Arts and Crafts

tailorLast week I visited my mother in New York, and we saw three Broadway shows. None of them were huge hits, but the two straight plays featured one or more well-known movie actors, and the musical was about a well-known entertainer. In each case, the theaters housed many hundreds of people. There were a few empty seats, but not many.

I mention this because I have produced storytelling shows for well over a decade, and the biggest problem (apart from performer cancellations due to illness, which have plagued me the last couple of years) is getting prospective audience members to take a chance on a show that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a unique, fabulous, fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime adult theatrical experience.

We have often talked in the storytelling world (yes, there is such a thing) about changing the name of our art form in order to sever the association with children in pajamas and librarians in rocking chairs. I still get questions from prospective employers about what kind of stories I plan to read. Most American audiences (I can’t speak for those overseas) don’t understand what storytelling is, much less that it can be as thrilling, heart-breaking, gorgeous, erotic and terrifying as anything they have ever seen on a stage.

To my mind the biggest reason why we continue to have this problem—besides the association with pajamas and librarians—is the same reason that we professionals don’t want to change the name to something less open to misinterpretation. The beauty of storytelling is that the least educated Appalachian herb-gatherer can tell a story that runs rings around that of the college-educated professor. The power of storytelling is that a grandparent can tell a story to a child that will change her life forever. The magic of storytelling is that a single person of any age, status or intelligence level can move an audience to laughter and tears.

There has been a movement in the visual arts for some time now known as “outsider art.” This applies to the work of those painters or others who are unschooled and yet possess tremendous skill in their chosen art form. The work may appear “primitive”—I put the term in quotes to refer to the artistic tradition known as primitivism, not to denigrate the art—but nonetheless, it is everything a work of art should be: challenging, aesthetically charged, innovative and emotionally expressive, either on the part of the artist, the viewer or both.

The artistic movement is relatively new compared to what we’ve seen in storytelling over the centuries and during the current renaissance of the form. The difference is that the fine art world existed long before outsider art was considered acceptable for galleries and study, whereas “outsider storytelling” was known well before the more elitist performance telling.

These thoughts are part of a long, long debate about storytelling: the term, the future, the marketing. More insights, or questions, to come.


Of Hammers and Carpenters

perfphotoHere’s a twist on the old saying, “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I suggest: “When you’re a carpenter, you think that no one else can wield a hammer.”

As a professional storyteller, I get caught up in the work of storytelling: the teaching, performing, writing, rehearsing, invoicing, etc. And no matter how many times I say it in a professional setting, I sometimes need to force myself to remember that no one needs to have graduated from a class, cracked a book or been a professional to tell stories that matter.

This semester I did something I haven’t done before. In one of my classes, I insisted that everyone do a service-learning project for their final presentation. Service-learning is a wonderful concept that has been in existence for more than a decade. It allows students to use the classroom material in real-world settings to (1) understand the relevance of their studies, (2) volunteer in the community, and (3) acquire added insights into their classwork.

I have always assigned service-learning projects as an alternative to research in my storytelling classes, but never before have I required them, mainly because students in my university often have jobs, children, transportation challenges and other constraints. But this semester, as an experiment, I told my students in my Peace, Conflict and Oral Narrative class that they must tell stories and/or do storytelling activities for a university group, a senior center, a school, a library or other community setting. My Storytelling class students could do it in lieu of research, but were not required to do so.

Here are a few of my favorite discoveries:

°One student was all set on a research project when her mother died unexpectedly. She switched gears hundreds of miles away from school when she requested to arrange the funeral and set about eliciting stories from family members and friends in a way that, she said, she would never have been able to accomplish had she not taken the class.

°Two young men who were, in their words, in no way interested in working with kids, had their eyes opened and their smiles propped up when they worked in schools with little ones, telling stories, singing songs and facilitating activities. One of them, who returned to his old elementary school, actually signed up that day to become a volunteer.

°A young woman who immigrated from Venezuela charmed older adults at a senior center and assisted living facility as she shared her story of what it was to come to this country and know no English. Time was, the majority of seniors in the room would have been immigrants. No more.

