April 28, 2008

Audition time for Chicago's SKALD

WNEP Theater has announced its annual auditions for SKALD, their annual Storytelling Festival.

Here's why I love SKALD (despite the fact I've never seen it. Living two thousand miles away makes it a little hard to drop by):

1. The name references the traditional Viking bard/storyteller;
2. Unlike most storytelling festivals in the United States, this one has an open audition process.
3. "Rooted in the oral traditions of nearly every organized society, storytelling is theater stripped of all its ‘dazzle camouflage’ and focuses strictly on the qualities of story and teller."
4. In an homage to traditional storytellers of old, they have a competition of improvised storytelling.
5. Winners get bragging rights (wouldn't you like to be crowned Supreme Skald of Chicago's Premiere Storytelling Festival?)
6. They get kids to tell stories.
7. WNEP's been doing this for nine years --and will likely continue to do it-- with little to no support from the storytelling community. (A side benefit is that while everyone has to stick to seven minutes, there's no pressure to do safe, mildly humorous nostalgia stories. You bring one story, any genre. The resulting mix is what it is.)

In or near Chicago? Drop a line to Don to schedule an audition.

April 25, 2008

Storytelling: What Radio Does Best

DCist covers a lecture by Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio's This American Life. Glass tells his audience, as he has many times before, that storytelling is what radio does best, and that it’s hardly ever used for that purpose.

Which I find ironic now that This American Life is starting its SECOND season as a television show. (Storytelling may not be what television does best, but it's almost always used for that purpose).
(Has anyone seen the show? I haven't looked at the DVD of Season One yet.)

And coming up May 1 a live version of TAL will be broadcast via a digital satellite video feed (everywhere except the West Coast). Only this live event will show clips from the upcoming TV season. Wait. What?

Fans will go to movie theatres to watch a live feed of a radio host showing clips from a TV show? WTF?

DCist article: "Empathy is What Makes Us Sane."


With all my complaints about personal memoir dominating the storytelling scene, you'd think I'd be down on TAL. Funnily enough, while I do have complaints about the show, it's not their choice of genre. It's their style and tone I that mars the compelling storytelling (i.e. their need to explain the moral of every story and their overreliance on the personal memoirs of their own production team (Blumberg, Glass, Hitt, Goldstein, Updike, Vowell, etc. --all very talented writers and editors, but frankly, when it comes to determining how interesting their own lives are, they're not by any means impartial).

Snarky but dead-on coverage by The Onion, from a year ago: "This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence"

April 22, 2008

1000 True Fans Revisited

Kevin Kelly revisits his "1000 True Fans" hypothesis, in which he suggests that microniche artists could make a living from a limited fan base.

On his blog, he's beginning a series of interviews with artists who are using this very model, and the first one is ambient musican Robert Rich, who's been self-producing for 30 years. In his response, Rich tempers Kelly's enthusiasm with a hard dose of reality:

In reality the life of a "microcelebrity" resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit. After every tour I feel exhausted but empowered by the thought that a few people really care a lot about this music. Yet, a few months later all is quiet again and CD/downoad sales slow down again. If I take the time to concentrate for a year on what I hope to be a breakthrough album, that time of silence widens out into a gaping hole and interest seems to fade. When I finally do release something that I feel to be a bold new direction, I manage only to sell it to the same 1,000 True Fans. The boulder sits back at the bottom of the mountain and it's time to start rolling it up again.

Hat tip to Sean for this one.

April 18, 2008

Why Memoir? Part 3.3

Simon Brooks had this to add to the discussion:

A number of years ago (over 15 most likely) I read an article on storytelling in the USA (I was in the UK back then) and the growing - then- desire to hear personal stories and how the British writer was disapponinted in not hearing any traditional tales. I never understood the popularity of personal stories. Why would I want to hear about some stranger and their life? What is the point? I do not care about them; I do not know about them - I want to hear good 'old fashioned' stories.

