Saturday, May 21, 2005

Oops, I did it again!

A few posts back, I was pondering what my role in the world of storytelling has become, one of not a teller performing, but someone working to promote storytelling. A storytelling madam, you might say, although I don't think what I'm pushing is illegal and I know it's something of worth.

I did it again. I can add to my list of "behind the scenes in service to storytelling" once more. It started innocently enough. These things usually do. I was checking out information to relocate a contact number for a trip to the National Storytelling Festival this fall. I knew I'd seen this posted on some storytelling website. As I worked my way through my bookmarks, I noticed as I scrolled down the site for the National Storytelling Network that an effort was underway to get state contacts for the National Youth Storytelling Showcase. Wisconsin was not represented yet. I wrote an email and.....yup, Ms. Rose wrote back and thanked me for my willingness and said she would be in touch soon.

What in the world am I doing, volunteering to do something like this? Truth be told, it's probably less nutty than my summer trips as a delegation leader with People to People, in which I travel with about 30 teenagers through some foreign venue. This task is something I can do at some level of my own pace and convenience. More importantly, it's something I can do to carry on with my own personal quest to help kids turn off electronic entertainment and turn on interaction. Too often in my daily work as a teacher, I discover that kids from all backgrounds have far too little experience with sharing and hearing stories, and they hunger for it. I've coached middle school and elementary school storytelling troupes, and I've seen the magic unfold as these kids engage with story. I've enjoyed watching the reaction of many when they are in the presence of such enthusiasm. One of my proudest moments as a storyteller has nothing to do with my own performance, but one by a student teller of mine, Ashley. I brought four 8th grade storytellers with me to present a workshop on youth storytelling at the Northlands Storytelling Network conference in 2000. The kids were invited to tell stories at the opening olio, and tell they did. In attendence at that olio was Elizabeth Ellis. As Ashley told her version of a classic tale, "The Stonecutter," with contemporary teenage attitude, she mentioned one character as being "the Big Kahuna." Ms. Ellis was sitting by herself, enjoying the kids, and when Ashley put that spin on it, no one was laughing harder or slapping her knees more than Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Ellis was the first "real" storyteller I'd ever heard, long ago at the Great RiverFolk Festival. I was mesmerized and wanted to do what she'd done. I have since had the great privilege of sharing both a stage and housing for a weekend with Elizabeth at the Riverbend Storytelling Festival in West Bend Wisconsin, and I was proud to share all this with her one to one. Elizabeth has developed her own little "stump speech" about the necessity of storytelling to help create morality and ethics in our society, and what better legacy can I return than to help continue such work among kids?

If you live in Wisconsin, work with talented kids who can tell quite a story and would like to see them go places with those stories, you know where to find me! I'd be honored to help your young friend!

Monday, May 16, 2005

A winning story for the kiddies

I spent part of my day yesterday at the LaCrosse Riverside Family Fun Day, telling stories alongside some of my fellow tellers from the Bluff Country Talespinners. At such events, I use my tried and true material, so that I can be fully present and enjoy the story and the audience. I enjoyed my two sets immensely. Telling "Anansi Gets the Stories," using my string to illustrate always pulls the listeners in. I had fun next telling about the "Little Girl and the Big Monster," warning the parents that I could not be held responsible for the results of my telling. The kids were a bit older in this set, perfect for that story of a naughty middle child who irritates the heck out of her family, only to "get hers" in hilarious fashion when the hideous beast visiting her window every night finally blew the raspberries at her.

My next set had more people, but younger listeners. I'd thought about a shorter tale, but they'd been attentive in the previous set, perhaps thawing from the blustery day outside, who knows? So I proceeded to launch into a newer story of mine, an Irish tale called "The Bee, The Mouse and the Bumclock," in which I use my authentic bodhran--badly!--to signal the start of the action by the talented dancing critters. Though my tipper skills lack greatly, the story was enjoyed by all. A rewarding afternoon, especially watching, as I always do, the parents and grandparents being drawn into the spell as deeply as the kids.

