February 21, 2008

Is the Met the Future?

(I sent this to the Storytell list, in response to Gregory's post (below), but then thought it was too good to let disappear behind the gate of a closed listserv)

Author and storyteller Gregory Leifel (in his post, here) mentioned the Met (that's the Metropolitan Opera Association of New York City), which now has high definition live performances beamed via satellite to movie theaters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

The Washington Post also notes that the Met is not content to share its performances in movie theaters:
One hundred additional live performances will be broadcast either over the Internet or on digital radio, with another 1,500 broadcasts from the past 75 years -- the Met's entire recorded history -- to be made available soon through an audio-on-demand service.

"It's only possible because the unions have put their faith in our ability to deliver what we promised them -- a means to build the audience and secure the health of the Met -- and, indeed, the health of opera as an art form," Gelb said in an interview. "Our audience is aging fast, and this technology will help us galvanize a new generation."

These transmissions will be possible because of a just-concluded arrangement with the Met's orchestra, chorus, ballet and stagehands, who voted in favor of a new media agreement after extensive negotiations this summer.

In the past, unions have demanded substantial upfront payments to all parties involved in performances -- making recordings, broadcasts and telecasts prohibitively expensive. Gelb calls the new revenue-sharing arrangement a "shift to a more fluid concept of media, in keeping with the infinite possibilities offered by modern technology."

(Tim Page, "Live Opera to Come to Movie Theaters", Washington Post, September 7, 2006)

More recent articles note that the first year was a success, that the Met is tripling the number of screens, and expects to reach one million viewers for the 2007-2008 season. (Ann Midget, "Met Opera to Expand in Theaters Across Globe," New York Times, August 9, 2007)

Can you imagine? An arts institution, 128 years old, confronts the reality of its marginalization by breaking out of its home, and brings what it does best out into the world. This, despite having multiple unions to deal with, and no doubt demanding donors.

This doesn't mean the Met will stop producing live opera. It can't. All the digital delivery systems in the world won't help you if you're not producing quality content.
Now I will grant you that there are no storytelling festivals with the endowment, the donor base, the general manager, or the history of the Metropolitan Opera.

But think of the storytelling festivals you've attended, or heard about.

Is their audience base shrinking or growing?
Is their audience aging?
Is the Festival locked into a specific venue and place, even if access to that venue limits the audience that can attend? (By capacity, or geographic distance, or obscurity, or lack of accomodations for out of town visitors)
Does it get any media attention (tv, radio)? And if it does, how deep is it? Is it a mention on the community calendar, two minutes on the news, or an hour long profile?

I know there are many logistical and economic hurdles keeping storytelling from being beamed live via satellite to movie theaters. I'm not advocating that, although it's a grand vision.

But how about radio?
How about television?

You can't claim that broadcasting a festival (either live, or after the fact) is technologically unfeasible.

And in this day and age, it is no more onerous to record and make available digitally live recordings from festivals than it is to do radio and television, and, I would submit, it's probably less expensive upfront and revenue generating over time. (Okay, I'll grant you, in many regions doing so would be ahead of the curve of what your audiences are looking for)

Sure, there are logistical hurdles. Working with partners new to the Festival environment (broadcast engineers, lighting and sound technicians).
Paperwork, legal releases. Revenue sharing arrangements.

My prediction: a savvy Festival, with a focused plan and diligent execution, could place itself as the premiere "brand" for storytelling in the mind of the public (even eclipsing those Festivals with longer histories or more clout in the storytelling community).

My further prediction: a startup venue will leap frog past all existing Festivals and do this within ten years. (The planning and technical execution you could do in two years, but it would take a few years to build the reputation... (and overcome the backlash from the existing storytelling community (and possible, some National organizations) that decry the "media"-ization of their beloved art form)). That's not to say this will come out of nowhere. Just that too many existing Festivals now are making the same mistake that the railroads did with the advent of the automobile and highway system: they focused on rails and trains, and not on the transportation business. Look around. You can see some new models of producing popping up. Keep an eye on them.

What are your predictions?