Three years ago a friend of mine let me borrow a Donald Davis CD recording - "The Crack of Dawn". I had it for a long time before I listened to it and my friend kept asking if I had listened to it, and what did I think. This coincided with hearing Jo Radner tell a brilliant story that made me sit up and think. It was not a tradition tale at all. I am not really sure why I was there. But something went off inside me, so when I got home I sat down and listened to the Donald Davis CD. I was amazed. Bowled over. Enthralled. I ordered a bunch of his stuff for the library. A couple of years ago I heard Elizabeth Ellis and was knocked out, reduced to tears. I heard Jay telling his "Pill Hill" stories and was inspired by his telling and by the tales he told. I heard Meg Gilman last year at STF and loved her personal story, for it's strength and passion.

I left a job working for Valley Quest in White river Junction to put more of my time into storytelling. At Valley Quest we would create treasure hunts for communities in communities and would collect personal tales from the elders. These stories were so important as they captured personal experiences in a time in history. If it were not for this program, many histories of local areas and the 'customs' held there would have been lost. Over the years I have come to realize the importance of some of these
stories. They teach us about ourselves, about our community, about the
society we live in, or have lived in. Maybe, in some way, we can look at these personal stories as, in a certain light, contemporary folktales. These stories that are being recorded are capturing the now. In a few hundred years time, who is to say that these tales will still be being told, but not as personal stories, but as folktales.

Me, myself, I enjoy, once in while, hearing a really good personal tale. I find them - sometimes - enlightening, teaching me something about myself in much the same way some folk and faerie stories do. But I personally love to tell the 'tradition' folk and faerie tales. I do not think I have the talent - right now - to tell a personal tale. Maybe the second wave in the rise in popularity in hearing personal tales comes from a growing interest in storytelling and this new audience is finding it easier to relate to personal stories - they can see something of themselves in these tales which they cannot (I blame tv for everything) in the 'tradition' stories.

I would love to see a balance at festivals of both. Not for me, I would prefer the majority to be traditional tales, but maybe if people 'learn to listen and grow' through personal stories, they will find the magic and power of the older stories.

Why Memoir? Part 3.2

Ruthanne Edward, from Ottawa:
I have noticed that The Moth style events (story slams etc.) are pretty much entirely personal stories and primarily a younger crowd than a typical storytelling event. I think this stems from what others have said about how people feel disconnected, don't have the same opportunity to tell their own and hear other's stories as in the past. We are also all coming from much more diverse backgrounds with different experiences than ever before. I think in this regard that personal stories serve two purposes. Hearing the stories of someone from a similar time, place or culture as you helps to reinforce your personal identity. Hearing the stories of someone from a different time, place or culture is new, exotic and hopefully helps you to begin identifying with them.

Me again.
Perhaps the appeal of The Moth's aesthetic (ten minute true stories from the teller's personal life (although recent squabbling in the blogging community over the veracity of Malcolm Gladwell's "true" story at The Moth seems to indicate that they don't let the "true" part get in the way of a good story) is this: the simple elevation of the well-done kitchen table story with a microphone and a spotlight (in a venue with a well-stocked bar) celebrates America's obsession with the cult of the individual.

And I suspect the resonance for The Moth's audiences is not just similar "time, place or culture" (because they go out of their way to find tellers with odd jobs and unique experiences to share) but similar reactions to experience. That is, it's the emotional content that resonates, not necessarily the contextual details. And in doing this, it validates the idea of the individual. (Although, the concept of "Everybody has a story to tell" is by no means exclusive to nightclubs in the Village)

And again, if you've got an underused storytelling muscle in your frontal lobe, it's easier to visualize a story set in a familiar milieu, be it New York in the 1990s or Middle American in the 1950s.

Why Memoir? Part 3.1

I posted the question as to why personal memoir was so popular to the Storytell Discussion list. Several folks replied, and I asked for and received permission from several of the responders to post their thoughts here.

Gregory Leifel, from Illinois, http://www.thrivingmoss.com and very very soon, www.AhhhFinally.com, wrote:
does anyone think the reason could also partly be society's obsession with the previously private side of others?

