Monday, April 25, 2005

Dianne de las Casas and Lyn Ford at Northlands

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Returning to a magical place

I've just returned from three and half days in which I was transported to a magical world, the world of Northlands. Every year, the last full weekend in April, storytellers from five states and beyond gather in Madison Wisconsin to learn, share and most of all, tell. Televisions and the internet are things of another age. No one needs them. We all have stories to tell.

All of us have these places we go, where groups of friends gather and pick up where they left off the last time they were together, as if there was no passage of time. For me, that place is Northlands Storytelling Network. I'm lucky. I'm on the Board of Directors for this organization, which means I get three other times throughout the year to gather like this with a small group of storytellers to plan for the organization. Of course, we work. We work hard. This year, we worked really hard. And our annual conference, "Hands Across the Northlands," appears to have been a rousing success. Every workshop I attended was stellar. Even the one I presented on encouraging families to tell their stories was good.

Whenever storytellers gather, magic enters the atmosphere. A story swap could end up becoming a ceilidh, like the one I attended Saturday night, where the host played the small pipes, his wife taught us the contra dance, the Seige of Innis, and my friend Yvonne Healey told her story of Con Healey's trip across the pond and back, all in the name of telling his story to the end.

Whenever storytellers gather, you can hear tales well told at a concert, whether it's Sadarri Saskill telling about her best friend from her teen years or Mike Mann telling how Anansi was tricked by a goose, of all creatures. The stories might include the spewing of feathers by Mike Speller, or a djembe for background from Jim May or Lyn Ford. Stories abound at the Midwest StoryFest, a series of three concerts open to the public during the conference.

Whenever storytellers gather, the stories keep flowing beyond the stage or workshop to the dinner table, the table always open to the new teller as well as the "oldtimers." Old friends are greeted and embraced again, new friends are made. Stories permeate the host hotel, The Edgewater, as people gather in the lobby, the resource room, the lunch line.

Whenever storytellers gather, magic happens. Be part of the magic next year, when Northlands Storytelling Network brings the magic of storytelling back to Madison. I'll be there!

Northlands Storytelling Network
Sadarri Saskill
Mike Mann-StoryMann

Monday, April 18, 2005

Storyteller or story pusher?

I've spent the last few days trying to pull together materials into a coherent workshop on family storytelling. I'll be presenting it this coming Saturday at the Northlands Storytelling Network
"Hands Across the Northlands" annual conference in Madison Wisconsin. At the moment I keep telling myself, well it seemed like a good idea at the time. Hopefully, by the time it's over on Saturday, it will still seem like a good idea.

I spent the last 15 minutes talking with a storytelling colleague about accepting an invitation to co-chair the Wisconsin Storytellers Get-Together program committee. I accepted, and will likely move on to become chairperson of that committee in a couple years. I accepted, even though I can't attend the gathering this year because as secretary of Northlands, I have a board meeting that same weekend.

So, I'm working on behalf of storytelling in the upper midwest, but wonder when the heck I'm supposed to be working on actually telling stories. Other than quickly dusting off stories not told often, I haven't done any serious work on learning or developing new material in many moons. I find myself with those same doubts all artists have, the ones that ask us, "Am I really any good at this? Am I only fooling myself?"

Maybe at this point in my storytelling life, serving the greater storytelling community in this way is how I'm to promote the art. Maybe telling those stories I've honed already is the best way I can bring awareness to others about its magic.

Maybe that's true. Still, I have an audition in three weeks to tell at our local festival, and no idea what I should use for my audition. I'm not even sure when I'll practice it if I do figure out what to tell.

Oh yeah, I've also signed on to help with the local festival, too. All of which begs the question, can I call myself a storyteller, or have I become a storypusher?

If indeed I've become a storypusher, at least I know I can't be arrested for pushing them. Can I?

If anyone in the Great Lakes region is actually reading this, allow me to do just a bit of pushing.
Starting Thursday night and going through Sunday afternoon, Northlands Storytelling Network will hold its annual conference, along with the three concert "Midwest Storyfest," at the Edgewater Hotel in Madison. Stop on in and give the concerts a listen. Come under the spell of story's magic.

If asked, just tell them Gwyn sent you. From some shadowy back alley on the internet.

Northlands Storytelling Network Annual Conference, "Hands Across the Northlands," April 21-14, 2005, Madison WI

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Storyteller gets rich!

I had a little storytelling gig yesterday, one of the gratis ones I sometimes do that end up being far more gratifying than the "big bucks" ones. That was sarcasm about the "big bucks," lest anyone walk away from reading this thinking storytellers get rich financially!

We don't become rich financially, but the riches we collect along our storytelling path are far better. I told stories yesterday to girls in an area EvenStart program. Girls. Most approximately the ages of my fairly immature alien adolescent masculine life forms residing here at this moment, but all girls who are, like me, parents. Granted, their children are much younger. In fact, one girl was coming for the first time since the birth of her beautiful 10 pound 4 ounce baby boy.

It was a strange mix of teenage girl goofiness and behavior I recall all too well in my years teaching middle school and traveling abroad with groups of high schoolers, and maternal care for their babies.

