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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

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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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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I’ve come across several articles in the last month about technology and education that have got me thinking about where educators, schools, and society spend their energy and money. In one, a teacher shows how using youtube and online information has changed how he teaches. In another, the US government announces it is going to focus more on the use of digital technology in education.

In both of these articles, there is an inherent assumption that technology is a key to solving our educational problems.

I ain’t so sure.

I am, I guess, a semi-Luddite, in that I have a “prove it to me” approach to whatever the latest hot thing is. Technology (like computers, ipads, and, um, books) has its place. And something in the whole slew of new generation of software and hardware and connectivity has value. But figuring out which thing it is and how to use it isn’t that easy.

And there are other things that are important, too.

What would you expect from a storyteller? – a guy who spends most of his time in front of warm bodies, emitting intentionally formed bits of air out of his mouth.

But I’m no enemy of technology – as long as it’s considered. And I want to be careful and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But all this talk about technology in education has me thinking several things about its limits and problems.

First, in almost all the literature extolling the use of new media and technology, there is the underlying, still unproven assumption that all this stuff is going to do a better job at teaching students. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we are always attracted to what ‘s new, hoping it’s our savior. A recent article in the NYTimes about a district outside of Phoenix notes that their heavy investment hasn’t reaped the rewards they were hoping for. Defenders are quick to say that the testing used to measure student achievement doesn’t really measure what the technology is helping to develop – a new way of thinking. We artists use that argument against standardized testing too, but it’s a little surprising that technology rides in on a promise of raising test scores, and then shifts its argument. (And actually, the arts has proven their value that time and time again, to no apparent acknowledgement or effect on the part of the powers that be.) I’m no fan of standardized testing, but if we’re going to spend billions on something, it would be nice to know it works.

Second – there is no way technology would be everyone’s darling if it didn’t involve huge amounts of money. There is a lot at stake here, and it’s notable that the people who are crowing the loudest about its possibilities are those who have spent their lives designing and selling technology. Apple and Google run the workshops for teachers on how to use technology and in the Internet in the classroom. Should we be surprised that they see technology as the answer to our problems? Is it shocking that the Gates Foundation has found a way to influence the discussion about what American education needs? Education is a gold mine for corporations, and they spend a great part of their time lobbying everyone about its possibilities.

I’m not saying these people don’t have good intentions. Of course they believe in what they’re doing.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

National, state and local governments have bought in. Lobbyists help.

Schools spend millions of dollars every year on new technologies to help teachers. And the truth is, the companies that sell the stuff already have plans for something else that will make it obsolete in five years. When you buy a hundred computers, you know you’re going to buy a hundred more in a couple of years. Corporations selling it have that figured out.

You don’t make that much money off pencils.

Or teachers. Corporations don’t really benefit from developing skills in a teacher (unless it’s to use their product). I am left wondering what it would be like if we spent anywhere near the money we do on technology on working intimately with teachers on classroom management skills and group dynamics. Or (here it is…) on being good storytellers. Or on how to really foster good relationships between home and school and giving parents support. These things are teachable, but they’re not bright and shiny – they are actually kind of hard to do, and they have no glossy flyers and videos with pulsing beats that promise the moon and stars.

One result of the ever-increasing dependency and worship of technology as a teaching panacea will be an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. If you’re like me, you’re more and more upset about the widening rift between the haves and have-nots. I walked into a teacher’s room at a fairly well-heeled school a couple of weeks ago and saw all the teacher’s assistants (which means two adults in each classroom) sitting around a table – fifteen of them all with identical Apple laptops.

Not happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I think. Or most places, really. Most school districts will never be able to afford the luxury of the newest technology. Especially since we don’t really want to spend money on education for those less fortunate. And Apple donating computers doesn’t really solve the problem.

The more we praise technology and the latest development, the more we ignore those who will never see it. The more all this stuff costs, the more students we leave behind.

So I’m brought back to the notion that a lot of energy is being devoted to one aspect of learning at the expense of other things. Technology will not close the gap between rich and poor. Technology is not the answer to someone who does not know how to teach. And I don’t believe a video has the same impact as a flesh and bones teacher, well trained and familiar with the student, giving the same information. It may provide support, but not replacement.

I think we praise technology because we’re hoping it’s the quick fix. Tech purveyors want us to think that, too.

And the deeper, more long range truth, is that the growth of all this technology and continued production of more and more stuff is unsustainable. We can’t afford, in the long run, to depend on more and more. There is a reckoning up ahead, and it will probably force us to fall back upon some simpler approaches to communicating.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with a number of teachers and principals about this. Several principals (and good ones, I think) noted that it’s not all or nothing – they are really figuring out how to incorporate technology into teaching so it’s a useful tool. That’s good. A good teacher has a wide array of resources and methods they draw on when teaching. And advanced technology, within limits, is a great idea.

Like I said, I’m a semi-Luddite. Until we use up the fossil fuel, we’re not going back. But I don’t believe the hype and promise. Because I’ve also seen what good administrators and teachers can do with more limited resources.

They need some attention, too.

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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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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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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