November 15, 2009

Farewell, Brother Blue

Brother Blue has died.

I knew of Brother Blue's reputation long before I ever met him. I couldn't quite meld the images of him that my mind created from hearing about him. About being a barefoot street performer in Cambridge. About storytelling in jails. About having a Doctorate in storytelling. About running a longstanding open mic storytelling series, that apparently every storyteller in New England had acknowledged as the place to tell.

Beginning in 1999, I began to encounter Brother Blue at storytelling conferences. I couldn't help but notice him. He was usually the first one in the audience to speak at the end of a workshop or panel discussion, often without waiting for an invitation for feedback. He'd stand up, and in a powerful voice address the speaker, sharing his experience of what he had just heard-- and his experience usually found a connection to the sacred calling of storytelling, its connection to soul, and he'd find a metaphor or Homeric turn of phrase to express his appreciation for what he'd just heard (even if the session was on something as mundance as a case study of knowledge management and oral history initiatives at NASA). He played the fool-- not to be a buffoon or a jester-- but to break through the formality in a room, to push the awareness and conversation to another level.

I only ever heard one story from Brother Blue, but it made a lasting impression. Four years ago (he would have been 83 years old) at a storytelling conference, late at night, a handful of us gathered in a dormitory lounge to swap stories. Blue was there, and he told. His words poured out like he was directly channeling the muses, and the musicality and verbal acumen with which he spun his fable was astonishing. To me, it was like witnessing Lord Buckley in the guise of an evangelical preacher.

I've been reading remembrances of Brother Blue this past week, by those who knew him well and those who encountered him only briefly. Here's a few I'd recommend:

If you never had the chance to meet Brother Blue, here are a few videos, so that you can get a glimpse of this man.

via Kevin Brooks:

via Cambridge Community Television: a street performance from Brother Blue

October 31, 2009

International Storytelling Network

Is it me, or do Europeans know how to form federations better than we Americans?

For years, the American storytelling movement has talked the talk about reaching out to international comrades in the oral tradition, but walking the walk consisted mainly of having a single foreign-born English-speaking storyteller appear at a conference or festival.

The internet has revolutionized collaboration, erasing borders and leaping great distances in geography and time zones. American storyteller Dianne de las Casas created Professional Storyteller almost two years ago using the Ning social networking platform, and it's gained a lot of traction, with storytellers joining from around the world (a niche site for storytellers at Ning has proven more successful than subgroups of intersted parties on sites like Orkut, Facebook, and Myspace). As of today, PS has over 1,100 members.

But a social network of professionals is essentially a closed room--a private party. Why isn't there a united public face to the world?
Well, over in Spain, storyteller Beatriz Montero has made a start. She's got the Spanish speaking world on board (and India) with an International Storytelling Network. (Technically, La Red Internacional de Cuentacuentos).

Beatriz has something on her side that PS doesn't have: collaborations with storytelling organizations in Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, and Spain.

Will RIC make a connection to FEST, the newly formed European storytelling network to create a global networking powerhouse? Whether or not it does, this will definitely be a site to watch, if you're interested in what your fellow storytellers are doing in other countries.

Want to join? There's a directory of storytellers and festivals. I've added my name to a list of over one thousand entries. Storytellers can join here. Festivals join here.

The site is in English and Spanish. You'll get more out of the site if you know Spanish, but even if you don't, click around: I've already discovered storytelling festivals in Cuba, Ecuador, and Greece that I would never have otherwise learned about.

October 24, 2009

Guest Opinion: Gregory Leifel on the Storytelling Trance

Storyteller Gregory Leifel of Illinois, has graciously granted permission to post his musings on the "storytelling trance" (Stallings, 1988), a recurring topic of discussion among storytellers. This post first appeared on the Storytell email list, on October 1, 2009.

Let's say you're telling to an audience of 10 people (for simplicity-- you can extrapolate from there). They've come for a relaxing evening of story-listening.

In speculative estimates, say 6 of those people worked during the day out of the home and 3 worked within the home, and 1 was unemployed with no children to care for. Out of those six who worked, 5 had an extremely hard day due to more responsibility on the job due to recent company layoffs. The other 1 owns his business, and has also had to lay folks off, for which he feels terrible, but knows it's healthy for the company and allows the other employees to keep their jobs. Of the 3 that worked at home, 2 stay at home moms and 1 stay at home dad, it was laundry day on top of everything else going on with the kids, and they all arrived at the storytelling event after dropping off the kids at the soccer or dance or music class, and have 60 minutes for themselves before going to pick up the kids. The 1 unemployed person has sent out 200 resumes and has gotten one phone call, but was highly overqualified for the pathetic offer, though it's been months since he's worked so he actually thought about accepting the job--the paper hat he'd have to wear was the only thing preventing him from taking it. Out of the 10, only 5 have health insurance and hope to hold onto it, and the other 5 simply pray a lot, while Congress continues to argue and grandstand. Needless to say, it's been a rough day for all 10 people.

