Archive for November, 2010

This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.


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Thanksgiving prayer

Now in thanks we bow our heads
With grateful words before we’re fed
Turkey for all, except Aunt Marian
Since she’s become a vegetarian.

My brother drools here right beside me
My stomach rumbling deep inside me
Aunts and uncles , gramps and grans
With settled hearts and folded hands

My dog is here and he prays too
“Drop that turkey, oh please do”
And I say thanks, no ifs or buts
For all those here who drive me nuts.

– Bill Harley

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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On Saturday, Debbie and I organized the second action for the Good Juju Team. Assembling over a hundred people at the Trinity Brew Pub in downtown Providence for a rehearsal, we rehearsed and then proceeded to the Providence Place Mall, where we handed out clown noses, shopped (well, some of us), and led a parade through three flights of stores.

Here we are at the brew pub (thanks to Josh Miller and staff):

It was a bit of a stretch for some of us – a little different from what we normally do. But people were game. We all walked over in small groups and reached the mall. At the appointed time, we put on our own noses and began to hand out the ones stuffed in our pockets. Here’s the beginning – the first sightings of clowns:

At the Apple Store

In the “esplanade”:

Suddenly, we seemed to be in the majority.

The shop owners particularly welcomed the change of scene.

By the end, everyone at least knew about the noses. It was amazing, and interesting to see people’s reactions to a clown nose being handed to them for free. It was, in a sense, a litmus test for how one approaches the world. Amazingly, and joyfully, most people were up to the task. A lot of people marched with us, even more at least put noses on, and many more put noses in their pockets to give to their children or grandchildren.

Or to wear when they got home.

Here’s the video of everything.

We learned a lot about doing these things. What struck me most of all about the day is that all the agents were willing to go a little out of their comfort zone (okay, some LIVE outside their comfort zone) – and when you take a step out of it, you discover that the world is a lot more available and open than you had considered before. After handing out noses, parading through the mall looking like an idiot, and playing “Three Blind Mice” on a kazoo for 15 minutes, a lot more things seem possible in the world. It is, at least, easier to look someone in the eye, smile, and say “Hello!”

Even without a red nose.

Hakim Bey, a sometimes dubious anarchist philosopher, introduced the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or TAZ’s – “a mobile or transient location free of economic and social interference by the State,” (let’s include corporations, too, shall we?) Really, from my perspective, a TAZ is just a little bit of time and place where an open community happens. It could happen anywhere – at a concert, on the street, in a classroom – “wherever two or more are gathered…”. When they happen, it’s a liberating feeling – and that’s what happened when we handed out 1000 clown noses.

More videos up soon.

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I’ve been spending a good amount of time in the car this fall, and listening to Ireland by Frank Delaney. It’s one of those big sprawling novels that gives you history (guess about what?) and makes you think. The overarching story is about a boy turning towards manhood who hears a traveling storyteller – the storyteller is the connecting tissue through the whole novel.

Midway through the novel, there’s a letter from the storyteller to the young man, explaining what he’s trying to do as a storyteller. Whatever else Delaney is doing, he gets oral narrative right. It’s a brilliant passage about storytelling, and in the middle of it he says (paraphrasing), “You should never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. But you should underestimate their knowledge.”

I think Delaney is right. I often backtrack in my stories, explaining things that I’m not sure everyone in the audience will understand. If a member of the audience does understand, then it’s a chance for them to nod and say “Yes, I know that!”. I see them nod. If they get it, it’s a chance for them to breathe and regroup in their listening which is absolutely essential for oral narrative. If it’s a bit of information they don’t know, then it signals to the audience that the storyteller is taking care of them because it’s absolutely essential that everyone present understands what is going on.

So, for instance, I tell a version of “Sody Salleratus”, a traditional Appalachian story. One of the recurring lines in this story that occurs in dozens of cultures is, “I ate me a bucket of beans and a barrel of lard, and now I’m gonna eat….”.

This story, to me, is the quintessential story for primary grades. But most kids don’t know what lard is. Did you? So when I say that – “bucket of lard” – I come to a screeching halt. I look at them. Right at them. “Do you know what lard is?” I ask. Some may say yes, but most shake their heads. What kid is close enough to a farm to know what “lard” is? Then I say, “It’s animal fat!”

“Eeeeeew!” the kids say.

“Right,” I say. Then launch back into the story. No judgment. Assumption of their intelligence. (Every kid has looked at some piece of animal fat they DO NOT WANT TO EAT – [except for children of you good vegetarians]). (Too many parentheses.) But they know what that means for someone who is eating animal fat. Not a healthy diet.


In that moment, I give them some information and acknowledge their ability to assimilate it. it is a great moment – really one of my favorite moments in that telling.

I have gone far astray from my points:

1) Ireland is a very interesting novel for storytellers.
2) Balancing knowledge (information) and narrative (forward movement) is what storytelling is all about.

Too arcane? Not for some of you. Take two and call me in the morning.

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