Archive for the ‘arts presenters’ Category

Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech


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Last month I was out at a dinner with a presenter. The Russian rock group Pussy Riot came up in conversation. You probably know this is the group of young women who went into a church and recorded a video of their song protesting the Putin government’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. You also probably know that they got sentenced to two years in jail for the escapade. You also probably know that there was an international firestorm of support for them, and that many people across the Western world had a hard time saying the words “Pussy Riot” – especially news anchormen.

I said to her, “What a great thing to write a song about – their name is so great!”

The presenter, who runs a great family series, looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare sing a song about Pussy Riot at my concert.”

I understood, but I got an idea. It got me thinking about words – what you can and can’t say. Corruption is okay, but the name of a rock group presents problems.  So I wrote this song, which I probably could sing anywhere (except in Russia). Since they’re a punk band, I plugged in the electric guitar and pushed the distort pedal. It needs a caffeinated drummer. And if ANYONE wants to make a video of it, capturing pictures from the internet of the band and the ensuing madness, let me know.

Here’s the song –

If you like the song, you can download it here: billharley.bandcamp.com/track/puddy-wiot

Here’s to Puddy Wiot. Cwazy guwls.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Just one of those moments that reminds you of what you’re doing and why.

Last week I was at Israel Loring School in Sudbury Massachusetts, in my customary position, standing in front of a microphone, underneath the backboard in the gym in front of three hundred kindergarten, first and second graders sitting on the floor.

I was telling my own twisted version of Sody Salleratus, “Big Bert”, which I have told WAAAAAY too many times, but still love to tell. As I’ve said in other posts, when you know a story really well, something else happens when you tell it.

It sure did.

I got to the point where the girl in the family is going over the bridge to the store. I use the word “sashay” to describe her movement (“She sashayed out the door. She sashayed down the road. She sashayed over the bridge.”) (I think I owe a nod here to Roadside Theater and their version – “Fat Man”.)

I stopped.

The audience looked at me, wondering what I was up to.

“Sashay,” I said. “What does that mean anyway. Anybody know?”

Usually, nobody does. So I tell them it’s a little dance step and go on with the story. Vocabulary lesson accomplished, and I’ve engaged the audience.

But that day, a kindergartener on the far end of the front row raised her hand.

I stop and look at her.

“Do you know what it means?”

She nods. She’s sure.

Well, this is just great, I think. I love this.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a ballet step,” she says.

Now I am surprised. (Would that be chasse? I didn’t know that term until I went searching today…) No ballet expert myself – I learned how to sashay in fourth grade gym class with a scratchy record, Mr. Keller the gym teacher, and Janice Kahn, who I kind of liked. It was a nice move for a fourth grade boy, because no one touched.
Now I’ve stopped telling the story. This is interesting.

“I didn’t know it was a ballet step,” I said. “Thank you.”

I take a breath to go back into the story, but the lexicographer in the kindergarten class is not done. She has her hand raised again, and she is very self-assured.

I pause, “Yes?” I ask

“I know how do it,” she says.

Well,” I say, “that’s fantastic. Would you like to show us?”

She nods and stands up. Completely fearless. She is a dancer by trade! If only her teacher were here to see!

“Go ahead!” I say.

She raises her arms to her sides, faces the audiences, side-skips from one side of the gym to the other, keeping her arms perpendicular to the ground, her feet crossing ever-so-slightly at each step, then back again across the floor, and sits down. There is a spontaneous round of applause.

It is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I am struck near speechless.

“Thank you,” I said. “Now we all know what sashay means.”

I go on telling the story, knowing the picture in three hundred heads is different than it was before.

Actually, make that three-hundred and one.

Mine, too.

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Sorry about the caesura, or hiatus, or whatever, in posts. You know… So here’s this.

I have an uneasy mind. It is restless, and wandering, and often ill-content. Those close to me know this. I would like to apologize to them. I am not easy to be around. As lucky as I am to have found something that gives me a lot of freedom, there’s a price paid for being in charge of myself. From afar, it seems pretty cool (and it is). Up close, well, it presents problems.