As the Storyteller for the evening, you know none of the above. You just see 10 people in your audience who will (hopefully) be with you for the next 60 minutes while you tell stories.

Each of those 10 people have either a voice or picture in their head (or both) reminding them of not only the things that happened to them today, but what they have to do right after the show and then tomorrow and then in the next few days. 2 have relatives who have medical conditions, and 4 aren't feeling so well about themselves due to recent tragedies within their close circle of friends.

You step out onto the stage, alone. 10 people are looking at you. Perhaps 3 have been to a storytelling event before and are actually ready to have you shut off a portion of their brain because the next 60 minutes are their escape from the laundry-list of worries and responsibilities. The other 7 people thought the evening might help them relax a bit, so they came to this event, with only a slight hope of relaxation, up against their own laundry list of responsibilities and what they will have to do 60 minutes from now.

Your job, as storyteller, for the next 60 minutes is to capture and hold their attention. To find a way FOR THEM to shut off their voices and pictures of responsibility in their heads and allow them to be REPLACED with suggested images from your stories.

Now that you've been privy to what was actually going on with these 10 people as they entered the room, does not the ability to hypnotize or enchant them seem like a tool you need in your storytelling pocket? Especially if we extrapolate and there are 100 people in your audience? 300 people? 500?

Their eager faces look up at you and you say, "Good evening ladies and gentleman."

Perhaps the 3 who've heard storytelling before will allow your prediction that the evening will be good, to stand for the moment. The other 7 may be saying to themselves, "We'll judge for ourselves just how good this evening will be, thank you very much." They all stare at you.

Tough crowd, you think. (And perhaps you, yourself, had a rough day, too--perhaps your own voice and pictures in your head are still voicing and showing what else you have to do before the day is done--or the room is too hot or cold, or the pay was based on attendance.) And you get yourself into storytelling mode by bringing up the first picture in your head of the first story you're going to tell. In order for that picture to take you into the story, you most likely make the picture bigger in your head/mind (you don't consciously do this, it's just what now happens having practiced your story enough). You do so because the bigger and more detailed the picture you have in your head, the easier it is for you to tell the story. You make that picture so big and detailed, the previously bigger laundry list picture that was in your head shrinks and then gets crowded out completely. And when it does, you're ready to tell these 10 people your first story.

In essence, what you've just done in your own head, is hallucinate an illustrated version of your story and made it so real that it dominates your attention, blocking out everything else. After all, this audience deserves your full attention. You know the laundry list picture is still behind the current story picture, but that's perfectly fine because for the next 60 minutes these other pictures are more important. They are highly detailed, with color, dimension, and even sound enhanced, and you feel them affect you. They enable you to concentrate on the story and on the audience, and block out anything else. It is the only way you're going to strongly communicate with these 10 people who've all had one hell of a day.

The process that took place in your head in order for you to get into the story, is what HAS TO TAKE PLACE in the listener. The images and words you're suggesting to them, have to take that tiny space they've allowed in their minds for the next 60 minutes, and quickly allow that space to grow, same as it did in your storytelling mind, where it blocks out the other 95% of space which is filled with their day so far, and with what responsibilities comes after this show. You literally have to help them grow their picture in their mind so that dominates their thoughts.

So the question becomes, HOW do you make that happen? HOW do you get them to do a similar process in their mind that you did in yours so you could concentrate on the story at hand, and not on your hell of a day?

You pace them to it. You suggest things for them to accept. You make your suggestions seductive and interesting, and acceptable. You lead them gently but firmly, and show them a better picture with your words.

When you said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," you've began pacing them. You suggested it would be a good evening. They may have fought you on that a bit, "We'll see," they may have said in their heads, but you planted the seed of possibility. Now you begin to water it and tend it, and they begin to see it grow and are amazed it sprouts so quickly. They feel the warmth of sunshine in your story on the side of their face and turn in the direction of full warmth because it's comforting. They hear and feel the water absorbing into the roots of the story, and even smell the damp earth of growth. Their previous pictures and nagging responsibility voices fade, move over, become smaller and smaller, fainter, as your suggested images grow in their minds. They perhaps nod in sync to a timed gesture of yours, as you engage them further.

All the while you, as storyteller, know the outcome, the moral, punchline, lesson, or even overall philosophy the story allows them to explore for themselves. They've eliminated the laundry list and are absorbed by your material and voice and movement and silences between these. You've hypnotized or enchanted them into a hallucinatory world where two pictures in their head/mind swapped places and sizes and details, one fading and getting smaller, the other growing with detail, color, size, dimension, depth, and relevancy. Yes, your aim was relevancy, and you got them to accept the suggestion with your words, actions, voice, gestures, eyes, pauses, and a host of natural communication skills, some you've worked on, others which are a part of you.

