Archive for March, 2010

I gave a keynote this month at Sharing the Fire, the New England conference on storytelling sponsored by LANES about storytelling as a craft. In the talk, I outlined some areas of skill development and questions storytellers should ask themselves about their work. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a number of years. Below is the text of a hand-out that focuses on the questions. It’s an attempt to encourage the recognition of storytelling as a craft that aspires towards art.

Questions for Evaluating Storytelling Performance

Along with many others in the storytelling community, over the past several years I have been giving thought to what are hallmarks of good storytelling. While storytelling is in many ways still a folk art, and because of that, something that many kinds of people do, there’s a tendency to be lax in a discussion of what are measures of excellence. But if we are to encourage excellence in storytelling so that it is recognized as an art, we need to have a discussion about what we find in accomplished storytelling. This is not a question so much of what standards critics should use in evaluating performance (although they may do that), but a challenge to us as artists to search for some language to use in looking at our work.

In an effort to foster this discussion I’ve come up with a list of questions, or queries, a storyteller might ask of him/herself. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather a way of seeing. Not all the questions I offer here are useful in every situation, but I’ve tried to think about what I see in a good storyteller, and what I miss when I see a storyteller not succeeding.

For me, reading the list of questions makes me aware of my shortcomings and failures. But that’s okay. I think the important thing is to become conscious of what we’re doing and look carefully at our work. Nobody does all these things I’ve identified. Good storytellers may be so good in one area that we forgive their transgressions in other areas, or those areas simply become less important. But when something isn’t working, and we know it, we should ask ourselves hard questions about why it’s not working. These questions are a place to start.

Narrative form
Is the structure of the piece strong? does it show an understanding of narrative structure, even if only to make it possible to experiment with that structure? Is the structure flabby – are there parts that do not belong? Is there an awareness of narrative tension? Does the piece show an understanding of character’s place in the narrative? Is there resonance in the piece, with elements introduced early bearing fruit later on? Is there an understanding of an underlying subtext in the story? Is it clear that the storyteller knows what the story is about? Has s/he made choices about what material to present to best serve the heart of the story? Is there a dramatic build that reaches some form of climax when a truth is revealed? Is this revelation presented in a way that delights or enlightens or moves the audience?

Does the storyteller have command of the language used? Does the storyteller have an adequate vocabulary, and use the right word? Is the style of language consistent throughout the piece? Is it authentic – especially if it represents some culture other than the performer’s own? If it is a caricature of a culture, is there an understanding of what that means? In the context of the choice of language used, is the grammar and vocabulary consistent and authentic? Is there a consciousness of it being an oral language, rather than oral presentation of written language? Is there breath in the words, or do they sound as if they are coming from the page?

Voice and physical instrument
Does the storyteller have command of his/her vocal instrument? Is s/he understandable? Does the vocal instrument serve the story, or does it attract attention to itself? Is the voice flexible in its presentation of different aspects of the piece, varying in timbre, pace, and dynamics?
Does the physical movement of the storyteller serve the story? Is the storyteller conscious of how the use of his/her body is serving the story? Is the performer in control of his/her physical instrument, using his/her body to serve the presentation, or does the movement distract from the story?

Performance skills
Are all skills integrated into the story? (e.g. – music, movement, juggling) Are the skills used developed enough so that they are not hindrances? Are skills and technique transparent so that the story is served, rather than the demonstration of technique? Does the storyteller use different modes of presentation in the performance? Is there a spectrum, or vocabulary, of content and presentation? If the storyteller has committed to characterization in a piece, are the characterizations consistent throughout?

Relationship with the audience
What is the storyteller’s relationship with the audience – is s/he telling to the audience present before him/her, or to the one in his/her head? Is the performer open to the audience – is there an awareness of the nature of the fourth, permeable wall between the audience and the performer? Is there a consistent understanding of where the storyteller is at any moment in the delivery of the narrative? Is there some understanding of the isolation of characters from each other and the narrator? Has the storyteller made conscious choices about those relationships?

Show structure
Does the performer have a sense of how an entire performance builds? Over the course of the performance, is there a flow from one piece to another, and some sort of arc? What is the performer’s relationship with the audience between set pieces?

Does the storyteller have a sense of his/her aesthetic – her reason for performing and how s/he presents her material? Are they consciously making choices about what they are showing and how they are showing it? Does the storyteller have a unique voice? Does s/he have something to say?

©2009 by Bill Harley


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This week in my day at Paul Cuffee School, I wrote and recorded a song with each second grade class. This may sound fairly impressive, but it’s really a pretty straightforward process if you remember to keep it simple. The songs will not make the hit parade, and in fact, unless they’re sung at an all school meeting, probably won’t be heard outside the classroom where they were created. But they have a real value within that classroom.

I told the kids that I wanted them to write a song about their class and the things they did in it. The first thing we did was brainstorm as many different things about their class as they could think of. They started with general things you could say about almost any class – we like our teacher (always a good thing to say!), we study math, we have recess. But I pushed them to come up with things that made their class different. Someone said, “We study the arctic!” Someone said, “The other classes study the arctic too!” Everyone nodded in agreement. Now they were thinking.

