March 18, 2008

"Mini Manifestos"

I bookmarked Andrew Taylor's "mini-manifesto" for the school year back in September. Taylor runs a two-year, multidisciplinary MBA degree in Arts Administration at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

see with clarity
choose with purpose
act with intent

At the time, it inspired me that the head of an MBA program wanted to develop cultural leadership that could transform arts organizations with these values.

This week I was reminded of this in a different call to reflection and action (or nonaction, as the case may be):

why are we doing this? and other questions slide

I've been thinking about these questions for my day job... common sense questions, really. Refreshing that they come from a software company (the post was from Jason Fried, the director of 37signals of Basecamp and Backpack fame, a company dedicated to building the best products possible with the least number of features necessary).

Not much to add here except to say that I'm going to be doing some reflecting on these questions, and on Taylor's expressed values above, and make an assessment on how well I'm doing.

And how well the organizations that support storytelling are doing.

March 12, 2008

And I For One, Welcome Our New Cute and Cuddly Electronic Overlords

Last month in New York, the Toy Industry Association held the 2008 Toy Fair, the trade show where all the toy companies "preview" their new toys for the season (and get an early jump on orders for the 2008 holiday shopping season). Why does this matter to storytellers?

smart-e-bearMeet "smart-e-bear."

At first glance, it's a teddy bear that sings and tells stories.

This is not new. Remember Teddy Ruxpin, the teddy bear with the built-in cassette player? Apparently, he's still being manufactured and still tells stories, although now with digital cartridges.

Here's what's new with Smart-e-Bear: he's got a USB port.

Which means, the songs and stories are totally customizable. Hook him up to the computer, and with an iTunes-like interface, you can manage and create the educational content, songs, and stories that the bears "knows."

But here's why I'm telling you this:

Imagine you visit a kid's bedroom. There's her teddy bear. She squeezes the bear paw, and all of a sudden the bear is channeling Bill Harley. Bill Harley's voice is coming out of the bear, telling Bill Harley's stories.

Or Donna Washington. Alan Irvine. Diane Ferlatte. Elizabeth Falconer (complete with koto).

Or you. (Artists, like the ones I've just mentioned, can have their souls absorbed by stories licensed to Intellitoy's digital matrix at by the way, one niche they are looking to fill is stories told in Chinese or Spanish)

Oh, by the way... I should disclose that I'M NOT JOKING. Donna and Bill and Diane and Elizabeth and Trout Fishing in America have already licensed their material to be distributed by these talking bears.

I think the customization factor is the hook that's generating the buzz... for parents. This is a toy that will be marketed to parents, not kids (no commercials for this toy on the Saturday morning cartoon lineup. I'm guessing that there will be lots of articles instead in Parenting and Women's magazines). And maybe they will buy it. Hip parents who like creating playlists on iTunes will get into the programming of this toy. And practical parents, who aren't by any means frugal (not at this toy's price), but who like to think of themselves as savvy, will appreciate that you can adjust the developmental level of the toy to the age of your child-- extending the life of the purchase.

But good marketing to parents and decent sales doesn't mean kids are gonna love it. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that this will generate more recognition for storytellers.

But for the under 3 crowd, smart-e has to compete with Elmo Live, the latest incarnation of the electronic muppet, which can now tell stories. (Sesame Workshop was to have introduced an artificially intelligent Elmo cyborg at this year's Toy Fair, but apparently a time-traveling resistance fighter from the future came back from the future and destroyed the plant in China were these were being manufactured. This time traveler himself was being pursued by an Elmo-1000, and advanced cyborg assassin from the future to destroy the resistance fighter's mother....

but I digress.

Smart-e-bear. For the 3 to 6 age group, if my kids are any indication, they'd rather hear a Donna Washington or Bill Harley story from a CD on their boombox, or from an iPod. Having it come out of a plush toy is not value added for my kids. Now, if smart-e-bear had a Teletubbies-like screen on their bellies where my kids could watch a video of Donna or Bill telling a story, or failing that, YouTube videos of Star Wars recreated in LEGOs, that'd be value added.


Can't afford to fly out the big names to your venue?

For just $79.99, you've got his/her avatar, in a cute and cuddly, soft and squishy, family friendly format!!

bear cat and dog

And if you've got a technogeek on your Festival producing team, it would probably not be too hard to hack the smart-e-bear, and voila! You've got Kevin Kling! Elizabeth Ellis! Dan Keding! Don't want to confuse your audience? Buy a smart-e-dog and smart-e-cat and then your audience can differentiate Syd Lieberman from Connie Regan-Blake!

They don't eat. They don't demand green M&Ms in their dressing room. No lodging and transportation costs (think of how much greener your Festival's carbon footprint will be without all that jet fuel burned to get your talent to the site!)

Although... I'm not sure if these things actually move.

You might have to budget for a puppeteer to animate the toy's arms.

Plus, if you can get these things wholesale, or pick up a dozen at CostCo, you could resell them at your festival's souvenir stand for a markup. And if you do happen to have Donna or Alan or Bill at your event, their autograph on this little plush cyborg means even more ROI!

March 10, 2008

"We Rock Stories. We Rock Them Hard."

How come Minneapolis/St. Paul has all the cool kids? This past weekend in the Twin Cities you could hear both the O.G. storytellers, and the new kids on the block:

The alt-weekly City Pages says:
Let's face it—storytelling may be the primordial art form, born at the dawn of language. However, modern performance telling, with its small but dedicated, heavily middle-aged audience, has just never managed the same level of cool as rock 'n' roll. But this year, a group of 10 younger local performance artists banded together to take back some of the cultural cachet storytelling deserves. Optimistically calling themselves Rockstar Storytellers, they come to the stage from a multiplicity of backgrounds, from mime to radio monologue to traditional theater to slam poetry to competitive speech. Laden with Fringe Festival credentials, the cast promises to not just twiddle your emotional dial, but to take a monkey wrench to your presuppositions about what storytelling should be.