Now I'm sure everyone here is going to deny wanting to know anything about any celebrity, yet something is driving this celebrity/private side obsession. Is it transferring over to storytellers and the audience preferences? No, seriously. Are we more open to stories that approach how another person personally looks at life or life's challenges because we've been inundated with the private lives of many celebrities? Has it made it okay? Do we expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in all its ugliness and glory?

After all, fairy tales and literary stories make you reflect in an anonymous way. You don't know the characters personally, because they aren't real, but you learn lessons from their challenges. Now, similar messages within personal stories are perhaps more identifiable because the real live storyteller on the stage is just like you, real with tough challenges. (celebrities are real people living in an unreal setting). Non-fiction books outsell fiction, but they didn't used to. Is this a result of the information society? We just gotta know details? We expect to know, so tell tell tell?

My feeling, at least with the popularity of personal stories in the U. S., is that our youth over quite a number of decades is no longer exposed to fairy tales. Maybe the Britney Spears' and Paris Hiltons of our pop-culture are so characterized that they are the fairytale stories now. And somehow it's transfered over to how we all tell stories.

My response:
Interesting to compare the rise and fall of teen pop stars with the fortunes and misfortunes of princesses and youngest sons... but I don't think an obsession with celebrity is pushing the hunger for memoir.

(And what about this? We'll clamor for more details for TV memoirs, tell all biographies... there are no taboos in the publishing world. But onstage... plenty of topics are kept out. The whole truth? No way. Not at storytelling events. Just the nice stuff. The humorous stuff. The stuff that honors the bonds of family and love and wisdom and apple pie.)

I think you're closer to the mark, Gregory, with the ability to identify with the protagonists. Adults, particularly, may more easily relate to a personal story than an anonymous folktale character. Perhaps the audience member has reached certain age at which they recognize that they themselves are not as smart as you thought they were and so maybe just maybe this guy onstage knows something (or is sharing that the story of that self-same epiphany).
the audience member has an atrophied imagination, and path of least resistance is to follow the story that requires only the image of the very storyteller in front of you and the carefully described landmarks familiar from nostalgia.

April 17, 2008

Reclaiming "Storyteller" as a Label

Over at Ning, the perennial question of how to define storytelling came up around one corner of the virtual water cooler, as Katie Knudsen asked whether we need to expand our definition of storytelling or hold fast to our tradition. I responded with an answer that goes on and on and on, but focused on the role of the event producer, not the performer, as the one who holds the key to definition. Here's an excerpt:

My point is: storytelling is bigger than "roots storytelling" represented by the festival circuit, and its bigger than "personal storytelling" represented by the Moth. And you certainly can segment your audience and produce events that showcase one sliver of storytelling.... nothing wrong with that.

What doesn't make sense is trying to claim an umbrella term as your own.

Imagine if Milton Berle had tried to claim "television" as the genre for the Texaco Star Theater show, and got all the other comedian hosted variety shows to claim "well, what we do is television." Those soap operas, those news shows, they're not "television."

Imagine if track and field competitors tried to claim that basketball players weren't "athletes" because they used a ball, and had to use teammates.

I'd like to see an event producer create a series or even a festival that is truly open to all forms of storytelling.

You can read my entire post and discussion here.

April 07, 2008

Why Memoir? Part 2


When Sean mentioned in his Roadblock #10 post that storytellers might be wary of violating the copyright of another author or storyteller, I was dubious.

Sure, I get the common sense logic. You can't be accused of violating another person's copyright if you're telling your own story.

Apparently this is an ongoing issue of concern in the storytelling movement, but it raised its head in the 1980s at national conferences.

But seriously, folks. Were storytellers accusing each other of "stealing" each other's repertoires? Were storytellers "stealing" folktales from other tellers?

From my own anecdotal evidence, I can see it might have happened. I learn stories better if I hear them, instead of find them in a book. Visualizing a story from a book is easy, but visualizing the story from book to stage is an added step, which requires more effort. Path of least resistance: tell the story you heard from someone else.