°A young woman discovered for the first time in her life that she loved performing—and was quite good at it. She is in the process of rethinking her career choice.

°A young man assembled his informal club of 25 students to create a storytelling ritual in honor of a member of the group who had recently died.

Yes, I know, these students actually HAD cracked open a book and sat in a class; that was the point of their doing the service-learning: to reinforce their studies. And yet, none of this was about storytelling theory: master narratives, counter stories, companion stories, social interactionism, co-creation, diffusion, collective unconscious, fourth wall, archetypes, etc.

It was good old-fashioned community storytelling.

Does Heroism Breed Tragedy?

ghettoI read a quote today that got me thinking about storytelling. According to one of our greatest English-language novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald, behind every hero is a tragedy.

I’ve been working with a good number of heroes lately, particularly for my work on the PTSD portion of the recent WXEL-TV Veterans’ Day special “Saving America’s Heroes.” These men and women surrendered (odd choice of words, isn’t it?) not only their time and physical health, but also a good deal of their sanity when they fought in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf. Whatever they did or however long they were in uniform, most of us would, I suspect, call them heroes. And I suspect most of us would call any suffering they endure a tragedy.

There is of course another kind of hero, however,  that most people do not consider when they come across the word. That is the tragic hero, a literary term reserved for those protagonists who are traditionally heroic in large part by virtue of their place in the world (in Shakespeare, they were noblemen) but who possess what literary theorists call a “tragic flaw,” some personality trait that more often than not is one of those juicy cardinal sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth or wrath. This tragic flaw serves as the catalyst for the hero’s downfall. We see this happening to our modern heroes all the time. The poster child for tragic heroism in our days has got to be Bill “Lust” Clinton, although it could be argued that Barack Obama may have a bit too much pride on his plate.

Anyway, there are plenty of people who suffer tragedies, real tragedies, who are not heroes. The tragedy of heroes is different from the tragedy of non-heroes for at least three reasons. First, a hero’s tragedy may not seem like a tragedy to others. I mean, tell someone who has lost a child that Bill Clinton’s tragedy was that his legacy was besmirched by his impeachment, and you’ll get a blank stare, at best. It’s a shame, perhaps, but not what most of us think of as a tragedy. That leads us to the second point: the tragedy is most often seen in the lost potential of the hero—what s/he might have done for humankind. Which leads us to reason three, which to my mind is the most telling: The tragedy is self-inflicted. There is something so chilling about self-inflicted wounds that we discuss suicide in hushed tones at a time when we shout about most other once-private topics from the rooftops. It’s just not natural, doing harm to oneself. The irony abounds. The hero’s enemies could not possibly bring down him or her as thoroughly, or as efficiently.

Back to storytelling. When we can tell ourselves and those we love and admire the stories of tragic heroes who have been felled by their  flaws, we might be able to change history. When we can help a hero create a new story that does not include the tragic flaw, we might be able to avert tragedy that ultimately affects us all.

We just might.

Ham for Chanukah

chanukahThe storytelling stage is increasingly filled with personal memorate, so we tellers can often be found mining our past experiences for material. I thought my childhood was pretty much played out, when, while planning a Chanukah concert, I remembered this:

From ages three to eight, I dreamed of becoming an actress. I was quite a ham, for a little Jewish girl. Randi was the shy one, the serious sister. She was three years ahead of me in school, had taught me to read, and had no great interest in standing out. I once asked Mrs. Stoddard, the school music teacher, to call her from her classroom so she could get on stage with me in the big auditorium and serenade the first grade. We sang the funny songs we used to sing together in the bathroom. I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for that.

We lived in Long Island, New York. As Jews, we were in the vast minority in our elementary school, even though our synagogue was nearly across the street. We had no Jewish families on my block, and I had no Jewish kids in my class. It’s not that everyone was the same, however. We had a crush on our beautiful grown-up Finnish neighbor who read movie magazines and let us brush her hair, and a Russian family lived down the street. So it didn’t bother me that we were different; I just wanted to be sure to do the right thing.