Go monkey wrench!

Exclusive interview later this month.

March 06, 2008

New Models for Performers: Kevin Kelly's "1000 True Fans"

(via boingboing)

I've been aware, pretty much since the rise of Napster in 1999, that the Web was changing the way performing artists connected with their audiences and changing the way artists would generate revenue.

While new models are still evolving, even National Public Radio has recently reported on how artists (like Jane Siberry) are tapping into their fan bases to create highly decentralized patronage systems... working on commissions from your audiences.

Kevin Kelly, he of Wired fame (or, for you old timers like me, the Whole Earth Catalog) has posted his analysis of these new emerging models on his blog (link):

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

Kelly's post is required reading for self-employed performing artists (this means you, storytellers).

More thinking needs to be done to create a workable model for storytellers. The typical working storyteller has thousands of fans, but upwards of 90% of them are in an educational setting. Regardless of whether these kids have disposable income, a school setting is not an appropriate venue to push sales. Even if you could find a venue outside of school, kids aren't going to spend a hundred dollars a year on their favorite storyteller.

Then, as you move to teenagers and 18 to 25 year olds, you have to find the true fans amidst the sea of audiences who are accustomed to getting their culture digitally for free.

For storytellers, even those with adult audiences, $100 per true fan per year may be high. But I think $50 is doable.

And I suspect that a storyteller who has taken either Doug Lipman's marketing course or Sean Buvala's Outside In Boot Camp, and combines it with this True Fan model, will lead the way in creating an alternative model of making a living at storytelling.... one that does not depend on the whims of school board or state funding of elementary schools).

(This is not to take away from those storytellers right now who are making a living at storytelling... they work hard, and they deserve every penny. But I'm intrigued by the alternative model that Kelly describes.)

March 04, 2008

Oh I Wish I Were An Oscar Mayer Weiner

"An Angry White Guy in Chicago" is the blog of Chicago producer/writer/director/performer Don Hall. It should be required reading for any small theatre producer in this country. That includes storytelling event producers, and storytellers who perform for adult audiences.

Recently, he posted a video from Weird America of a man obsessed with hot dogs. A guy who devotes all of his creative energy to hot dogs. Don writes:

With our esoteric devotion to what has become, like opera or ballet or jazz, the province of a small, SMALL portion of American society (more people have webbed toes than see live theater monthly in this country) and our deep belief that other people will care if we only could reach them, aren't we much the same as Hot Dog J. Frank - The Willy Wonka of Meat?

Watch the hot dog video, then read Don's post.

Then read it again with the following substitutions:
Replace "Fringe theater" with "storytelling."
Replace "live theater" with "storytelling."
Replace "theatre artist" with "storyteller."

Good Things

Along with breaking the eggs, a good omelet needs some seasoning. So, to cleanse the palate, here's a list of some recent things that made me happy:

1. Just received two mint copies of Bil Lepp's story collections in the mail. I didn't even know Bil Lepp had published his stories. To my surprise, both books were autographed copies, and what's more, I didn't pay a dime for them. (Twenty-five bucks is what the market will bear right now on eBay. Not sure if that reflects acutal demand or the dire economic circumstances of West Virginia book sellers). I love how the Web enables peer-to-peer book swapping.

2. Listening with my son to an Anansi story, "Leopard's Birthday Bop" told by Ramona King

3. Discovering a delightful "new" storyteller on YouTube. I've got to hand it to Sister Unity, she's got the YouTube magic going on. Traditional tales in a nontraditional format. I love it.

4. Wiretap on the CBC (this is only tangentially related to storytelling, but I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Goldstein's recent fractured retellings of David and Goliath, and David and Bathsheba).

5. The Odyssey. Homer's The Odyssey.

Recently Cathryn Fairlee hosted an all-day telling of the Odyssey. It took seven hours, nine storytellers, and a whole lot of food to get through it-- okay, four hours for the story, and three more for the food.

Inspired by the gatherings of storytelling guilds in Canada who annually perform some epic work, such as the Canterbury Tales or the Kalevala, Cathryn has been hosting similar gatherings in California for the past three years. The first year, The Canterbury Tales, the next was The Mabigonian, and the next The Thousand Nights and One Night. But those days necessarily featured selections from the larger works. This year, she organized the tellers to get through the whole thing.

Illness took a few tellers out of the lineup (12 tellers learned a part of the story, but only nine made it that day). Stormy weather kept some of the audience away.

But what a treat... to take a day to just listen to stories. And to listen to a story that our culture knows by reference, but not by heart. Out of the twenty or so gathered to listen (and most of them storytellers), only half had ever read the Odyssey.

We're hoping Cathryn pitches a workshop to NSN for the 2009 Conference on how she organizes this. Basically, she sent out a call for local storytellers, picked a date, and divided up the books of the Odyssey. Each of the nine tellers told us the story, in their own style. The repetition of motifs and phrases, as well as the driving narrative, stitched the tellings together.

The day was not designed to be a polished performance. It was a private event, and intended as professional development for tellers. A chance for tellers to try out some epic storytelling in front of an interested and supportive audience (and they will repeat their part again in the Fall at a second hosted gathering).

And we were all very proud of ourselves for getting to hear the Odyssey in a single day.