July 27, 2007

What is Breaking the Eggs?

Hello. My name is Tim Ereneta, and I'm a storyteller. I'm also a story listener. On occasion, I've been a storytelling producer.

I've started this blog, Breaking the Eggs, to discuss the practices and preferences of oral storytelling, particularly in the American storytelling revival (although comments and discussion from "outside the bubble" would be most appreciated). This revival, which sprang up in the 1970s (documented and chronicled in Joseph Sobol's The Storyteller's Journey) seems to be on the verge of dying out. Some disagree, and see the potential for new growth. I see both trends, and am putting my money on a sure and steady slide into cultural irrelevance.

I'm sure I won't be able to keep myself from injecting my own experiences as a performer out of here, so it won't all be theoretical. Hopefully, it won't all be centered on my career.

I love listening to stories, particularly in a performance setting, and am stating up front my personal bias towards storytelling as a performance art. Now I can recognize and appreciate good kitchen table storytellers, who can hold forth around the office or a party or after church... but what's really satisfying is sitting in the dark with a bunch of other strangers and listening to a storyteller weave her spell.

Provided, of course, there's good lighting and amplification.

And intellectually, I know that every person I meet has unique and important stories from their own life journey to share. But what nourishes my soul are the old stories. The fairy tales, the folk tales, the myths. And for me, they come to life not on the page, or on DVD, but when a living, breathing person is speaking the words on a stage.

I'll sit through three hours of "the day Grandpa fell off the ladder" stories to hear just ten minutes of folktales.

Are we clear on my biases up front?

One more thing. I have found the storytelling community, made up of amateurs, professionals, and semi-professionals alike to be a generous and giving group... and also stubborn as a mule. (The double edged sword of storytelling... like Patrick Ball once quipped, borrowing a phrase about the inhabitants of Ireland, "six million storytellers in search of a single listener"...). Specifically, in my experience, I have found that getting new ideas to stick can be difficult. And if the idea involves technology, it is downright impossible. (I exaggerate, of course. The storytelling community is only about twenty-five years behind the times.)

I've noted with interest the lively opinions of the theatre blogging community. Some of the bloggers are professional critics. Some are academics. Some are in the trenches as directors, producers, playwrights, and actors. They tackle everything from hiring practices to casting choices to the commercialization of Broadway to the economics of theatre to the very purpose of art. (Tony Taccone, Artistic Director of the Tony-award winning Berkeley Rep, decries this trend as moving discussion in the artistic community in the direction of talk radio.) Granted, theatre blogging is a small community, and many of these bloggers admit the risky position they take as both a vocal gadfly and a participant in an artistic community. And like any form of blogging, it can be hard to dialogue when everyone is chattering incessantly.

Storytelling is a much smaller community than theatre. And "platform storytelling," that is, storytelling as a performing art, is an even smaller subcommunity within the community of storytelling.

I may be shooting myself in the foot here, as I too aim to play both sides of the platform.

I am fortunate enough to have spent time in the company of forward thinking individuals who contribute mightily to keeping storytelling alive in our time. Many of them even have open minds and fresh innovative ideas to make it so. (Now if I can only get them to use the Web!) In the spirit of their generosity and drive I offer up this blog as part of my contribution.

Part of the reason for starting this blog is to open up discussion on the ways that the Web has and will continue to transform storytelling. And how the storytelling community (or the individual storyteller in his or her own community) can embrace aspects of technology to enhance their professional and personal connections.

Why "Breaking the Eggs" for a title?

It's been said that "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." I suppose that's where Gerald Fierst got the title of his Intensive on Storytelling in the 21st Century at the National Storytelling Conference in 2004. The conference description noted:
Narrative information is being conveyed with new constructions of language, image and technology. The Producer’s SIG has commissioned a storytelling work that will test the boundaries of beginning, middle and end. Attend this performance and continue on to debate how we communicate, what is narrative, where will story go as language is redefined by changing cultural images and new technologies.
All well and good, and many of us were excited about this... but the commissioned work never appeared at the conference. Gerry quickly assembled a substitute panel, each of whom presented or talked about new forms and formats of storytelling, but the discussion, while lively, didn't address new directions in narrative so much as it became a rallying point for those frustrated with the homogeneity of regional storytelling festivals curatorial visions.

Like many such encounters at conferences, this one kept me thinking for a long time... but the passion and excitement of discussion of ideas that happens at conferences is hard to sustain once you return home (but that's part of the hero's journey, right?).

This blog, then, is offered as a boon for the community-- or, if that's just too self-serving-- a gadfly to stir Pegasus to action (ooh! look! mythological reference!)-- or perhaps just a sturdy kitchen bowl into which we can all toss in a few eggs and make an omelet.

July 24, 2007

Stone Soup, Part Two

By Tim Ereneta. Feel free to share, re-write, or tell this version, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

So the town that learned how to share made Stone Soup part of their everyday lives. And everyday, each household brought their contribution to the soup: one house brought onions, another brought carrots, another salt, still another meat. And often they told the story of how three strangers came to town, and showed them the secret of stone soup, and how they had changed, and how much better the community was now. They shared with visitors when they came. In fact, the town became a bit of a tourist attraction. People from all over came to see Stone Soup being made. And they went home, and sometimes they made stone soup in their hometown, and sometimes they didn't.