Today was a day to try something new, though. It was my day to tell to the first graders, and I'd discovered a new story shared by Olga Loya, "The Belly Button Monster." She first heard it in true oral tradition from a fellow named Arnie, who heard it from another woman. She suggests telling the kids this is a very serious story, and putting on their serious faces, an exercise with first graders that made me realize I should have had my camera along. Serious faces in place, I told them the name of the story. They chuckled. I launched into the tale of a little boy who can't keep his blanket over him at night, allowing the Belly Button Monster to take his. The series of events revolving around the lack of a belly button and comical results of trying to get it back were knee slappers for these kids. They hooted, they hollered, they joined in the refrain--- "whoosh--he threw his blanket right off." I'm not sure how happy their teacher was when I left after igniting that much laughter, but it was nearly the end of the day--she just had to get them to pack up and head for the bus, but not before several of them pulled their shirts up to show off their own belly buttons.

It's a keeper. I'll be telling that one again. And again. And again, I'm sure!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Playing with story

Taking a break from all the intensity of "drive time" rehearsals for next week's audition, I went to the monthly meeting of our storytelling guild, the Bluff Country Talespinners. Heading into town to Grounded Specialty Coffee, where owners Todd and Deb Ondell host us each month, I mulled over what I might tell if I felt moved to do so. Heck, I'd received three different emails from friends on the Northlands board recently, encouraging me to take my story I once told during down time during a conference planning meeting about my brother the rocket scientist. This wasn't really a story performance yet. Other than casual kitchen table tellings, I hadn't really told it at all. Yet, people who'd heard me tell it as a kitchen table tale almost three years prior still remembered it and thought it worth developing. People who are all accomplished storytellers themselves. Why not?

Once we'd taken care of guild business, including the "introduction" of the new sound system purchased for the use of any member, stories began, as always, to flow. Phyllis told one of her charming and nostalgic stories about her mother. Fred shared a column he'd written, reflecting on his daughter's impending wedding, seeking feedback from us as to its worthiness to be worked into a personal story for telling. After all the eyes were dried, we agreed that it was, once he was past the point where he could keep a dry eye himself. It was time to change the pace. Sara asked if I had something to tell, and I figured, heck, why not?

I launched into a casual rendition of my story about the karmic cycle that has led my brother to become a card carrying rocket scientist, and why he must do research to help close the hole in the ozone layer. Figure it out. Better yet, watch for a storytelling performance near you with me on the platform! The response from my fellow guild members was much as it had been when I told it to my tired fellow board members two and a half years past. The Most Important Thing had been excavated by playing with my story. Now it's time to do the hard work to polish the Most Important Thing into it a diamond of a tale.

In the case of this particular story, "diamond" might be dignifying it a bit much. Still, the playtime my guild affords me is worth its weight in diamonds for the returns it brings in helping me grow myself as a storyteller.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Remind me to take notes, okay?

Whenever I'm introduced to a new group of kid-listeners, they immediately ask, "But where's the book? You don't have a book! How ya gonna remember the story?" I smile sweetly, tell them, "Oh, I don't need the book, my words will paint the pictures in your brain for you." I launch into my story, watching the little skeptics move into story trance; mouths slack-jawed, attention on me, but with a faraway look in their eyes that reminds me, no, this is NOT about you. It's the story. Those little dendrites are changing your words into pictures and firing them off to their grey matter.

Explain to me then, why at the moment am I wishing I had the book? Personal story, that's why. In the world of storytelling, especially in this part of the world, "personal stories" are the sign of a Real Storyteller. Real Storytellers don't need to rely on old folktales to captivate an audience. They create a "personal tale."

Now, as one who listens to as many stories as she tells, I will tell you right now that the good personal tales have undergone just as much honing as the old folktales. If they haven't, you probably don't want to hear them. If you hear one of these "not ready for prime time" tales, one of two things will happen.

1) You will feel like you just PAID to hear someone's therapy session.


2) You will have fallen asleep or traveled to some personal tale of your own, preferably one that is worth reliving, realizing that this story is one for which you "had to be there."

Personally, I think the trend to personal tales is a way to circumvent concerns regarding copyright issues. Still, since I aspire to be a Real Storyteller, I do have a couple personal tales I've told, neither of which is even remotely like therapy. I have spent considerable time and money--well, actually, not too much money, his rates are reasonable!--working on one of these tales with my storytelling coach, Don Falkos. I even took some notes when I worked with him.
Unfortunately, I think I last worked on it about a year ago.

I'm wanting to tell it for an audition next week, and though I have the framework, I keep thinking I'm missing some key moment, some critical story crafting element, some clever and humorous device usually present in my work.

In other words, I'm wishing I had the book.

