May 22, 2008

Consider the Storytelling UnFestival

In a discussion on Storytell last month about storytellers who overstay their welcome onstage and ignore time limits given them by their hosts, longtime contributor Conrad Bladey of Maryland chimed in with some thoughts on alternative models of storytelling events that intrigued me, particularly in light of alternative models of conferences I'd recently learned about. Here, with his permission, is what Conrad said:

In cultural as opposed to formal or organized settings stories were not scheduled. The closest one would come would be sermon-like situations where in the Celtic settings geneaologies were recited at special occasions as well as hero stories which also fit in to ritual structured acts. Sort of like the British custom of the toast of the best man at weddings...

Generally, round the fire, after dinner stories would occur as an integral part of the act of conversation. No lights, no bells no warnings but people power did play a role. The teller could be told off, shut up you fool.... (look at darby o'gill and the little people) audiences vote with their feet.... like adult ed students who pay too little and don't get credit... if you don't retain them they leave...

But... if the story is working... the magic is there; why in the world would anyone want to stop it?

Thus, there is a tragic flaw in organized telling, formal telling.

I have come up with a model and many may have heard it before.... Get rid of the main stage. Create independent smaller stages here and there and let tellers tell as long as the magic continues.

Now how is that determined.... not hard to tell... I would set an audience minimum.... say 5 people and you keep going four or less and you vacate the stage if another teller is without one. But only if another teller is waiting for a stage.

I would also have a stage maximum. Something like 30. More than thirty then audience would have to visit another stage. You regulate this by putting thirty blocks, poker chips in a box at stage door. Audience members take a chip or block or rock whatever and when they leave they put it back. Not too difficult.

That way you can have a formal event which preserves a realistic cultural setting and when tellers can tell as long as the magic continues. If you have enough stages-- that can be all day! This would be ideal when one has access to a school and classrooms.

In the beginning, figure out which rooms can be used. Then as people gather send them out to a room with a teller. Second thirty then open a second room and so on till all tellers are telling and all rooms are filled. Give each teller a 15 minute break option to use once every so often-- 1-2 hours....

Is there any real reason for mass events or arbitrary cut off times? Look at the Turkish epic cut offs for them!

Conrad Bladey's website can be found at:

I'm intrigued, both by this model and its analogous kin in the tech sector: the unconference or the Open Space Technology meeting-- professional gatherings designed to be participatory, to maximize knowledge sharing amongst a group (instead of the talking-head-to-audience model where interaction is pushed to the corridors and times outside scheduled sessions), and where you can vote with your feet. Don't like the conversation/panel/session/room you're in? You're expected to leave!

Learn more:
Open Space Technologies
Possibilities for Transformational Conferences by Tree Bressen with Debby Sugarman and Sunrise Facilitation, PDF download, 92kb
available under a Creative Commons license Creative Commons License

May 19, 2008

Why Memoir? Part 3.4

In the various responses to my question (Why are audiences eating up personal memoir as a genre at storytelling events?), people suggested to me that personal memoir stories would appeal to:

1) folks who grew up deprived of these types of tales told round the kitchen table (and damn the television for it!); or,

2) folks who grew up with these types of tales told round the kitchen table, and miss that (damn that television!); or,

3) folks who grew up deprived of traditional tales (damn television!) and as a consequence can't relate to traditional tales, ergo, by default, prefer personal tales.

(What is it with storytellers and television? I'll gladly throw mine out the window too, but you'll have to pry my cold dead fingers off my high-speed internet connection before I give up episodes of Lost streamed to my computer.)

So which is it?

Are audiences hungering for something they've never had?
Or something they once had and lost?

Did your family tell stories, either around the dinner table or at gatherings of the extended clan? Does that experience have any impact on how you feel about hearing personal stories at storytelling events?

May 14, 2008

2nd Story: A Great Idea

A follow up to my previous post.

