March 08, 2014

"My" Stories are Your Stories

Recently, after an evening of telling ancient folktales to adults, I heard two comments from listeners:

"I needed to hear that chilling folktale about the mother who couldn't bear to see her daughter marry a snake. It allowed me to look at my own emotions about my own daughter's engagement in a new light."
"Tim, I love that you tell the old folktales and fairy tales. Because those are my stories."

These comments remind me of why I stick to my preferred genre, despite its relative lack of popularity on stage.

January 29, 2014

Of trolls

Closeup of the Troll, photo by jotulloch, used under a creative commons license

I recently had the honor of being one of three storytellers asked to tell a story about a piece of local folklore: the troll that guarded the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, on display at a local museum.

One of the other storytellers, Kirk Waller, asked me if I had ever created a story around an object before, and I said no. I had certainly told stories in museums before, but always fairy tales and folk tales that aligned with the exhibits on display, no originally created work. But then, upon further reflection, I had to admit:

Floyd, a troll, on campus in Evanston, Illinois
The very first story I ever told when I began my storytelling journey was, in fact, an original tale about a troll. 

When I was introduced to the art of storytelling in a literature class in college, my professor asked us to learn a story to tell at a local elementary school. Though most of my fellow students learned folktales to tell, I happened to have my own troll, and when I showed it to my teacher she immediately said, "you have to bring your troll and tell the children a story about him."

Why did I have a troll? I had spent much of my free time in dormitory with one of my buddies who had a how-to book on building monsters out of papier mâché. With coat hangers, newspaper, white glue, a discarded tablecloth, some modeling clay, and paint, he and I created a three-foot tall blue troll. We named him Floyd, and he promptly ended up having his own adventures at college. (Lesson learned: if you leave a three-foot tall blue troll out where other college students can interact with it, they will. And he might be gone for days or weeks at a time)

For my class assignment, I crafted a tale about a lonely monster who lived under a bridge (in fact, the Golden Gate Bridge). I don't recall exactly how the story went, although I recall using Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story "The Fog Horn" (aka "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms") as inspiration, but had a happy ending when the lonely troll found community with the monsters in residence at Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects house then located in Marin County, just north of the bridge.

  Over the next few years I created a handful of other trolls, using the same paper and cloth mâché technique. Some I gave away as gifts. Two smaller ones, have stayed with me, and currently keep watch over my basement. (It may not be the most practical way to keep goats away... but it works! We've never had billy goats enter our house).

Sadly, Floyd and I parted about twenty years ago. I was out of the country, participating in North America's oldest and largest Fringe Festival, and upon my return, Floyd was gone.

The large dumpster outside of my rented house might have had something to do with it (I'd been evicted), but though I dove in and recovered many personal items from the dumpster, Floyd was not among them. I like to think he wandered off in search of a new home, and that he found a new bridge to call his own.

June 10, 2013

Breaking Storytelling Down, A to Z

When I first learned about storytelling a quarter century ago, I figured, "Well, I'll learn some stories, and if I tell them, I'll be a storyteller."

Yes and no. True, anyone can tell a story. But storytelling is an art, and to develop that art, you not only need practice, but an awareness of many elements that make up the storytelling process and go into performance.

Over at True Stories, Honest Lies, storyteller Laura Packer spent the month of May blogging about the art and craft of storytelling in an alphabetical fashion, from A to Z. (Darn it, why didn't I think of that first?)

Laura's observations are always thoughtful, so if you're interested in the art of storytelling (as a storyteller or as a fan of the art form), her posts are worth a read:

Rather than list 26 links here, I'll point you to her summary pages:
index for A through E
index for F through J
index for K through P
index for Q through Z

Not only do I enjoy Laura's writing, but there are a couple of posts that I'm still thinking about with regards to issues that I need to improve in my own work.

My favorite? F is for Fun.