The winter I was in the second grade, I asked my dad if I had to sing carols in music class. He couldn’t have cared less; he had long since left the ways of his Orthodox parents behind, and good riddance. He said no, I didn’t have to sing if I didn’t want to. So I asked my music teacher, a formidable older woman with bat wing arms and an enormous bosom, if I could just mouth the words instead. I guess I thought that would draw less attention during the month before Christmas.

Now the way I remember this is it was out of the blue and not my idea: Mrs. Stoddard asked me to get on stage and sing Chanukah songs to the school assembly. I was one of the very few altos in the grade and not a good singer; if she could have had her way, Mrs. S. probably would have had me mouth everything we sang throughout the year. But I remember being thrilled. I also remember the cute boy next door (yes, we had our requisite cute boy next door) sprawled out in the first row smiling up at me as I prepared to serenade. And I sang: Ma’oz Tsur. Dreydl, Dreydl. Mi Y’malel. I remember happily singing all the Chanukah songs I’d learned in Hebrew school both in Hebrew and English, without the slightest bit of hesitation, fear or embarrassment. It was the 1960s, and Israel had not yet even won the Six-Day War. I had not yet bought a blue-and-white Kiss Me I’m Jewish button. But I was Jewish and I was proud.

I don’t know what changed in me soon after, or why. Until this day, I have never been as comfortable expressing my Judaism to non-Jews. I get a twinge when the woman behind me sees me buy matzoh meal in the supermarket. Not to mention that it took me 30 years to feel comfortable again performing in public.

When I look back at that day, singing my little Jewish heart out in front of 100 or more kids, I wonder who that little girl was. I’d sure like to know her better.

Tis the Season

photoNo, I don’t mean that season. At least not yet, although they are already constructing the Christmas tree tent outside the local Kmart. I am referring to the South Florida tourist season, which runs roughly from October to May. This is bread-and-butter time for many of us hard-working residents, even those of us who don’t work with the tourist industry. That’s because we rely on the snowbirds, those wonderful people who grace our shores and give us work.

Here’s the thing: These days, I am telling stories and teaching about storytelling and writing about the above all the time these days. I’m talking more or less 24/7. (What I meant by that line was “I mean 24/7,” but frankly, I am talking 24/7.) And during this glorious season of work, I am finding that, indeed, it is work. 

Let me explain. I once worked at a newspaper with a very talented editor who had previously been employed as a copywriter. She told me that copywriters for Bloomingdale’s or Saks get paid a lot less than those at Walmart. This was not because Walmart was a more profitable company, but because everyone wanted to work at the elite stores, so those employers didn’t have to pay as much.

The analogy is that artists do what we need to do, what we love doing, and that is one of the reasons that employers, audiences or patrons don’t value it as much. (Of course there are exceptions: tickets to the Rolling Stones, a work by Damien Hurst, etc.) If you didn’t want to do it, the theory goes, you would be doing something else. This is soul-satisfying work, unlike churning out widgets or punching a timeclock.

And of course to a large extent that’s true. When I am feeling great and the audience is great and the stars are in perfect alignment, storytelling certainly is soul-satisfying. It is truly energizing to have all those good vibes of co-creation (what we say happens during a storytelling event) swirling around. Unfortunately, there are also times when it doesn’t all work perfectly. When the storyteller has to drive an hour to and from a gig in rush-hour traffic. When parents at a family concert interrupt your show to take photos of their darling children from the stage on which you are sitting, or speak to you from the middle of the hall in the middle of a performance. When students text in class or walk out of the room to take a call. These things happen; it’s human nature. And it makes the job harder. Enervating instead of energizing.

It also makes the job harder to have three or four gigs in a day. Am I complaining? Not about the amount of work—I’m thrilled. Like many of us in this part of the country, we rely on the busy months of season to pay for the slow months of summer. It’s just that it can be challenging, enervating work.

Yes, theoretically I could get into another line of work that is never soul-satisfying but pays the bills. But just as there are folks out there who consider themselves incapable of becoming professional performers or writers, I can’t fathom how I would do a job like theirs unless my life depended on it. Which, given the way things are going, it always could.