February 19, 2008

Guest Opinion: Gregory Leifel on Storytelling Recordings

Responding to a proposal from Joseph Sobol, a small part of which was "to support preservation of audio and video recordings of storytelling performances, and devise more effective ways of marketing and distributing them in established and new media forms," Gregory Leifel wrote this posting to Storytell, which I reproduce here with his kind permission.
I have been to the Jonesborough Festival (one example) a number of times and experienced some fantastic performances, as many of us have. A huge problem, as I see it, is that after a particularly great festival performance, I'm pretty much left with only being able to purchase the personal CD of particular performers. With the exception of a few compilation CDs or DVDs offered from years' past from Jonesborough performances (I saw these in the marketplace tent), what other choices are there to disseminate that experience that I just sat through? What does the Festival Organization do with the audiotaped and videotaped performances? (I have noticed them videotaping a number of times, but seldom see where I can purchase those live-recorded performance tapes--with few exceptions). I assume since they are using sound boards at the festival they audiotape every session. Are they archived in some library that you have to travel to to hear them? Why aren't they available through the internet, downloadable like iTunes (with a portion going to the artist)?

As great as some of the storytellers are that appear at festivals, let's be honest, the studio produced CDs resemble very little the hummpfft of a live performance feel. So, I come home from the Jonesborough Festival and I'm excited about our artform and want to spread the word about Storytelling (or individual performers I just saw) and pretty much what I have as a promotional vehicle is a blander, studio-produced or a barely audible audience, live recorded CD (no offense tellers) of a prior performance that does not resemble the fantastic live experience I just had. There's no comparison.

I buy the cds because I'm a storyteller who wants to understand and learn from my peers how they put their stories together. But that's a limited audience. This begs the question: How will our artform (at least the platform performance aspect) ever be taken seriously as a choice for entertainment (for people other than storytellers) if the only way you can experience it is to have to go to a festival or local coffeehouse or show up at your kid's school?

Okay, the contrarians are going to say it's the same way with theater--live is the only way. But when storytelling venues attain numbers like community theaters I'll buy that point. You can download nearly every piece of music out there, and live concerts still sell out. Books do well, even if made into movies. Are we too protective of live storytelling?

With many creative videographers out there, there ought to be a way to videotape and capture the live feel for DVDs, public television, or some outlet the public can have better access to. (I saw one such storytelling program on public television and it was a good step in the right direction.) Is this a matter of the artists wanting to protect their copywrited materials? I don't know, I'm asking. I assume the festival has some rights when it comes to the audio or video taping at a festival, since it always clearly states only they can do it. How are they using those rights? Archival only? I'm curious.

It seems to me if your repertoire as a top storyteller is X number of stories, then allowing outstanding-quality videotaped performances of a handful of your stories to be disseminated freely in an effort to teach future audiences that this is a valid (not just for kids) and entertaining choice would help our community and yourself by raising the awareness, and creating audiences that aren't primarily just made up of other storytellers.

The pictures on the National Storytelling Centers' wall that come closest to the feel you get in Jonesborough are the ones that show the teller from behind looking out to the huge audience. It provides context; tent, teller, audience, audience expression. A picture taken straight on of a storyteller on a stage with however crazy an expression tells us little about the storytelling experience. People go to plays, movies, anything live and entertaining because there's a certain something you can't get off the television. But that doesn't mean you should limit things to live only. There's too much talent and technology out there to not try and recreate the experience and use it as a promotional tool to get demand for festivals popping up all over the country and world.

As a storyteller I'd love access to any archives from large festivals, because that's how I better learn my craft. I'd love the public to have more access to the festival experience because I often feel like an army of one or a very small platoon through the local guild or regional organization, in promoting storytelling after I've been to a festival.

I long for the day when I tell people I tell stories and they say, "Oh you mean the kind of storytelling I saw on television the other night? Wow!"

You want to think outside the box? Has anyone noticed that the Metropolitan Opera is now showing performances inside some movie theaters? Yes, you can go see The Met Performances inside your local movie house. How about stories before the movie starts?

Just some thoughts,

Gregory Leifel
and soon, www.AhhhFinally.com

My thoughts, and yours, in the comments section

February 14, 2008

Thought Leadership: It's Not Enough to Just Think

Long time denizens of the storytelling community may not recognize any of the names that I've anointed with the term "thought leader." For example, I haven't included any of the community elders, who, in the thirty years of the storytelling revival, have thought long and hard about the art form, and have some pretty insightful thoughts on the movement and where it's been and where it's going.

But it's not enough to think those thoughts. Being a thought leader means making sharing and promoting those thoughts.

And leadership means sharing and promoting the hell out of those thoughts. Getting them out there. Getting heard. Evangelizing.

I'm going to take three examples of what I think of as "deep thoughts" and look at how fast they are catching on:

Carol Birch and Melissa Heckler collected some of the movement's thoughts in "Who Says?: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling" (August House, 1996), and those essays are still pertinent (Which reminds me, I need to go back and read them all again).
Now, granted, this anthology most likely didn't rush off the shelves at August House when it came out. You don't see the storytelling community rushing to contemplate or debate "pivotal issues," except maybe for three days each summer at a conference. (You, dear readers, all ten of you, are the exception, of course.)
And there aren't enough university courses in the world for these essays to get out there, even should they be required reading (and I'm of the opinion they should.)

