that they can take home after the show. I just feel like it’s such a wonderful and authentic way to connect with people. I feel it’s part of the specialness of art. Because that’s what art does, it connects! Instead of the show being a collection 100 different people in a room who have nothing in common, everyone has this one story that they experience together and this room of strangers has suddenly become bonded in some way.
“And once the lights come up after the show, it’s a different energy in the room. Everyone is on the same team. I love coming out to that audience and then interacting with them, and having an opportunity to have genuine exchange and to talk to them. And that’s what Paper Canoe’s allowing me to do. And we’re moving into digital content because we’re getting a lot of requests from people asking, ‘Where can we get Paper Canoe stuff?’ And if you don’t live in New York or Brooklyn you really can’t. So that’s part of the reason we made this album, and the video. We want to share what we’re doing on a broader platform.”
Tami Stronach also explained the artistic connection between Paper Canoe Company and The Neverending Story.
“There is this kind of link back to The Neverending Story; telling stories that were sort of whimsical and fantastical, and it has, in my opinion, a deep message. The Neverending Story is certainly entertaining, and it’s really fun—which is super important—but I feel like the themes inside of it are also profound. Those are the kinds of stories that I wanted my daughter to be connected to. And obviously there’s a lot of really great content out there, and then there’s some content that I think is a little bit less interesting for kids.
“So my husband and I started talking about it and we were like, ‘Why don’t we just participate in the conversation, instead of just critiquing what’s out there, let’s try and make really great stories for families.’ It’s been really fun, and a way to bring my creativity and strengths, of the last 20 years in the dance and theater scene, together. Where I’m at spiritually, I’m interested in these kinds of stories and the impact that they can have on a growing mind.”
This reporter asked Tami how The Neverending Story currently resonates with her.
“I think it resonates with me in a very similar way as those who watched it. Like the message in the film that imagination is a really important thing. That if you can imagine something strong enough, hard enough, and then not to just to keep it in your head, but to actually say it out loud. It seems significant to me, that in order for Bastian to cross the threshold he had to call out the Empress’s name. There’s something about that process of turning things into words. This invisible thing that’s inside our head is something that’s turned into sound, and we’re communicating it to the outside world.
“So already you’ve crossed the threshold between the invisible and the material. So this importance of believing in the power of your imagination to manifest things, and articulating those things and saying them out loud, and bringing them into being—I feel like that message really stayed with me. While I certainly didn’t pursue celebrity, and I didn’t go to Hollywood and enter that particular world, I took that message of doing what you dream and trusting your imagination to heart.
“Even if it doesn’t make sense to other people—even if what you do seems weird—ultimately, there’s nobody other than yourself that you need to trust in terms of what makes sense to you. That’s the way the film impacted me. It, sort of, gave me permission to pursue an authentic and idiosyncratic path. To others, it might not have been the path that made sense to them, in terms of what my options were at the time, but it made sense to me in pursuing what I was really interested in.”
A Variety Of Nothings
Tami Stronach was just 11-years-old when she co-starred in The Neverending Story, and she played the Childlike Empress as though she were an adult. Part of what makes Tami’s performance stand out in the film is that she displayed complex emotions masterfully, adding to the realism and the drama of the story. One of the things that makes The Neverending Story unique from other family movies is that it is as dark as it is inspiring, and it’s as emotionally complex as it is adventurous. This reporter asked Tami if she felt that those intricate and dark ingredients are missing in today’s programming for children and if she thinks that they are necessary.
“I do, actually. I think that we have created a fractured reality where we often make things that are a bit flat for kids, and so happy and sparkly—and kind of one-note—shiny and consumer based. The real world is really complex and full of some really hard questions. And you know, a lot of pain and a lot of suffering. If we want to create human beings that can cope with the scope of the things that lie ahead, and also create human beings that have compassion for one another, then we need to start practicing that an early age. You don’t suddenly develop a sense of depth, and character, and compassion in your twenties. It has to be something that is thought about, and elegantly embraced from a young age.
