Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Tell Me a Story

This past March, I started a new hobby. I am now working to become a Storyteller. Someday, I hope to actually do this full time and entertain children and grown ups alike. Storytelling, put simply, is getting up and TELLING a story in front of a group of people. (Duh!) It is not READING a story aloud from a book. The tale may come from a book, but by relating it in your own words, you make the tale your own...

I've always had a bit of a performing bent to my hobbies. To me, this was a new twist on an old favorite, improv. But it turns out there is a lot to learn about this business. I started my education at an excellent conference in Cambridge. It is LANES' annual Sharing the Fire conference. I didn't know it at the time, but this is one of the bigger Storytelling conferences in the country. It ran from Friday night to Sunday night, though I skipped Friday.

The conference consisted of keynote speeches from storytelling luminaries, several workshop sessions, lunch, dinner, story swaps, and an Olio. There were also assorted vendors and a silent auction.

The workshops were all top notch, as were the keynotes. The keynotes were particularly enhanced by the sign language interpreters. Their facial expressions while signing added a wonderful layer of depth to them. My favorite moment was when Norma was telling a story about her two youngest children having a contest to see who could pee higher on the bathroom wall. I cannot do justice to the sign language interpretation, but suffice it to say that the uproar was so significant, that Norma turned around to look as well! If you ever get a chance to see a talk interpreted, I highly recommend it.

After the workshops, I started reading books on how to get started. For anyone interested, I highly recommend The Storyteller's Start-up Book
by Margaret Read MacDonald. The book is filled with practical tips, a selection of tales that can be retold, and a bibliography in each chapter broken down by topic to help guide your reading.

Finally, I was ready for my first telling in front of an audience. It was not in public per se. I did a story at Temple for the children's service. I told The Matzah Man: A Passover Story by Naomi Howland which is, in itself, a retelling of The Gingerbread Man. Overall, I give myself a B- on the first effort. I kept the audience engaged, my voices were good, I didn't stumble on the repeated rhymes or the ever increasing list of chasers, and I changed the names of the characters to be members of the congregation that all the kids could identify with. However, my rhythm was a bit off, and I didn't include much physicality to help transport the kids into the story. They pictured my words rather than seeing the story. Still, a good first effort. And I received many compliments, the sweetest of which was from Lynnea. She is my story coach and always gives constructive feedback, so I know she is looking with a critical eye. And she was pleased.

After that, more reading and practice, but no gigs. I kept telling myself I wasn't ready. Lynnea got me a gig at the MacKay Library in North Chelmsford. Bonnie, the librarian there, is the one who got me into storytelling. She told Lynnea to get me to go to the conference. So I suppose it was fitting that she got me my first real gig. It didn't pay anything, but it was in front of a real audience who didn't know me. So, it was a good litmus test. I opted for three tales interspersed with a little discussion and a mime lesson. I ran over an hour, which is a little long for the ages present. That said, I kept most of them for the whole time. This time, I gave myself an A-. I told Tortoise's Dream as recorded by Joanna Troughton, Kanu Above and Kanu Below as relayed by this site, and a story out of The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol by Eric Kimmel. All of these stories make for a good read. They vary in tellability.

At Lynnea's suggestion, I went with my best story first and saved my weakest for last. Lynnea knew I'd start to lose them if I ran long and wanted to make sure they got the good stuff. She is turning into an excellent story coach and is going to be instrumental in any success I have.

The best of them was Tortoise's Dream. In a way, it's a variant on The Tortoise and the Hare. It is an African folk tale in which tortoise dreams of a magical tree that all the animals want to find. However, the only one who can tell then how to find it is wise Grandmother Koko. Tortoise wants to go ask her, as it is his dream. The other animals insist he is too slow. Each in turn explains why he or she is the right animal for the job. Each fails in turn in an amusing way. Ultimately, they let turtle go and he succeeds. Everyone benefits from the wonderful tree. It has several things which make it a good story. It features repetition, an ever growing list of obstacles, diverse characters, and narration which can be acted as well as told. I was able to become the different animals with varying degrees of success and convey their attributes. Then I was able to teach the children how to be a lion. This went over tremendously well.

My second tale was Kanu. The story is about a tribal chieftain whose daughter is stolen by a god in the sky. He is distraught and becomes less involved in tribal affairs. He is only called in when his under-chiefs don't know what to do. As the story progresses "people" arrive that the tribe members do not like. The people are Spider, Anteater, Fly, and Rat. Each does things that the people do not like. They ask Kanu Below to banish them. Kanu tells each in turn that they can stay, because there is much good in them, if they stop doing the things that people hate. One day, his grief becomes too much and he beseeches his underchiefs to rescue his daughter. They are all afraid of Kanu above. Rat, Fly, Spider, and Anteater all undertake the task in appreciation for Kanu Below's kindness. Each using his unique skill to rescue the girl. As their reward, Kanu Below replaces the underchiefs with them. This is another excellent tale with a great moral. I just need to work on the physicalization of it more. I did some, but I need to do more. Again, the voices were good and the rhythm and pacing was decent. I also need to find a way to bring the audience in more.

Last was the Hershel story. This one was not as well structured for telling and the moral was not as clear. The story was "Hershel and the Money Table". All of the Hershel tales are about a downtrodden Russian Jew with a large family who has to resort to cleverness to get his basic needs met. In this story, he uses the greed of two powerful men to feed and provide for his family. When all is said and done, neither rich man realizes he has been conned. I'm not convinced this one is a keeper. The children who remained enjoyed it and it had some good moments of interactivity, so maybe it can be salvaged. Lynnea said she had some suggestions. Part of the problem is it is pretty heavy on the narration and short on the action. There are parts where Hershel lies about past events, so the events are told and not done. Perhaps I could mime some of them anyway. We shall see. I won't retire it just yet.

Overall, the reception was great. Bonnie couldn't believe that it was my first telling. Neither could any of the other parents there. I kept parent and child alike engage for an hour 15. So, I'm pretty pleased with myself. Bonnie has offered herself up as a reference. Stay tuned as I try to break into the San Diego story scene!