Normally, I wouldn't rise to the bait of an anonymous poster, but she called me on my snark, and this made me realize something that Sean has commented on before: from my blog postings, the reader can't tell what I actually feel about a subject. So here's an update.

Over in Chicago, Serendipity Theatre Company's got a good thing going with 2nd story, a monthly series and annual festival featuring personal storytelling at a popular wine bar. It sells out. It gets good press. It develops writers' performance skills and actors' writing skills. It celebrates the art of the well-told story.

And storytelling plus wine? That's a damn good idea. I wish more o.g. storytelling events featured wine.

Would that any venue I tell stories in is featured in a Zagat guide.

Jealous much? Yes, I am.

Because the old school storytelling community has missed the boat on this one. Dropped the ball. I looked at the roster of 2nd Story's storytellers. I looked at the behind-the-scenes organizers. I looked at the sponsors. Don't see any of the old guard. I can see storytellers skipping over WNEP's Skald (it's off-Loop, it's fringe, it's under-the-radar). I don't see how they could have missed this one.

(Am I missing something from two thousand miles away, just relying on Google? Yes, yes I am. Fill me in, Chicagoland people)

In my previous post, my use of the word "cringeworthy" wasn't a swipe at Ms. Stielstra, for her definition of storytelling. It was a swipe at the Chicago Storytelling Guild, who are either invisible or irrelevant in the Chicago arts community.

My remarks on the wine tasting at 2nd Story wasn't meant to be a swipe at the event. I just don't understand (not being an experienced wine taster or frequenter of wine bars myself) how the wine tasting and the storytelling go together. An organized wine tasting seems to me much more formal and stuffy than the communal, relaxed vibe that the storytelling can bring out. But I haven't been there. It works for 2nd Story.

2nd Story shows two things about the American Storytelling Revival:
1. That the Jonesborough, Tennessee-centric movement that started 35 years ago has narrowed its vision and become so inward-focused that it misses opportunities to connect with new audiences. (I've been saying this on the blog since the beginning)
2. The Revival of Storytelling will continue without them. The theatre and literary community, in recognizing the power of the personal story, are celebrating the art of storytelling. Hell, the business community, from "knowledge management" experts to marketing and branding gurus are carrying the storytelling torch, too (to my chagrin).

So, I apologize for not being clear.

But just we know, going forward: I've got my own biases and preferences:

I don't particularly care for personal memoir as a genre. (As if that's not clear already from my numerous entries on the toopic)

And reading a story out loud off of a piece of paper is storyreading, not storytelling, and isn't a performance art. And putting it on YouTube doesn't make it a better experience.

I like wine.

May 12, 2008

2nd Story: Story, Music, and Wine Festival

"12 days. 54 stories. 46 storytellers. And 5000 glasses of wine."

Now that's a storytelling festival I'd like to see!

Where? Chicago.
When? Last month. Just missed it. (They do have a monthly series)
What the--?

The best stories I’ve ever heard come from hanging out with friends over a good bottle of wine. That’s when people really start talking, really get to the meat of their experiences—the wild beauty of it all, the destruction and the hope. That's the feeling we're going for: the crowd at Webster’s Wine Bar has the intimacy of my own living room and the crazy, wine-warm secrets that have been told there.”
—Megan Stielstra, Director of Story Development

Check out the video from the local news station:

I wouldn't call a wine bar the ideal venue for storytelling, but-- according to the bar's website, surveys like Zagat's give it a rating as a top night spot right up there with the Green Mill (one of Al Capone's former speakeasys and home of the infamous poetry slam). In that company, I wouldn't mind having that venue on my resume.

Oh, it's personal storytelling. Nevermind.

Cringeworthy moment 53 seconds in:
CLTV Reporter asks: "Is there a storytelling scene in Chicago?"
Festival director: "There's a really active theatre scene, and there's a really active literary scene, and what we try to do is-- kind of-- meet in between."