“And I think that’s what stories are. Stories are our ability to practice being in someone else’s shoes. They’re our ability to imagine other realities that are different from our own. And I think one of the greatest problems we have in life is that we have a really hard time stepping outside of ourselves, and stepping into somebody else’s perspective. That’s not an easy thing to do; I don’t make light of that at all. I think that’s actually, genuinely, a hard thing to do.
“So if you make a story too flat, you don’t give kid’s a moral lesson to wrestle with. I mean, my daughter’s six and she came home the other day and asked us what her sense of ‘me’ comes from—and she’s six! I really do think adults underestimate kids. They underestimate how smart they are. They underestimate how deeply they feel. They underestimate how many layers they have. So creating art that doesn’t talk down to kids, that really celebrates all of their complexities, intelligence, and capacity for emotion, is something Paper Canoe is dedicated to.”
Timeless family movies like The Princess Bride, The Sandlot, The Goonies, and The Neverending Story are often films that people watch as a kid and then continue to revisit throughout their lifetime. For one reason or another, these very special stories have sticking power. This reporter asked Tami why she thinks The Neverending Story is one of those movies that have touched audiences for years.
“That’s a really interesting question. I feel like people always ask me that question, and I always feel like I should be asking them that question. To me, it’s more interesting to know why it has staying power for other people. For me it was obviously a really important part of my life, and my first exposure to the possibility of making art a very viable choice in my life. But I think why it has staying power goes back to the book itself which was written by Michael Ende, who’s a German author, it had a kind of depth to it.”
The Nothing is the mysterious antagonist of The Neverending Story. Like other fans, what the Nothing represented to this reporter as a child now represents something else entirely as an adult; the Nothing symbolizes all of the valleys we have to face throughout our life (being laid off, the loss of a loved one, heartbreak, divorce, and the like). This reporter asked Tami if she thought that was a fair assessment, and what she thought about the Nothing. Her answer also expounded on the staying power of the film.
“No I don’t think you’re off base. I think that’s why art is so powerful, is that it works through metaphors. It would be a much less interesting film if The Nothing was defined as any one of those things that you said. The whole point of metaphors is that it stays open enough, that no matter what point we are at in our lives, we can pour ourselves into that work of art and meet that work of art through a personal engagement.
“I think you could even say something as bold, and perhaps it’s a bit if a stretch, as The Nothing represented the destructive forces that led to WWII. I see a connection between the idea of the Nothing—an unstoppable destructive force— and that dark chapter of German history. It was first published in 1979, 34 years after World War II, the war started when the author was 12. The book is really about keeping the child in us alive and valuing fantasy—our capacity for creativity. Nothing kills the child in us more effectively than war. I believe Ende was largely apolitical so maybe that’s pushing it, but there is a political dimension to writing a book about escaping reality. The need to escape reality means that there is a flaw to grapple with, and that the modern technological world we live in which has no time for the feelings and dreams of children is a problem.
“So yes I think The Nothing is the hopelessness and apathy that results from a loss of a job, from the death of a parent, from a divorce, from being bullied at school. And it is something much larger than that—In the film the Nothing is described as human apathy and cynicism taking over the soul of humanity. I think the story has sticking power because we need to continually ask ourselves is apathy and cynicism taking over our culture or are we moving in a direction of being a life-generating compassionate society that knows there is value in childlike hope.
“With the movie, in some ways, it was turned into this really fun and entertaining Hollywood-style film. But the bones of the film, the scaffolding of the film, actually houses some pretty timeless philosophical questions. If the Nothing is apathy and hopelessness then imagination is the notion that even at our darkest hour we can begin again; Imagination is the key to rebuilding ourselves and our world; I don’t think that’s an idea that will ever, ever get old. Every generation needs to hear that and needs to believe that.”
There Is No Formula
Everyone faces peaks and valleys throughout their lifetime. How we handle adversity, and how we allow it to affect us, is vital. This reporter asked Tami if she could share a story of a hardship that she has encountered, how it changed her, and how she handled it. Per her usual style, Tami Stronach was very forthcoming and honest with the inspiring story that she shared.
“My sister was diagnosed with leukemia when I was in college, when I was 20, and she needed a bone-marrow transplant. None of us matched her bone marrow, unfortunately in the family. At the time, the insurance company didn’t want to pay for her transplant either as they told her it was a pre-existing condition; even though she was 26, in college, and had no idea she had leukemia. So we were facing a really dark moment. Our parents were going to sell the house, and we had no idea what was going to happen.