Every day, I wonder if I’m spending my time the way I’m supposed to be spending my time. What’s important? What matters? What can I get done? If someone graphed my psyche, or my emotional health, it would look like an oscillation between the Himalayas and the Marianas Trench off the coast of the Phillipines.

Every four hours.

Pretty ironic, considering how many people tell me they appreciate my work. Everyone should have the affirmation I receive. What a basket case I am!

But, then, that’s the way I am. It’s the brain chemistry, or the hand I’ve been dealt by nature, or nurture.

The release from all this comes in performance.

Before a show, regardless of the venue, I am VERY uneasy. Those around me know just to leave me alone. It could be a library show for fifty people, or some “performance venue” with a thousand paid audience members. It doesn’t make any difference. I want to do a good job. I wonder why I’m doing this. I always joke with the presenter – “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do this.” But part of me is serious – I hate this. All the focus on me. Who do I think I am, anyway? I bite my tongue so I don’t whine. I hate everything on the set list. I decide that I should really just try some song or story that I barely know, then decide to go with what’s safe, then say, no, better to fail miserably.

I rarely walk out on stage with a set list cast in stone. I see too many different kinds of audiences to do that. A month ago, I walked out onto a formal stage, a big venue, for a family show, assuming there were a good number of kids, only to discover there were only four children (in the front row, hoping for something wacky) and everyone else had gray hair or none at all. I had prepared a set list. It didn’t match the audience.

I threw away the set list. Wing, wing, wing….

And I am left, then, to depend on instinct and the moment. After doing this long enough, things come to me (or don’t) about what the next piece is. Unfortunately, this discussion goes on while I’m performing a piece, which can keep me from being present in the piece I am performing. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE PRESENT IN THE PIECE BEING PERFORMED. THAT’S HOW GREAT THINGS HAPPEN. There is nothing more blessed in human existence than knowing what you are supposed to do.

But sometimes you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. What then?

I try to get it right. There is very little I can count on. Anywhere. Anytime. But the truth is, the one place I have some semblance of control is when I’m on stage. All these people have come to see me. (What were they thinking?) They have placed their lives in my hands, if only for sixty or seventy minutes. It is up to me to take care of them.

It is an awesome task (in the true sense of the word “awesome”). And it is also not that big a deal. Because I’m better when I just play with them, if I can get to that point.

For me, performance is cathartic, which defined loosely, means “emotionally cleansing”. (Love those Greeks.) Often, in the middle of the show, or towards the end, or maybe even after it’s finished, I can feel everything in me relax. My ever present, relentless mind shuts up. After a show, there is a sense of attainment – of forgiveness, of release. Whether it’s in the car driving home, or in the hotel room a thousand miles from home, or (if I’m lucky) with some friends, the internal dialogue stops for a little while. I have done my job. I’ve done what I could by the sweat of my brow and by my instinct. For that short time – a couple of hours – my being is at peace and I can accept who I am, gratefully and joyfully.

We should all be so lucky.

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“You’re lucky you got in.”

Debbie and I heard that line a half dozen times on our first day in Juneau. We didn’t know there was a question, but getting in and out of Juneau by air is always pretty iffy, depending on the fog or rain or snow. Someone told me they spent five days in Seattle, just waiting for the right day to fly.

It reminds me of when I was visiting Bosnia – they told me they called the flights into and out of Sarajevo during the war “Maybe Airlines” – maybe we fly, maybe we don’t.

But we did get in and here we’ve been, slogging through the streets in “Juneau tennies” – brown rubber boots just like the ones I left at home and should have brought. (I opened up my suitcase and thought, “Who packed this? What was I thinking?”)

Jeff Brown, program director at KTOO in Juneau, has been playing my songs and stories for twenty years, so it was great to finally meet him (Also because he lent me the boots.)

Jeff Brown and yours truly at KTOO, Juneau, AK

An hour after we got in , he was driving us up to the Mendenhall Glacier. I had to take Jeff’s word that the glacier was there – as you’ll see in this picture. Fog. Beautiful, beautiful fog.

Debbie and I in front of the stunning Mendenhall glacier

And I’m also taking on faith that Juneau is completely surrounded by mountains. We really couldn’t see those either – not yet anyway. Maybe tomorrow when we take the ferry up to Haines.