I’m not complaining, honestly. I’m just trying to explain.

The Magic Coat

I know it’s happened to storytellers since time immemorial, but it’s never happened to me.

I was minding my own business, sort of, performing last night at a lovely senior living facility in Boca Raton, Florida, as I do once or twice a month, to 25 people, many of whom have attended my regular performances there over the past year. The theme this time was personal storytelling. I was highlighting my public radio segment The Public Storyteller, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. Over the past four years, we’ve collected about 200 personal stories, or, in folkloric terms, memorates, from South Floridians about their experiences here in the area.

I was making the point that personal storytelling connects us, how we can see the world through someone else’s eyes when we listen to their stories. How, as is said often by storytellers, “You can’t hate someone once you’ve heard her story.” So I summarized some of the most memorable stories from the Public Storyteller, and then I shared a few performance pieces from my own life. Finally I asked an audience member to tell a brief story.

One of the stories I told from my life had to do with a “magic” coat that I had had as a child. I was at that liminal state between still believing in magic, or the tooth fairy, and not. Having a fertile imagination, at age eight or so, I wasn’t quite there yet. I was also an innately religious child, which added to the reality/fantasy confusion.

Anyway, my mother was going to school at the time, so I did a fair number of chores and errands for her. I learned to make soup. (Recipe: One can of Campbell’s, one pot. Heat. Stir.) I walked down our long hill through the shortcut to the supermarket once or twice a week to pick up a few items. I cleaned the house to supplement my allowance. ($2.50 for seven rooms. What did I know? I wasn’t in a union.)

Anyway, that winter, I noticed that about once a week, when I reached into my ski jacket pocket, I found money. Sometimes it was a few coins; other times it was a couple of bills. I was shocked. My parents were frugal, and I knew they weren’t the type to give me money for no reason, particularly without telling me. But I couldn’t figure out any other explanation—unless … I was being compensated from Above for helping out my parents? What can I say, I was that kind of kid.

Anyway, without going through the entire story, I will tell you that I eventually figured out that I hadn’t been giving my mother change from the grocery shopping. When I realized that, I started handing her the money. And on that day, something inside of me, a little bit of childhood, died.

That was it: a short, simple story about the end of innocence. After the performance, however, a lovely woman who attends all my shows fairly ran up to the stage and told me that when I started telling the story, she was shocked, because … it was her story! As a child growing up poor in Michigan, SHE had a magic coat! SHE couldn’t figure out why she was getting cash in her pockets, either! In her case, however, it was her dad who was putting in a dime or a quarter.

Interestingly, she found my story very sad—which I never had. I just took it as a fact of life. On the other hand, I found her story a lovely comment on her relationship with her father. But more interestingly still, here were two women, separated by hundreds of miles (New York and Michigan) and maybe a generation or two, with such similar stories. It made us both think of Roberta Flack’s lovely old song “Killing Me Softly.” (“I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”)

But why should I be surprised? This is the human condition. And this—you guessed it—is storytelling.

Guest Blogger: Nicholas “The Storyteller” Cole

nicholasThe wise and talented long-time Florida teller Nicholas “The Storyteller” Cole recently sent me his new book called Aphorisms. (Love the cover art!) With his monk’s robes and flowing white beard, Nicholas has been a favorite at Florida Storytelling Association and other events, and in 2012 he emceed the storytelling slam and wowed the crowd with ghost stories at the Deerfield Beach Storytelling Festival.

Nicholas has been quite busy lately; his novel Ruin is now available on Amazon Kindle. I am dedicating this week’s post to those of Nicholas’ aphorisms that are most closely related to storytelling:

Language is for communication, not for seeking truth.

The blessing and the curse of a recorded story is that it stays the same.

Is my memory perfect if I cannot recall one thing that I’ve forgotten?

Art does not give me something to believe. It simply gives me things to observe that are believable.

The human brain is a story machine. It will repeat almost anything.

Just wondering: Is it love we celebrate or the stories we tell ourselves about it?

Life is simple. It is our stories about it that are complicated.

Storytelling is saying things about reality it cannot say by itself.

In stories there should be deniability; especially when they are meant to be true.