April 09, 2013

Shout Out: “Bawdy Storytelling” Turns Six

Blythe Baldwin tells a story
at Bawdy's Sixth Anniversary Show
Photo credit: Queerly Yours
  As I walked into San Francisco’s Verdi Club on a recent Saturday night, every single one of the 300 seats in the venue was full; it was standing room only for a night of storytelling.    There was an excited buzz in the air, helped along by a live DJ and the Club’s full bar. If you had been there, you would certainly have recognized the familiar conventions of a traditional storytelling event: the friendly emcee with a Southern accent welcoming “y’all,” an opening song referencing several fairy tale characters; and then the stories on stage: a story about dealing with parents; a story about a challenging first day on the job; a memoir of a journey to self-discovery, love, and family; and a tale of “how we first met.”
  The fact that Swedish public television had a camera crew to cover this event might have been your first clue that this would not be your ordinary night of true stories.  
  The second clue might be in the details: those stories I mentioned about parents, work, love and meeting also happen to involve, respectively: a gynecological exam, prostitution, transsexuality, and animal role play and fetishism. 
  And that was just the first half of the show.
  Welcome to Bawdy Storytelling, the nation’s original live storytelling series featuring true stories about human sexuality. 
      Dixie De La Tour, the show’s producer, founder, and emcee, started Bawdy Storytelling six years ago. It was originally an informal story swap, a coffee klatsch for her friends in San Francisco’s vibrant sex-positive community.
  But as audience interest from others grew, “I started curating the storytellers,” says De La Tour. “I could get more people to come if they could see in the program that they themselves weren’t on the bill.”  
  As a producer, much of De La Tour’s time is spent recruiting storytellers. Apart from a handful of professional authors, poets, stand-up comics, and storytellers who appear on the Bawdy stage, most of the time she gets ordinary people to tell their stories. There’s no shortage of “real people” in San Francisco who have an interesting sex life. 
Bawdy Storytelling Founder Dixie De La Tour
Photo credit: Queerly Yours

  Once she finds a willing storyteller, then it’s coaching time: De La Tour works with her tellers to hone the story down to its essence, cutting away asides and dead ends, and encouraging her tellers to focus not on a polished monologue that you might hear at The Moth, but on telling as if you were at a party sharing your best story with friends. She has them make a visual map of their story, a story board, to help with structure. Finally, the six tellers featured at a particular event come together for a rehearsal. During the actual show, De La Tour remains onstage with her tellers, to give them support (the tellers might very well be uninhibited when it comes to sexuality, but even the uninhibited can be afraid of public speaking) and to provide a friendly face to tell to (the stage lighting makes it difficult to see the seated audience).
  By and large, the tellers play to a receptive audience. 
  But depending on your comfort level with the subject of sex, the show may not be for you. As an audience member, you will hear intimate details of the performers’ sex lives, told live, in public, with words you may not be accustomed to hearing spoken aloud in public. (The level of profanity varies from teller to teller, but given the subject matter, the language is always colorful and often graphic). The images and situations that come up in the stories can be edgy, even shocking. 
  But the goal of Bawdy has never been titillation. It’s about celebrating sexuality, in all its diversity, through storytelling. (Admittedly, that pitch does not sell as many tickets as the tagline, “The Moth for Pervs,” quoted from an LA Weekly review).
     It’s often the case that audience members might hear about experiences that they may never have conceived were possible. De La Tour likes the idea of expanding people’s perceptions. “My hope is that an audience member may hear about an experience, maybe something they’ve never imagined, and they get interested, and they can go up and talk to that storyteller and find out more.” (Indeed, at the show I attended, I saw several curious audience members at intermission pepper one of the storytellers with questions about the leather-clad “human puppy” that she had on leash that night).
  Mosa Maxwell-Smith, a storyteller and improviser from Oakland, described listening to stories at Bawdy in this way: 
"I can be a very judgemental person. I can't imagine having anything in common with some people when I first meet them, but then I hear their stories and—wow—my mind is blown! I love it when a story shatters my preconceptions and allows me to feel deeply connected to someone I otherwise might not have ever known."
  As for the future of Bawdy, De La Tour continues to recruit storytellers. She has added a “Bawdy Slam” night as a way to encourage more people to share their stories. She’s recently inaugurated a Bawdy series in Los Angeles, and is working on BawdyTalks (TEDTalks for the sex-positive community).  
  I asked Blythe Baldwin, a slam poet and visual artist from San Francisco who has performed at Bawdy many times, to sum up its significance to the community: 
"The importance of Bawdy, as a storyteller and an audience member, is that it offers catharsis in an area that many of us keep secret of out of shame or fear.  When you tell a story, you speak truth to life, and when you own your sexual experiences you own the very thing that makes you human: your wishes, your desires, and your capacity to love. Bawdy brings people together through all of that."
  Learn about upcoming Bawdy Storytelling shows at