If Who Says? Volume 2 were to come out... we'd need to rethink its delivery vehicle. Reading about storytelling performance is like dancing about architecture. Short multimedia pieces depicting oral storytelling performances along with commentary from the essayist would not only be more digestible to storytellers outside of the university, but catch some attention from the world at large. A storytelling lab on YouTube-- why not? Hey, are the slide show guys who helped Al Gore available?


Jo Radner, current chair of the National Storytelling Network, created quite a buzz with her inspiring keynotes at Sharing the Fire in 2006 and the National Storytelling Conference in 2007. She looks at the current state of the storytelling movement and suggests some paths for the future.

And when I say, quite a buzz, I mean among the five hundred people who got to hear her.

I wasn't one of them.

I've been trying to track down a recording of the keynote for some time.

I happened to talk to Jo the other day, and got her to email me her speech, if I promised to remember that it was much more entertaining delivered live.

(She also was fairly certain that no one recorded the keynote at the 2007 conference).

/me smacks head against wall.
Is it really that difficult to arrange to record a keynote? Hell, fly me out to the conference and put my iPod on the podium to record it, and I'll have the speech up on the Web at the Internet Archive for anyone to listen to, for free, forever, the next day.
The speech was as impressive as I'd heard. I didn't agree with all of Jo's visions for the future, but I was quite excited that she put it out there.

She also told me it was now available in print as part of the latest issue of Storytelling, Self, and Society.
Good grief.
"SSS" is the international, peer-reviewed academic journal created in 2003 by the Storytelling in Higher Education Special Interest Group of the National Storytelling Network. I understand the vision that created the journal (i.e., the desire to bring storytelling into secure footing in the academic world), but the infrastructure of these journals is more self-serving (for the publishers who print them, as well as for the egos of those academics who are published in them) than community-focused.

Academic journals like these limit their audiences (they focus on university libraries and academics (yes, personal subscriptions are available, if you want to pay $65/year for 3 issues)). They have authoritarian copyright policies (most journals, SSS included, recommend that authors relinquish copyright and transfer it to the publisher. SSS's publisher does allow exceptions, as long as authors grant them exclusive worldwide publishing license).

I serendipitously discovered that my employer has online access to SSS, so I took a peek and was quite impressed with the articles I found there, and sorry to see that for most of the storytelling community, they are hidden away behind a locked gate.


Finally, I wanted to do a shout out to Kendall Haven --one of the first professional storytellers I ever saw perform once I discovered storytelling. Kendall is a former scientist, and he's surveyed the research out there in educational literature on the educational impact of storytelling, and found hundreds of qualitative and quantitative studies to back up storytelling's usefulness in the classroom, going way beyond the tired old position paper by the National Council of Teachers of English trotted out by every storyteller trying to book a school residency or assembly.

So where did I find out about this? SSS. (/me rolls eyes). He's also presented at the 2006 National Storytelling Conference. He's written a book about what he found, Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story (Libraries Unlimited, 2007).

I don't imagine the book tour that Libraries Unlimited set up included YouTube videos. (Nope, just checked).

Now I know Haven is a hard-working storyteller. He'll get the word out, one professional development workshop at a time, one reading conference at a time. But I have to say, he's sitting on an idea virus that needs to be liberated from its petri dish. Where's the Story Proof blog? Where's the Story Proof web site? Even the storytelling community's evangelists for storytelling in education --the ones who know how to use the web-- aren't picking up on this (hey-- Karen? Kate? Jackie? Dianne? Rachel? Kevin? the clue phone is ringing. Pick up, would you?)

Get those Oscar-winning slide shows guys back here again.


A presentation at a storytelling conference is not sufficient. An article in an academic journal is not sufficient. An article in Storytelling magazine is not sufficient. (SSS = throwing your ideas down a deep well. Storytelling magazine = less deep well, but a well none the less)

What is sufficient? Will I be happy only when every storytelling elder has their own YouTube channel, blog, viral marketing campaign, and ancillary line of products?

(Okay, yeah, I'd be happy)

There are more and more ways to get content out there. And I've mentioned a few of the leaders who have found ways to do that. Old school, meet new school. Make stuff happen.