Experienced liars and storytellers have learned that they must give enough facts to capture credibility.

No one has written a really original Greek myth in ages.

It takes thought and creativity to make a story, but only one mistake to change history.

Sound bites are tricksters of language.

Do our memories belong to us, or do we belong to them?

To contact Nicholas for a gig, a book talk or just to chat, call him at 786-853-4475.

When Storytelling Does Not Promote Memory

dadA funny thing happened to me recently on the way to a story. I had related a family tale about my deceased father for my column in the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal and sent the piece to my mom, because I thought it would please her. It did, but she pointed out a correction: The plot of the story was just as I had described it from memory, but I had misremembered the setting. I set the story at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where logic told me it had occurred, because it involved my Trenton-based grandfather’s visiting my dad in 1942 at an Army base. However, the story had actually happened at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

There are times, like this one, when life imitates academia. I am always explaining to students that in the heyday of the oral tradition, when the tribal storyteller told the story of a hunt, it made no difference  whether 10 or 12 buffalo were killed; what mattered was the bravery of the hunters and the beasts. That’s why the oral tradition worked so well—numbers and details were largely unimportant, so each generation could fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, insight and knowledge. (Sort of like some of our reportage today.) It wasn’t until commerce emerged that it mattered just how many buffalo hides were traded for just how many sheaves of wheat.

Truth, my explanation continues, comes in many forms. Two of them are (1) documentable, verifiable truth, the kind that the media (largely) aim for, and (2) universal, human Truth, such as love, fear, greed and heroism. The first kind is largely an illusion: there are so many perspectives on any one event, it is often impossible to pin down the mercury-like bubble of fact. We simply do our best. The second is more meaningful, to my mind, but appears to many eyes, and hearts, as the stuff of children’s stories, old wives’ tales, or worse. Sometimes, of course, it is. Just not always.

There is at least one reason that I will, from now on, correct my misconception about that story. My grandfather was sent (by my grandmother) with an urgent message to prevent my father from becoming a paratrooper: If he jumped out of a plane with a parachute, she told him, she would jump off her roof with an umbrella. It is even more amazing that my grandfather took a train from Trenton to North Carolina in 1942 to deliver this message than that he drove the few miles to the base in New Jersey.

In other words, it’s a better story. That means that people will have an easier time remembering it, and the values inherent in it (family love, humor, etc.) will have a greater impact. To my mind, that’s the best reason to correct it.

P.S. This family story might have taken place in 1943 or 1944. Does it matter? If more paratroopers were dying in a certain year, I would say it makes for a better story!

Your Storytelling Correspondent from Warsaw

Sitting on a cozy sofa upstairs in an overheated cafe in Stare Miasto (Old Town) Warsaw, I am sipping passion fruit tea, listening to American pop music and watching the sun slip down the cold blue sky. And I think about my week teaching and lecturing on storytelling, which ends tomorrow.

The words storytelling and narrative are often interchanged; sometimes for good reason. Here’s one difference that sometimes surfaces between them: a narrative is the generic denotation of all specific stories on a certain theme, such as “national narrative” or “master narrative,” while a story is a specific assemblage of character, setting and plot, such as “the story of Warsaw during World War II.”

The master narrative—the guiding, hegemonic type of story—of non-Polish Americans about Poland’s role in the war, as far as I know, is one of complicity and cooperation. What I am told as a visitor here, both directly by my host and slightly less directly by monuments and guidebooks, is the Polish master narrative of that time: Poland as a “brother in blood,” Poland as victim, and Warsaw as the ultimate victim, razed to the ground.

warsawI had no idea before coming here, for instance, that the Nazi officer in charge of Warsaw ordered everyone in the city to be shot, and all the buildings to be destroyed. I had no idea about the Warsaw Uprising that led to that order. All I knew was the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Were there Poles who collaborated and cooperated with the Nazis? Of course. There are weak and evil people in every society. Do I know how I would behave, if I suddenly wandered into their story? I think about it every day here.