Probably, I'm just suffering from another characteristic behavior of Real Storytellers, the characteristic known as Insecurity About One's Work. This is a trait that crosses boundaries and creates a sisterhood among artists of all types---storytellers, actors, musicians, poets, artists, scrapbookers. If it truly is insecurity, I can take comfort in the insecurities of all those who have walked the same road.

But just in case--should you happen to be driving in the Upper Mississippi River Valley area in the next week or so, and notice a woman carrying on a conversation with no one, not even a cell phone, it's just me.

I'm not taking any chances. Since there isn't a book, I'm practicing my story over and over and over. At least I have a captive audience!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Confessional tale, with a bit of prophecy for good measure

There are moments when events of note bring back events from one's own life that are best forgotten, perhaps even repressed. I had such a moment a couple weeks ago. The event of note that retrieved repressed memories was the incredible news that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, written off as extinct since 1944, is alive and well in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Being an avid birder, this was huge news. HUGE. As I read posts on my bird lists throughout the day, following links to sites and accessing the short video segment taken by ornithologists with the Cornell Lab, that long-repressed memory was bubbling to the surface. I tried to push it back, but the more I read about the Ivory-Bill and its rediscovery, the more that little nagging memory came forth.

What in the world could be repressed that had any connection with an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?!? More than one might expect. The news brought forth the memory of the one time I helped a friend cheat in high school.

I realize this is beginning to move into the arena of the weird, but you have to understand the setting. When I was a student at Columbia Heights Senior High School in the very early 70s, there was one English teacher for the sophomores who was legendary. Every school is required to have at least one such teacher, and I only hope that as a teacher now myself, I don't become that teacher! We'll call the teacher Mrs. H. Mrs. H was strict. A tough grader. A strong believer in the doctrine of sentence diagramming as medicine against poor expression. Some older kids had kept folders of every sentence ever diagrammed in her class, with corrections, and these were made available on the cheaters' black market. No one ever got an A from Mrs. H; the best for which anyone might hope would be an A-. On a daily assignment.

That's not much of a legend, you may be saying to yourself, and you'd be right. There's more. True or not, word had it that Mrs. H had a strong belief in reincarnation. Of her husband. Who came back as various pets! Prior to my time there, her husband had supposedly been a dog, who was a faithful companion at her table, dining on nothing but prime cuts of meat. How anyone actually knew this little detail is unimportant to the building of a legend. This is the stuff of which legends are made! When the dog died, her husband came back as a goldfish, one that sat on her desk at school and was fed the good stuff, not those dried up flakes. This was during my era, and yes, there really was a goldfish on her desk.

My best friend Peggy had Mrs. H for her teacher. I had a different teacher. I can't even remember the name of my teacher, but Mrs. H I remember. See, legendary! Peggy was not strong with paper and pen, whereas I enjoyed writing. Peggy was struggling with that class as a result. She came to me for help. She had to write a fictional piece. I don't remember the exact details of the assignment, but I do remember what I wrote. I'd completely forgotten, until the news of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was shared last week.

Another bit of the Legend of Mrs H involved her activism for animal rights. The story is somewhat convoluted, but somehow, she went to jail for some sort of peaceful assembly on behalf of animals---wearing her mink coat. Hmmm. Still, this bit of information would be helpful in crafting just the right story for my friend to capture her heart and boost Peggy's grade.

Even in my youth, birds had held a fascination for me. At one point, I'd read any books in our small public library about birds, and was intrigued by the story of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
I wrote a riveting piece about a man traveling the backwaters in his canoe. I'm sure there was some drama explaining his travels alone, I've still repressed that part. However, the climax of my story came when the man pushed through some thick growth to capture a glimpse of a living ghost--the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, carrying grubs to his mate with their nestlings!

Mrs. H loved my story. Loved it. Gave it an unprecendented A+, with the comment "Brought a tear to my eye to think of this magnificent bird being found once more." Peggy passed English 10. Of course, inflated teen egos liked to think I'd set history, getting the first-ever A+ from Mrs. H.

Except for the overly maudlin bit about bringing grubs to a mate on her nest, my story came true, as revealed last week. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker lives on, found by a man canoeing alone in the backwaters. My sense of guilt over my one-time academic cheating escapade has been dredged up anew. I'm glad it came forth over such wonderful news. It is amazing to me to think that along with memories of youthful crimes, a bird like this can go on undiscovered for nearly 60 years.