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Archive for May, 2011

-from Tackling the Problems of Appalachia, Theatrically, in the New York Times


Last week there was a great article in the New York Times about a professor at a community college in Kentucky who got sick of reading reports about poverty and social problems in Eastern Kentucky. Rather than issuing one more report or one more set of statistics, he decided to write and produce plays about the communities there and the problems they faced. You can read it here (if you’re not over your Times limit). It’s really inspiring to see how someone has put people’s lives in a context that they can understand, using song and story, and community people as actors.

The articlemakes me think about the many uses and purposes of art. In particular, I was stuck by a quote at the end of the article by Robert Gipe, the professor:

“Somewhere along the line, artistic validity became associated with everything ending in a mess,” he said. “But if you articulate what’s best in us and put characters in front of people who don’t resort to their basest instincts, that’s real, too.”

What Gipe is saying, I think, is that you make a choice about your aesthetic, and the way you view the world, and how you present it artistically. He wants to uplift people, and that influences how he approaches his art. Some artists would say that art shouldn’t have to have a purpose – it just is. Gipe and others (including me, usually) think their art does have a purpose. It’s to show the world in a way that people look at it anew. And it’s to offer hope.

There is a tendency among people who view themselves as artists to not want to make things happy at the end, and a tendency to dismiss something with an uplifting ending as sentimental and cheap. As a result, artists can tend towards the cynical, or dark side. This is a strain that runs through art, and it is something every artist has to deal with. One reason, I think, is that art with positive endings tend to be more marketable, and artists tend to worry about whether they are commercial. Most artists want to be non-commercial and successful (if that seems like a paradox, there it is…) So, if a commercial art errs on the side of uplift, “serious” artists may err on the side of darkness.

The other reason artists shy from positive message is that that kind of uplifting image really tends to reinforce the status quo. “See? Everything is okay!” uplifting art seems to be saying. It’s what sets our teeth on edge with the American movie industry and the Disneyfied portrayal of conflict. “It’s all just individual effort,” such art says. “You can do it!”

And of course, that’s a lie. It is you, but it’s also the world you face. People have their own abilities and will, but they also are handed a set of circumstances that are sometimes overwhelming.

This tension runs through all art. Most artists who labor on their work in the end are concerned about three things: 1) speaking the truth as they see it 2) exploring their craft and artistry 3) making a living. There’s enough tension in those things to keep you up late at night. Believe me.

But the work of this theater group shows the false dichotomy in saying you can’t be uplifting and produce serious art at the same time. I think particularly of the work of Liz Lerman, who goes into communities and has them tell the stories of who they are through dance. It is uplifting and real at the same time.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the world, but I also don’t want to say there’s no hope. That’s my aesthetic. When I get it right.

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This past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with students in classroom settings trying to figure out how quickly I can get them up and telling a story. I’ve talked about some experiments in earlier posts. What strikes me over and over again is the difference between the word on the page and the word as it is spoken. When emerging readers read a story, it is very difficult for them to get those words off the page, into their heads, and then speak the story in their own language. This difficulty is something I’ve observed time and time again, and it seems to me this translation – into an image, and then through some alchemical process, into the speaker’s own language – is at the heart of a complete literacy and fluency with both kinds of language – oral and written. Children live in an oral world, and are making the transition to the world of literacy and it’s not an easy one to make.

I might add that as a storyteller who has passed my literacy tests (well, okay, I haven’t, but think I could if it was mandated, which it’s not) , I still have a very difficult time lifting a story off the page and making it my own. Many times I’ve read a story that I like and want to tell, but my performance of it always falls flat – it’s not alive yet. Then, sometimes, I hear someone tell the story, and I know how to do it. It’s my hearing the story that brings it to life.

I had a recent conversation with storyteller Donald Davis about this, and Donald observed that young readers are reading words, and that’s what they see when they’re trying to tell the story – the words they read, not the pictures in their heads. When they hear a story, they don’t see the words, they see the pictures. That makes sense to me. A lot of times, when I’m first learning a story from a page, I actually can picture where on the page that particular part of the story is – I’m stuck with the words, not the images.

But I continue to be fixated on the notion that if I could just get the kid to tell the story using images, not words, something is accomplished. Developing orality is important at any age, and contributes to literacy. And I’ve noticed that, like me, when kids hear me tell a story, it is exponentially easier for them to tell it themselves. Again, Donald observes this is because they have the images in their heads. More than that, though, I think that there is an affective component – the emotional impact of the story is greater when someone is telling it, and that’s where stories have a particular power – they’re both affective and cognitive. Emotional events have meaning, and meaning lodges in someone’s mind and heart.

So, back to my original question – how do I get a kid up and telling a story as quickly as possible?

In February, I was in Utah being filmed working with kids on storytelling. I came up with a process to try and get them telling as quickly as possible, so we could then work on their delivery and performance They were fifth graders, and responded stunningly well. Since then, I’ve used it effectively all the way down to second grade, with some slight modifications. Here’s the steps I used.

1) The teacher (storyteller) tells a story with a straightforward plot and clear episodes. Note that I say “tells”. This requires that the teacher learn the story and can tell it simply without the aid of a book. It might work as a reading exercise, but it’s the actual oral narrative – with no intermediary of the written word – that will facilitate the learning of the story. Tell the story simply – for the purposes of the exercise, a story five minutes long (or even slightly less) is good.

2) In the group, afterwards, have the group reconstruct the steps of the story. As each incident is recounted, write the events up on a whiteboard or flip chart in short simple sentences. Each event/scene should be captured in one sentence – don’t worry about small details – only the ones that are absolutely crucial to the story. The question, “What happens next?” is the prompt that leads to this simple outline.

3) Briefly go over the outline after it’s finished to help fix it in the student’s minds.

4) Have students pair off and let each person tell the story to their partner. If the teller gets stuck, they may get help from either the chart or a short prompt by their partner. When the first teller finishes, their partner then tells the story. Their telling will likely take longer than the teacher’s recounting.

5) Get back together in the group and debrief. Ask about what was easy and what was hard. Ask whose partner told the story well, and what they did that made it interesting. You will find some children are already experimenting with the story.

6) Give up your seat by the story chart, and ask for a volunteer to start the story, letting them take the “storytelling seat”. I find that sitting, initially, is a little easier and produces a more natural performance. Let that person start the story, and at a natural break (using the outline as a guide) ask for a volunteer to take over. Initially, look for a confident student (they’ll volunteer). If you know the students, you may encourage shyer students to try as the story progresses. You may gently guide the tellers if they need help or forget something.

7) When the joint performance is done, ask for a volunteer who thinks they can tell the story all the way through. Help them through the story. Discuss with the group what they liked about the telling.

This exercise will take 40 to 45 minutes. By the end they will have gone over the story (at least in outline) seven times, and will have it firmly in mind. Different approaches to performance will also begin to emerge.

Through all the years of telling stories, I’ve been only more and more convinced that if a kid can stand up in front of someone and tell a story, they’re going to be okay. I still believe it. This is one way to make it happen.

Any other ideas?

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