Juneau in January - see the mountains!

No picture postcard views. That leaves us with the mush in the streets, the bald eagles flying right over our heads, the ravens the size of SUV’s, and the great people we’ve met. In the summer Juneau is filled with tourists – seven cruise ships at a time. Yikes. That must lead to a love /hate relationship with all of us from the lower forty-eight. (“Why is the glacier so dirty? Can’t you clean it off?” one tourist asked.)

But now the shops are closed down (just like Cape Cod, or Bar Harbor, or Avalon, New Jersey) and it’s just the people who live here – most of them by choice because they love the landscape, they love the pace of life, and they like, I think, being a little bit weird.

And they’re tired of talking about the ex-governor.

Debbie and I are fitting right in.

And since they don’t have to look for a parking place or sell t-shirts to folks from Phoenix, they have time to talk.

Yesterday I visited two schools and they were way too nice to me. This morning I did a two hour workshop at the library (on top of the parking garage – a strange retrofit that saved the questionable edifice and gives a great view of the passage) – I talked about stories and songs and how they fit in schools, even when they don’t fit in the curriculum. I taught a couple of songs and a couple of games and had them tell each other stories. What a job.

Workshop at the Juneau library - I'm the bald guy in the middle

Tomorrow we’re on an early ferry up the passage to Haines, where it’s colder. Maybe some northern lights up there.

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I’m supposed to be making a set list for the show I’m doing tonight at Providence’s Bright Night (like First Night, but without the official name and licensing). Bright Night’s survival is hanging by a thread, having lost its funding from the city and some other sources, and because the weather last year killed the attendance and thereby the revenues. The local artists and the intrepid organizer, Adma Gertsacov, are plowing ahead in the belief that it’s a worthwhile venture, hoping that people will turn up.

So if you’re in the Providence area, please show up – we need you. Not to mention that it will be a good time. (http://www.brightnight.org/)

But getting ready for the show has me thinking of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with many performers – we all are experiencing the continued erosion of attendance at public arts events. For many years, and particularly over the past two or three, I’ve seen a noticeable drop-off in audience size. While some of this can be blamed on the economy and the current concerns about the flu, I think even if/when things get straightened out there, we’re seeing a significant shift in people’s behavior.

People don’t go out.

Every performer I talk to is concerned about it. Major presenters are guessing and gambling on what will draw an audience in. Local musicians find themselves being paid less at clubs than they were ten years ago (if they can find a club that has music). Artists are scrambling, juggling more and making less. And a good percentage of a younger generation thinks art should be free, anyway.

No surprise to any of us, I know. Putting the economy aside, everyone knows that digital entertainment has changed the the way we relate to art and content – the local paper, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, had a front page article about Bright Night, and right below it made suggestions for what movies to curl up with at home tonight. Inertia will win for many, and they’ll curl up and watch something at home. And tomorrow, Bright Night will be gone, but the movie suggestions won’t (if people bother to read the paper for suggestions). The digital media is relentless, and live performance is not so persistent. We don’t have the access or funding.

There are at least two things that are really troubling to me about this.

The first is pretty selfish – in spite of all the things I do (including this blog) I am at heart a live performer. It’s my bread and butter, and I need it to live. So, I need people to show up. Recognizing that things are a little bleak in the performing world, I’m making adjustments. I can survive. Like I joke with my friends – why not brain surgery? I think people still get paid for doing brain surgery.

But the other issue is deeper – What does it say that people do not spend time watching live performance in a room with other people? What’s being lost? We are, in the end, a communal animal (my friend Bob Stromberg says we want to be eagles, but we’re really geese) – not just in the sharing of minds, but in the sharing of warmth and physical presence. And the experience of sharing something communally – some artistic experience – is something we’ve done since we stood up and walked. Are we better off isolated in our houses and cubicles with headphones on, listening to our personal soundtracks?

Eric Booth, in his great book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible says the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment reaffirms what the audience believes whereas art takes the audience outside of themselves. We need both (and it could be from the same song, or play, or book, or movie, or painting), but certainly being at a live performance, in the company of other people, is one good way to take a step a little bit outside one’s self.

So come on out. Now, I have to go make that set list.

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