“We were really lucky that somebody from the bone marrow registry ended up being a match. Only a third of the people looking for a match find that match. So that was incredible. And my sister actually drove to the office of the insurance company, and muscled her way into the president’s office and said, ‘I just want you to see the face of the person who you have basically said shouldn’t have a shot at life.’ She was a beautiful, lively 26-years-old with courage. My sister is incredible. I ended up organizing a benefit dance concert for her in San Francisco and raised over $50 thousand. And my family pulled-together so hard. The whole community came out to support her, and the insurance company changed their mind and ended up paying for it. And she made it through!
“For me, that experience of almost losing someone so important to me, really put things in perspective of what is important and what is not important. I just think that we can get so caught up in really shallow things seeming valuable, and when the earth is shaken and the ground really comes out from under you, suddenly it starts to be crystal clear of what really matters. I feel it was a traumatic experience. There was a lot of loss involved—just years and years of pain.
“On the other hand, no one asks for pain. No one says, ‘Please, oh please, give me a horrible experience so I can learn from it.’ If I could choose to have a boring life with no horrible experiences, believe me I would choose that. But if they come, and if they happen, you do have a choice. You do have a choice of how to react. I think I learned about not running away from things, diving into them, and pulling together as a team. And that’s something that I think has changed me.
“But keeping perspective is hard to maintain. Like everybody, I struggle to maintain a sense of what’s really important. I think that brings me back to why I have stayed really focused and dedicated to this project of telling stories, and sharing stories, that matter to me. And connecting with people and making art. I think that at the end of the day, those kinds of exchanges are priceless. And that’s what I want out of life. I want to know people, and have them know me in that special way when we share who we are with each other when we talk in the language of metaphors of storytelling, and that lets us drop into slightly deeper levels—that’s when life starts to feel more fulfilling and more meaningful.”
“It’s not a space that everyone values, and it’s not a space that’s easy to consistently insist upon. And that’s been kind of my mission to say, ‘Yes, the imagination, creativity, expression, and the kind of exchange that artists want with other people is really valuable; not just for me, but for other people. I want to encourage the families that are coming to the shows, to go home and write their own stories, make their own puppet shows, and make their own graphic novels. And that somehow the more we insist that we value and share that creative part of each other, I think the world is going to be better.”
After having a career of that of three lifetimes, Tami Stronach continues to carve out her own pathway in life. The artist shared what she is looking to do in the near future.
“Now after twenty years of running a dance company, and having been a university professor, and doing all of these different things with Paper Canoe, I started acting again. And it’s sort of an unlikely thing, to decide as a woman in this industry, that you’re going to start acting again in your ’40s. That’s not really the typical path, as most people understand about Hollywood. But I’ve never been interested in the typical path. So I’m getting back into acting now, and I love it. I did a small independent film last fall, and I’m looking at some other movie scripts as well right now. But I think it would be a really fun thing to get back into acting now, and show that there’s no formula. There’s no formula—ever. You can reinvent yourself, and reinvigorate your sense of mission at any given moment.”
Earlier in the conversation, Tami mentioned spirituality, which is something that people define in various ways. After talking with Tami Stronach, it seems that part of spirituality to her is the creation, expression, and sharing of art (and of everything that is involved with art like imagination, learning about other people, and personal expression). Just like Tami was ignited by The Neverending Story to embrace her imagination, chase dreams, and to explore her passions, with her inspirational philosophy and her work through Paper Canoe, the multi-talented artist is now inspiring others to do the same.
“It’s important to keep growing and to keep trying new things. You know, often times it gets scarier and harder to do that; especially when you reach middle-age, where there’s an expectation that you should be done. Like, ‘Aren’t you baked yet? Isn’t it time for you to come out of the oven?’ But I think you live one life and that’s it. That’s all you got. For my sister it was almost done at 26—so there’s no time to waste—if you’re interested in doing something, go do it.”
[Featured Image by Warner Bros. & Deborah Lopez]