August 19, 2012

Conference Reflections: Liz Nichols

Liz with Painted Face
Why does Liz look like
Jaguar? Keep reading!
Liz Nichols got lost in the 398 (Folklore & Mythology) section of the public library at age ten, and hasn't found her way out yet! Liz is a professional storyteller, educator & Certified Laughter Leader, and was a presenter at the 2012 National Storytelling Conference, sharing her work as a TimeSlips™ facilitator, a creative storytelling method for people with dementia or memory loss. You can learn more about Liz's storytelling at her website,

 I have been to 4 NSN Conferences over the past 15 years and enjoyed each in its own way. Of course it’s great to reconnect with folks and feel continuity, but for me discovering something or someone new and different is always the highlight.
At this year’s Conference one thing that was new to me was the programming of swaps and fringe performances concurrent with the workshop sessions. The idea of missing a workshop to attend a swap or fringe was tough for me, but I did it several times, and on Saturday afternoon I hit the jackpot. I’d already picked up “gig postcards” for various Fringes (just that self-promotional practice felt like the wider theater arts world permeating the storyteller atmosphere), and I couldn’t resist the sight of Christopher Agostino in the hotel hallway outside his session space, prepping the biggest, most colorful, most artsy box of face paints I’ve ever seen. When I heard the NYC accent from my hometown, that clinched it.
The show was called “Before Cave Walls... The Story on Our Skin”. Here’s what Christopher’s website ( ) says about what he does:
Agostino & Co. Performing Arts presents exciting, innovative performances and entertainment for family audiences. We employ storytelling, movement, clowning, masks and costumes, sound and text, and "Transformation! Facepainting" to create original theatre which is both thought-provoking and entertaining for schools, theatres and events. Our "Transformation! Artists" are regularly seen at events and parties throughout the New York area turning thousands of people each year into fantastic works of art.
About 25–30 of us sat mesmerized as he started with a lecture/demo on the human history of self-transformation through mask and body art, calling up volunteer after volunteer to be painted as he talked. Then he wove several stories in, some traditional and some in a folktale mode that he and his kids had created – and he used us as his canvas to show characters like jaguar, snake and lizard, and settings like tropical island and African savannah.
Participants in Agostino's Fringe Show
While the performance itself was terrific, even more fun was the way those of us who volunteered became an instant family of sorts. Some of us decided to go to dinner together at a nearby restaurant, where we got lots of stares and some great conversations. Even Charlotte Blake Alston got up on stage for her Oracle Award presentation duties in her face paint, and at the reception that followed it was surreal to chat and sip wine, slipping in and out of the awareness that people seeing me were actually seeing Jaguar instead.
The larger importance of all this for me boiled down to a couple of insights:
1)   That it took an “oddball” experience for me to make a very special connection with a group of people who didn’t know each other at all before the conference.  It transcended the usual categories we fall into.
2)   The value of truly opening up our storytelling world to allies and friends with different backgrounds and identities – those for whom “storyteller” is a secondary aspect of their art and work.
Christopher told us that he had not been sure he would be welcome—he wouldn’t have come except that his Fringe application had been picked out of the hat. I’m glad to say he got a great response. It was an example of what Bill Harley talked about in his very thought-provoking closing address—that for the broader world, storytelling may be better recognized and valued as a “seed art” than stand-alone. And that rather than always complaining about that, we should see it as a positive, as a bridge.