I came here to teach and deliver a public lecture at SWPS, a small university in Praga, which turns out to be the bohemian section of the city. (I also lectured at the much larger, more prominent University of Warsaw.) My 45 students came from countries including Ukraine, Italy, China and Vietnam. In one class in particular, I was struck by another example of the diversity of stories here. I had told an African folktale about couples who start off very close and end up warring over a foolish thing. Several of the Ukrainian students knew a similar version of the story, which at first confused them, because their assignment was to transpose the African story into that of another culture. In their story, two brothers fight over a pear tree, and it is finally split in two. It is the avoided conclusion of Solomon and the baby, because in this case, the tree is split and dies. In a beautiful burst of serendipity, I was able to pull from my bag a pear I had saved from breakfast and hand it to the student as her “prize.”

I relate these two examples of cross-cultural storytelling because, for one thing,  I am in an unfamiliar place searching for meaning wherever I can find it. But also because it is, truth be told, everywhere I look.

One last thing: I have been watching Euronews on TV here, along with CNN International and BBC. The station has a short segment called “No Comment.” It simply shows astounding video, such as that of the shooting at the mall in Nairobi or riots in France. I watch it in fascination, but I have to say: Just pointing the camera in a certain direction, just editing the footage, is commentary. It’s all commentary. It’s all storytelling.

Funny thing: That’s what I’ve been teaching all week.

A Tribute to Dov Noy

noySince the death of Israeli folklorist Dov Noy on September 30, I have been trying to remember every moment and image of the time I met him at his home in Jerusalem in 2007. I was there thanks to an introduction by my mentor Peninnah Schram, a friend and colleague of Noy’s, but as I was to find out, anyone could stop by his home for conversation about storytelling. It was a slow night, fortunately, and only one other woman arrived in the two hours I was his guest.

I adored the man instantly, the dim walk-up apartment loaded with books, the face like my late, beloved grandfather, the familiar immigrant accent, the knowledge unobscured by arrogance. I remember nothing much of the conversation; I believe I was too overawed at being in the presence of the folklorist and ethnologist whose more than sixty books, multi-university career, international reputation and founding of the Israel Folklore Archives earned him the prestigious Israel Prize for literary research.

Here’s what Dov Noy teaches me tonight: I open his 1963 classic Folktales of Israel to a random page (190) and find the following story, recorded by Zvulun Kort, as heard in his youth in Afghanistan. It is called “Where Is the Jar?” and designated as IF A 1181, Type 1284, Person Does Not Know Himself:

Mullah Nasser-E-Din went to the public baths. He washed himself and saw that all the bathers were lying on the floor, rending the ceiling and the sky with their snores. He said to himself: “How good it would be to fall into a sweet sleep!” But what could he do so as not to be exchanged for a neighbor? He took a jar, fastened it to his waist, and fell asleep.

In the meantime one of the sleepers woke up and saw the jar fastened to Nasser-E-Din’s waist. He coveted the jar, took it, and fastened it to his own waist. After a short time, Nasser-E-Din arose and saw that the jar was not there. He looked around, and lo! there it was, fastened to the waist of someone else. He woke him up and said, “My friend, if I am I, where it the jar? But if you are me, who am I?”

What pleases me so much about this story? I tell a similar tale about the Jewish schmiel Herschele Ostropolier, not as well-known perhaps as the Wise Men of Chelm in Jewish storytelling circles, but a folk hero from the Old Country just the same. In the story, he mistakenly dons the official hat of an authority figure on being awakened from a nap at a train station, and everyone suddenly treats him with respect. When he gets on the train and sees his reflection in the window, instead of saying: “Oh my God, I’ve got the wrong hat!”, his response is: “Oh my God, the porter woke up the wrong man!”

Now this should not surprise me too much. First of all, if there is a tale type and motif for the story, obviously, according to the classification system of folk narrative developed by Stith Thompson and Antti Aarne, there are other, similar stories out there. In addition, why should it shock me that a story told by Jews in Afghanistan and imported to Israel is similar to an Eastern European Jewish tale that I learned from an American book of Jewish folktales? Isn’t that, after all, the way folk narrative works?

Yes, indeed. And who taught us that? Dov Noy.