One day a nonprofit consultant visited the town, and marvelled at the soupmaking process, and told the townsfolk: "You know, you've got a replicable model here that can synergize local constituencies to achieve social change amongst community stakeholders!"

"Say what?" they replied.

"This Stone Soup. You could share it with the world. There's a lot of good you could do."

The townsfolk thought about this.

"That's true," one of the townsfolk said. "But why would we leave our village?"

"We've got no problem sharing. Let them come and eat with us. We've got plenty of soup to go around," said another.

A few months later a businessman visited the town, tried the soup, loved it. "Hey, with what you folks know about soup, you'd be really good in my sector. I help startups in the soup industry."

"Tell us more," the townsfolk said.

"There are a lot of new entrepreneurs out there in the restaurant business, and in groceries... hot prepared food is a niche that's taking off. But these hotshots with MBAs, they're all about the whizz bang soup technology. Don't know a thing about ingredients. That's where you come in."

The townsfolk thought about this.

"No, thanks. We're doing fine here. If these kids want to learn about soup. Have them move here."

A few of them did.

One brought noodles to add to the Stone Soup. "People like noodles," she said.

"Sorry, no noodles," she was told. "Stone soup doesn't have noodles. Stone and Noodle Soup, that has noodles. But we don't make that kind, we just make Stone Soup."

She packed up her noodles and moved away. As she was leaving the village, she passed a young man coming into town with a suitcase and a bag of dumplings. "Good luck with that," she told him.

The fellow with the dumplings stayed until breakfast, then headed off to places unknown.

A few years passed.

A young woman from the village decided to see the world. She went on a long journey, taking her recipe for Stone Soup with her, and learned many things. When she returned home, she told her family and friends about what she had seen.

"There are quite a number of places now that make Stone Soup," she said. "It's not just us."

"Not as good as ours," said her auntie.

"You can find Stone Soup in cans. You can find it in individual serving size cartons. You can find it in warehouses stacked on pallets in family size containers. You can find miniature versions wrapped in foil with little tiny stones in them..."

"That's pebble soup. Not the same thing," said her uncle.

"There are companies that deliver Stone Soup to your door. There are outfits where anyone can add any ingredient to make brand new styles of soup!"

"Why on earth would anyone want to do that?" said her brother.

"Some people subscribe to a soup-of-the-month club. There are clubs where you can meet other people from all over the world and trade soup recipes."

"We have people from all over the world here," said grandmother.

"Some people heat their soup with microwave ovens, and some in slow cookers, and some use the energy from the sun to heat their stone soup!"

"If it's not cooked over an open fire, it's not stone soup," admonished her mother.

"Next thing you know you'll be telling us you brought home a video camera so you can show off our Stone Soup making process on little movies that people can watch from their very own homes!" roared her grandfather.

"Er, actually, yeah. About that..."

"Not on our watch!" shouted the twins, who began jumping up and down on the young woman's backpack, creating various electromechanical onomatopoeiac breaking sounds with each landing.

"What?" She was bewildered. "You're fine with visitors sharing our Stone Soup, but you don't want to broadcast it to the world? That makes no sense."

"If people want what we have, they can come visit."

"They can't. They don't even know you're here! This town isn't even on the map!"

"They'll find us. They do. Look at whatshername. Wandered in eight years ago, been happy as a clam ever since. She's good with the carrots."

The young woman took a battered bound book out of her backpack. "Well, at least I've got this. It's a blank book. A binder really, with looseleaf paper. I thought we could all add our own thoughts and tips for making soup, and then we'll have this archive."

"Bah," said her aunt. "We don't need that. We've got Eratosthenes. He's brilliant. Anytime we get a good discussion going over soup, he writes it down in his journal."

"Every time?"

"No, just sometimes. We're not scintillating conversationalists every night. Which reminds me, bring up two more bottles of wine."

The young woman was silent for a while.

"Okay. It's time for me to move on. It's been great here, but I have to leave."

"You don't have to do that."

"Yeah, I kinda do."

"Stay and have some soup."

"I'm good, thanks."

The young woman picked up her backpack, hugged her family, and headed out of town.

"Hey, when you're out there in the world, be sure and tell folks about us. Send some folks our way. We love visitors."

"I know." At the village gate, she paused, then reached into her pocket and took out a handful of something.

The townsfolk couldn't quite see what she had in her hand.

She placed one of those somethings down on the path right outside the gate, and started walking. A little farther down the path, she stopped again, and place whatever it was in her hand down on the path, and she kept doing that as she went.

"White pebbles?" asked one boy.

"Bread crumbs?" asked a girl.

And soon, she was out of sight, and the townsfolk went back to enjoying each other's company, and enjoying their Stone Soup. There would be time to see what was on the path outside their village gate tomorrow. Or the day after that. Maybe next week.