I'd met their teachers at one of those inservice programs teachers must endure a few times each year. They presented a workshop on the work they were doing in the Family Literacy Center with the "MotherRead" program. Readers of this blog, if there are any, will have figured out this kind of thing is my "bag," and after the workshop, I told these ladies I'd love to offer storytelling programs if they'd be interested.

So I arrived yesterday in the middle of a long, grey rainy day, ready to tell one story for teenage girls and one that younger kids enjoy. Of course, a well told story will enchant listeners of all ages, but I chose two stories that were field tested for the different age groups.

And I told...."Tatterhood" first, a folktale from Norway about a very unusual and self-reliant girl born of a magic cure. My audience was small, but they enjoyed the wildness of the heroine, as well as her resourcefulness. "Anansi Steals the Stories" came next, complete with string figure illustrations, and they enjoyed this one just as much.

I talked a little afterward about how I came to storytelling and why I think it's such a gift to our kids, encouraging these girls to give their children this gift. I learned that these girls were all trying to finish their high school education as well as take part in the EvenStart program, and told them all they really deserve credit, as it's never easy to be a parent. One girl, with the metal band t-shirt, multiple piercings and interesting hairstyle just said, "Not easy doesn't begin to describe it!" I told them they will be glad later they did this.

Walking out afterward, the girls gabbed with me about the things girls might. Despite the appearances, they are just girls who happen to be moms with all the typical concerns mothers have about their families. I'm glad to be able to appear before these small unpaid venues, because I'm hopeful that by doing so, they'll be encouraged to share stories, including their own heroine's journey tales, with their families. I'm hopeful that by doing so, I may be invited back some time, because the riches I amass from these encounters will feed my soul, too.



Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Stories on the streets

Grimy, with eyes sunk deep into his face yet with an intensity showing through the unkempt hair, his hand outstretched. This was the face that greeted me upon leaving the theater, muttering yet making such direct eye contact. These are the faces that greet us as we move through the city, and we try not to notice them. These are the faces whose stories we'd rather not hear. These are the homeless.

I had flown west for a few days to visit friends in the Napa Valley. Knowing I'd want a fix of culture upon fleeing my provincial small midwestern town, they'd acquired another ticket for a play at the ACT in San Francisco's theater district, "The Voysey Inheritance." The play, David Mamet's adaptation of a 1905 play by Harley Granville-Barker, revolved around the dilemma of Edward Voysey. Inheriting the family business, he realized he'd also inherited the family thievery, as client accounts were pilfered over the years in failed investment schemes. As Edward tries to wrestle with time in his efforts to make things right for his clients, he comes to realize that no one else in the family seems bothered by this legacy. In other words, the play was in part a story of wealth and privilege, privilege extending to allow the rich to play by different rules. Well done, with, as playwright Mamet comments in his notes, new questions to ponder.

The question I'm left pondering does not arise directly from the play itself, but a juxtaposition of events. Leaving the theater and walking into the wonderful early spring day, we moved along in the happy jumble of theater-goers discussing where to get the after theater drink or mocha. Two doors down, those eyes lock sights with us. Just behind me, another theatergoer speaking loudly says to her companions, "Homeless guy on the right!" and continued in that same loud voice to make degrading remarks. My immediate reaction was two-fold; first, he's without a home but not necessarily without hearing, and second, what was one of the themes we just saw play out on stage?

I commented on the second reaction to my friends, who agreed that a point was missed or ignored. I don't think we talked much more about that incident during my visit, though we certainly covered other ground on related topics.

Returning home, those eyes and that face and the entire incident, while not quite haunting me, have wandered in and out of my thoughts. As I've played and replayed the incident and my thoughts, I've come to realize that what I find most degrading in the behavior of that theatergoer is her absolute lack of any obvious desire to consider that man's story. Dirty, homeless and marginal, he is still a fellow human. What is the story he would tell us about his journey to that street in San Francisco on a sunny spring day, asking for handouts? Can we assume that his situation is completely the result of poor life choices? I think we'd like to think so, as it makes it easier for us to ignore and avoid contact this way.

Is it possible, though, that maybe his situation could be not so far from that of some of us? Could it be a case of mental illness left without a safety net as the social service system becomes overburdened and underfunded? Perhaps he served in the Gulf War and returned with Gulf War Syndrome, turning to substances to dull the nightmares? We don't know, and we don't want to know.

The question becomes, why don't we want to know his story? Is it because by knowing, we have to acknowledge his humanity, placing him on equal footing with any of the rest of us?

This man appeared to be one of the extremes, but in my visits at Place of Grace, mentioned in another entry here, I've come to learn that appearances are sometimes deceiving when it comes to the poor or homeless. Mothers who were waitresses, former soldiers, young families, they all bring their faces and their stories to us. If we listen, maybe we'll start to understand their stories and how perhaps we might begin to change the stories to have happy endings. If we listen, maybe we'll start to understand there is no longer just "them." Perhaps we'll understand we're just "human beings all."

What is this man's story? I'll never know. I didn't ask him. I'm not sure he'd have been capable of telling me at that moment in time. What I know is this: instead of looking away and pretending he didn't exist, I returned his gaze. I'd like to know his story.