In Rob Pike’s class someone said, “We have worms and flies!” Then they explained that they were growing worms and turning garbage into soil by having the worms pooping. Interestingly enough, the word “pooping” didn’t send anyone into paroxysms of laughter – Mr Pike had discussed the virtues of worm poop enough that it seemed like an everyday thing. Which it is.

There was a discussion about popcorn parties. Mr. Pike uses some simple behavior mod in the class, adding shells to a jar when a good thing happens in the class. When the jar is full, there’s a popcorn party. That was different from other classes.

With those discussions things got more specific, and we had material to work with.

I saved a lot of time in the songwriting process by using the melody of a song everyone already knew. In Rob Pike’s class, I used “This Little Light of Mine”. In Donna Raymond’s, we used “Aiken Drum,” and in Sarah Rich’s, we used “This Land is Your Land.” Having a melody and song structure already set up made it a lot easier to get the kids thinking like songwriters. When they would come up with a line they wanted to use, we had to find a way to fit in the correct number of beats. This can be pretty challenging (even for people who call themselves songwriters), and the kids need some help on this – they began to learn if the rhythm was right or wrong and could identify the difference, but needed help in finding the right phrasing.

Everytime we found a phrase that worked we wrote it down on the flip chart and sang it – the kids got more excited as they saw the song take shape.

I should add here that songs like “Aiken Drum” or “This Little Light” are great ones for beginning songwriting, since all the kids need is one good line, which gets repeated three times, and a finishing line that is the name of the song. There’s not a need to worry about rhyming in this structure – the kids an focus on content and rhythm

We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
We are second graders at Paul Cuffee School
Playing and learning every day

After that general line, we moved on to truly unique ones like:

“We have slimy worms, pooping in our class”
“We have popcorn parties when the shell jar’s full”
and my favorite
“We’re all different colors, we don’t really care”

Like I said, not rocket science, but the kids began to understand how the process worked. I’m not completely happy with the last line (“Playing and learning every day”)– they were having trouble saying everything they wanted to say, and I suggested it in the interests of time– it’s pretty trite and it’s my fault. I really try to have the kids not settle for a line that is untrue or doesn’t quite fit in the rhythm of the line.

“This Land is Your Land” is more challenging, because rhyming is necessary, and to be strict with the rhyme, you have to find three words that rhyme, and that can leave you with some lines not quite perfect
In our class, we have a sail (on the wall as a backdrop)
We study fish, we study whales
We work so hard, we never fail
This class was made for you and me

Here, I wasn’t so happy with the “never fail” line, but a kid suggested it and everyone liked it – of course they fail sometimes, we all fail, but… And it was pretty interesting brainstorm words that rhyme with “class”. I stopped that discussion.

So, in twenty minutes we had come up with a bunch of lines that scanned. We sang it through a couple of times. And then, the beauty of software. I set my laptop up on the chair I’d been sitting on, turned on Garage Band, sat on the floor with the kids and we all sang the song together. The microphone built into my computer was completely adequate for what we were doing. My voice is too present, but with such a short period of time, I figured the kids needed my voice as a guide and prompt. A couple more run throughs and they could have sung it on their own. And probably are. We recorded a couple of takes, I listened back at lunchtime, chose one, and burned it to a cd. The kids were excited and wanted to sing it for the whole school.

The benefits of this kind of thing include the sense of accomplishment the class feels in doing something together, the growing awareness of who they are as a group of people, and a tool for them to use in the weeks and months ahead – a song they can sing.

And, like I said, this is not rocket science – it’s something a teacher could do, even without a guitar. if you’re worried about your voice, listen to mine on the recording. Muffin Man, Skip to My Lou, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – any familiar melody with a simple lyric structure works. With more time, classes are capable of more complex subjects, structures, and language. But this is a good place to start. Here’s the song I wrote with Mr. Pike’s class:

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A. Bitterman - children's literature curmudgeon

My friend Pete Cowdin runs one of the best children’s book stores in the country, the Reading Reptile, in Kansas City. He’s smart and funny, and obviously a little weird, since he’s a big enough fool to run an independent bookstore (and for children no less) in these days of the uncertainty of marketing the printed word. I walk in that store and it’s like a liberated zone – things slightly askew, more like his family’s living room (which is very askew) than a business. Pete’s my go-to guy about good books for kids – he was onto Harry Potter before Scholastic picked it up, knew Lemony Snicket was going to be a big hit, and suggested Rick Riordan’s series to me years ago, long before anyone thought about making a movie about Percy Jackson.

Pete’s alter ego is a curmedgeon named A. Bitterman, and he looks at the world with a jaded eye. I recently got a piece from Pete (or Mr. Bitterman? Hard to tell sometimes…) about the future of bookstores and I asked him if I could put it up here. Long for a blog, but worth the read.

If you like it, or think about this stuff (I do), then there’s an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, who started the Library of America series, on the future of books, Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.

DIGITAL BURN: the Remaking of the Independent Bookseller

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