Monthly Archives: December 2013

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.