Okay, granted, this is an entertainment reporter, not Woodward & Bernstein, but the fact that this answer got a pass is telling: it means that there is no Chicago storytelling scene.

(I Googled "Chicago Storytelling" and hey, the Chicago Storytelling Guild came up first. But its site hasn't been updated since 2006. So in the unlikely event of a fact checker from CLTV trying to find background on storytelling... they'd skip right past the old guard and take 2nd story at its word.)

Although the video interview emphasized the performance, browsing through the other video clips on their site and on MySpace, I found the festival gives a pass to the writers... there's a lot of "storyreading" going on too. Maybe after the third glass of pinot you don't mind that the evening's entertainment is engrossed in a piece of paper held in her hand and is reading AT YOU.

(Sorry, the snark is slipping out. My guess is that the actors all memorize their stories and the writers have their crib notes in their hands.)

Learn more at their web site,
or their MySpace page,
or this TimeOut Chicago article.

This feature at CenterStage got me laughing. As if a wine bar wasn't a difficult enough venue, the festival takes a break between each teller to have everyone taste another wine. I guess you have to be there. Just the image, though, of the juxtaposition of the seriousness of which you're presenting flights of wine with the literal spotlight on the personal storyteller is giving me a spot of cognitive dissonance.

Still, I'd love to see this once. Anyone seen it?

May 04, 2008

Arts Administration + Shirky: it's a Whole New World

Over at his blog, The Artful Manager, the ever-relevant Andrew Taylor reflects on a recent conference, and combines that with some fascinating (and transformative) perspective from Clay Shirky, to raise this question:

...each of those three words -- ''professional,'' ''arts,'' and ''organization'' -- is in radical flux at the moment. That suggests that a phrase (and an assumption) combining all three could mean less and less in shorthand form.

And while the National Storytelling Network is not a "professional arts organization," at this particular junction in its life cycle, the leadership and members would do well to consider Taylor's initial thoughts on the relevancy (or, the increasing irrelevancy) on the traditional roles of an organization.

Link to Taylor's post: The Artful Manager: Three words, three problems

Link to Clay Shirky, describing the concepts in his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, in a 42 minute lecture at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. (Also available on YouTube).

May 02, 2008

Turning a Battleship

Well shut my mouth and call me clammy.

The National Storytelling Network, a membership-based organization dedicated to the promotion of storytelling (primarily oral storytelling), has been in poor fiscal health for some time. The Board finally made some necessary hard decisions and thus the organization now finds itself with no Executive Director and no current plans to get one (until such time as it can afford one).

I've had some issues with the organization, mainly regarding communication.

So to my astonishment, the Board (which is necessarily taking a more active role, since staffing levels have dropped) have set up their own Web site (using Google sites) for the express purpose of communicating with the membership.

(Although NSN has its own web site, I'm guessing that both the site design and its content management system are the wrong tools for this purpose).

Furthermore, the site is interconnected with a Discussion forum, courtesy of Google groups.

This is the first time in my nine years as a member that the Board has taken such proactive steps to communicate with the organization membership on the state of the organization and what the Board is doing... and to invite participation in a discussion in a public forum.

(Okay, I'm biased. I recall that the Board usually wrote some 400 word piece in the magazine every once in a while, about... something. They surveyed the membership once or twice. And they talk at the annual conference).

Whatever the outcome of this experiment in communication (and it will be an experiment: most of the NSN membership shy away from using web tools for communication), I am very glad that the leadership made the move towards public transparency, and open communication, and using the Web to make it happen.

How very twenty first century.

(Now if only my state liaison might do the same).

Link to the NSN Board site:
Link to the NSN Board site discussion forum:

(Coincidentally, I received the word about the new site on the very day that the International Storytelling Center's glossy fundraising brochure for their capital campaign... although the wording in the accompanying letter made implied that it would soon be the go-to organization for storytelling advocacy and networking.)