If everyone started telling the same Jack tale, or the same ghost story, sure, that's going to turn audiences off.

But in the analogous realm of traditional music, it's not at all uncommon to hear three or more different versions of "Sally Goodin," "Muleskinner Blues," and "Cripple Creek" in one weekend, both on the mainstages and around the campfires. That's the whole point of tradition. To carry it on. Sure, there are original bluegrass tunes being made all the time and post-punk old-timey revival re-imaginings of standards, but if you go a whole weekend without hearing a Bill Monroe arrangement of a tune, it's not a bluegrass festival.

So... back to storytelling. Traditional art form. Material hundreds if not thousands of years old. Material, therefore, in the public domain.

Artists are surprised that others are appropriating the same material?

Sure, you can call it unethical. Rude. Lazy. But like the story goes, "you knew it was a snake when you picked me up."

"Screw you all and the folktales you tell-- I'm switching to stories from my own life."

From what I hear, the change in material did not stop unethical performers from appropriating the personal memoirs of others for their own repertoire.

I live in a major metropolitan hub filled with theatre festivals in the summer. Several of them just do Shakespeare. Several just do musicals. Do they end up programming the same shows, opposite each other? Hey, it happens. Two, sometimes three "The Tempest"s in one summer. A handful of "South Pacific"s. They manage. They don't throw the classics out the window and start creating their own new scripts.

(Hmm. Bad analogy. --the perils of thinking in the blogging moment-- If these theatres ran themselves like the storytelling world, they would punt the classics, start creating their own new scripts, audiences would eat it up, and we'd never see "Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Hamlet" again.)

Copyright isn't the whole answer.

Stay tuned for more, on audience preferences, and on an academic's look at the movement.

April 03, 2008

Why Memoir? Part 1

I was explaining to a visiting storyteller one of the secrets to success in improvised storytelling is an accident of the American storytelling scene: the popularity of personal memoir.

My improv storytelling ensemble isn't trying to re-create Gilgamesh, or the Canterbury Tales, or an Anansi story. Storytellers Unplugged often relies on the dramatic power of layering multiple stories. A collage of solo monologues. Given a theme, an image, or a single word, and we can riff all night in various voices.

So when I say, I don't tell personal stories, what I mean is, I don't tell my own personal stories. I'm not interested in telling them. But when it comes to improvisation: I can make up personal memoirs all night long. So can my other ensemble colleagues.

It's just not that difficult.

And audiences respond to it.

Sean Buvala touches on this point in one of his Roadblocks to Success postings.

I don't quite agree with his comparison of storytellers who rely on personal memoir and stand-up comics, because the intent of each type of performer is different, as is the persona/mask they present to their audience... but there's a question that's been bothering me for some time.


Why are storytelling audiences so interested in personal memoir? (To the point where one Festival, with two decades of production under its belt, got audience survey comments back: "Why are your performers telling folktales and myths? I came to hear stories.")

I know that oral history can be compelling. I'm fascinated by the life stories collected by StoryCorps, some even make my cry. And I totally understand why the Library of Congress wants to save all these stories, as history. But what's going on in the storytelling revival-- that the traditional stories that fueled the movement in the beginning are being pushed aside for more stories about lived experience?

Why is the boom in the alternative storytelling movement (e.g. the Moth, Fringe Festival solo performers, --and soon to switch places with the "mainstream" storytelling movement which is driving itself if not to the fringe, then to folksy irrelevance) so focused on personal memoir?

Why, as Ben Haggarty of the UK put it --after having been banished to a small classroom at 9:00 AM on a Friday morning in order to present his 2 hour version of Gilgamesh, as the Jonesborough-style festival that had hired him had nothing longer than a 50 minute available during the weekend-- do American storytelling festivals reserve the spotlight on the mainstage for stories that in any other culture are told around the kitchen table?

I've been poking around, asking this question. I'll be posting some responses from other storytellers, from academics, from various
You have theories? Feel free to post in the comments.