February 12, 2008

Thought Leader: Eric Wolf

Well, it's no surprise (to anyone who's taken a glance at the links in the left column of this blog) that storyteller Eric Wolf would turn up on my list of thought leaders in the storytelling community.

It's a pity that Eric Wolf named his podcast "The Art of Storytelling With Children," if only because I don't consider children my main audience, so I ignored his show for a long time.

My mistake.

Eric Wolf's roster of guests reads like a who's who of presenters from regional and national storytelling conferences.

What's more: while talking with Eric, the guests, all of whom share practical advice and hard-earned wisdom, don't limit themselves to storytelling with children.

From marketing to artistic process to community outreach to education, Eric's guests will provide anyone interested in storytelling with useful information from diverse perspectives.

(And yes, if you work with children, you will also get practical advice on performing for those audiences).

Each podcast takes the form of an interview, done via conference call, recorded as is, and then archived on the Web. The beauty of the conference call feature is that it allows listeners to participate, and ask questions of the guest.

The work Eric is doing here is profound in so many ways. It's elegantly simple, and yet, within the storytelling community, it's avant garde:
First, he seeks out people that he wants to learn from. He's not setting himself up as the expert. He's inviting the experts onto his show. (Also, his interview style does a fine job of modeling attentive listening)
Second, he invites us to not only listen in, but participate in the discussion, both on the conference call, and via comments on each episode's web page.
Third, he maximizes accessibility: you can listen via iTunes, you can download any of the shows, or you can just click around on the Web site and listen.
Fourth, he makes this invaluable learning resource available for free.

Just last year I was bemoaning (on Storytell, my personal choice of virtual community when I want to beat my head against a wall) that as a national community, we are still stuck in a travel-far-away-and-overcome-obstacles-to-get-wisdom model. Very mythological. Very Joseph Campbell. But very frustrating in this digital age.

I'm glad to see that someone has taken the technological tools available and created a new model.

I know you didn't create the podcast for my sole benefit, Eric, but I have to say thanks.

February 02, 2008

TED Talks - J.J. Abrams: The mystery box

Hearing about Carmen Deedy's experience at TED in 2005 got me thinking. I certainly appreciate that the TED conference organizers invited a storyteller... that they felt it important to have an oral storyteller share the stage (I'm missing information here, though, it's not clear to me if Carmen was invited as a "performer" or a "thinker," or even if TED makes that distinction). By the limited accounts available on the web, she certainly made an impression (not bad, considering Bono was the main attraction that year), but I wish I knew more.
In her plea for the importance of story, did she merely rely on the personal story?
When she said that "the storyteller has been relegated to the secondary or tertiary role in the community," was she merely bemoaning the loss of tradition. Did she acknowledge the role of technology (or was she simply stepping into an assigned role of the vanishing anthropological relic)?

TED has not published the video of her talk, so for now, the questions remained unanswered.

I'm including here a TED talk from 2007 from J.J. Abrams, the writer and director (Alias, Lost, Cloverfield). Now here's a storyteller who's unabashedly awed by technology... because it allows him (and inspires him) to fully express his creativity. I'm including his rambling TED talk here, not because I think Abram's evangelizing of the democratizing power of technology to create is that relevant, but because his metaphor of the "mystery box" acknowledges fundamentals of our art form: that mystery is the catalyst for the audience's imagination, that witholding information makes the imagination work harder (and makes stories more satisfying), and that a story's narrative is not its content.

Also, I'm a huge fan of Lost.

If you were asked to perform at TED, what would you say?

February 01, 2008

Creative Loafing Atlanta: Spotlight on Storytelling

Journalist Curt Holman has the arts section cover story this week in Atlanta's alternative weekly, Creative Loafing, where he profiles local storytellers Carmen Deedy, Andy Offutt Irwin, Rob Cleveland, and Audrey Galex. The article juxtaposes the ancient art form against the latest technology... and leads with a story about Deedy at the TED conference. The brief article also manages to highlight other issues, such as the generation gap:

Professional storytellers are a diverse bunch, from Irish-style balladeers to African griots to tall-tale swappers. But one demographic consistently underrepresented is young people.

"I'm 52 years old," Cleveland quips, "or, as they call me in storytelling circles, 'The Kid.'"

Andy Offutt Irwin, a perpetually boyish singer/storyteller from Covington, notes that, "the good thing about storytelling is that it doesn't matter how old you are. The longer you live, the more you know.

"But there needs to be more young storytellers," he says. "My cousin who's 28 came to see me in Oklahoma City and afterward said, 'Andy, you're a rock star!' And I said, 'Yeah, but everyone's 55.'"