And then, like all good storytellers, you plant that seed of future suggestion. You give them something to take with them, so they aren't jarred into the laundry-list of responsibility when the 60 mintues are up. You give them hope there's more than the laundry-list. There's time for themselves. There's an ability to make the story picture bigger any time they want. To shrink the laundry list's importance so that there's room for what's more important, life. Life in all its possible suggestions which they can and will accept, for the betterment of themselves. Yes, you tell them, you can be responsible and have fun at the same time. That's a good evening, that's a good life.

That's the power of story. That's your responsibility as storyteller: to give them future suggestions with story, through story, and because of story, that will improve their lives through the further use of their imaginations.

Call it hypnosis. Call it trance. Call it positive hallucination. Call it imagination. Just call their attention to its possibilities.


Gregory Leifel (where Aha Moments in kids find fullfillment)

October 22, 2009

The Invisible Storytellers of the San Francisco Bay Area

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, described succintly by the New York Times, "9 counties, 8 bridges, 7 million people." With San Francisco as an international city and cultural hub, it's no surprise that the region has a large population of performing artists, and that includes storytellers. There are some amazing storytellers in the Bay Area, many of whom I've had the privilege to hear, to learn from, to be coached and mentored by, and to work alongside.

But recently I got a call from a potential client in a town nearby, just 12 miles away from me. She told me that although she found my contact information, she had a very difficult time finding any other Bay Area storytellers online. The other performer she contacted lived in Santa Cruz county, a hundred miles away. This surprised me, as I can think of at least 6 world class storytellers who live within a 15 minute drive of my house. 5 of those 6 have a website. But to a potential client, who didn't know their names, she couldn't find them.

I didn't ask how she phrased her query, but I did my own search, seeking "storyteller" and adding modifiers like "Berkeley" or "San Francisco."

Sure enough, my name came up. Of those other 6 talents... none. (Actually, just did the search again, 2 of them appeared under results for the query "San Francisco storyteller". Either they've finally updated their web site or Google once again adjusted their search algorithm or else Google is adjusting its search results based on my past search history or all of the above)

Other folks have written about this phenomenon before. And I've know about this issue for years. Back in the 1990s, I was an editor for the Open Directory Project--a massively collaborative online attempt to catalog the Web using human editorial judgement-- and I volunteered to catalog every storytelling website I could find. And I noticed that a significant portion, maybe 30-40% of websites for a single individual-- neglected to put any geographical reference point in their website's copy. So it might have several pages about programs offered, rave reviews, and even copy so compelling that were I in the market to hire a storyteller I'd definitely want this person-- but it had no information about where in the world this person worked. Sometimes, I could deduce the region based on the area code of the contact number, but other times there was no clue.

But the era of AOL and Yahoo! is ten years behind us. We've all learned to live with the Web. Not everyone jumps on the latest thing, like Twitter, but I thought that Google has become indispensable. (Ten years ago I was working for a competing search engine, and the writing was on the wall then: we knew (months before we went bankrupt) that the big G was a game-changer). I recognize that living so close to Silicon Valley, my social milieu is (supposedly) more tech savvy then the average person. (And my experience working in the industry, however briefly, makes me more attuned to the ins and outs of online marketing w/r/t search engine optimization.

But this recent reminder of how invisible storytellers are online, even now, surprised me.

If you're a storyteller-- can you find yourself on Google?

Tougher question: can you find yourself without typing in your name?

If you're someone looking for a storyteller, let me know how you search-- do you search by geography? Or do you search by content (e.g. "ghost stories," "Irish stories," etc.)

October 07, 2009

National Storytelling Festival Wrap Up, Part 2: the Blogs

A sampling of blog postings reflecting on the 37th Annual National Storytelling Festival, held in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the first weekend of October:

Emma Coffer and Erin Maring, posted their reflections on their blog, Whims-E:
Are you afraid of the dark?
Stories! Trains! Fun Hats!
I wanna sing, I wanna dance, Allelu
Top Three Story Moments

Blogger Ellouise Schoettler writes about her Jonesborough experience on Ellouisestory. She wasn't just an audience member—she was one of the invited performers!
Friday to Sunday at the National Storytelling Festival

Annie Campbell teaches third grade, and writes eloquently about her students and the process of teaching, writing, and telling stories. She's been to the National Festival before, and went again this year:
By Chance?

Over at the Storytelling Arts of Indiana blog, storyteller Lou Ann Homan-Saylor writes about her pilgrimage to the Festival, accompanying Ellen Munds, who was awarded the National Storytelling Network's Oracle Award for Distinguished National Service this year, the night before the Festival.
The Mecca to Jonesborough

Appalachian blogger and storyteller "Granny Sue" can always be counted on for a detailed description of her travels, as well as a few photos, and she does not disappoint this year:
National Storytelling Festival: Storytelling and Friends

Over at Alone on a Limb, Terrell Shaw shares his impressions of the tellers he heard at the Festival: Sunday Concert, Truthful Lies

National Storytelling Festival Wrap Up, Part 1: Twitter

Well, I wasn't there this year, at the 37th Annual National Storytelling Festival, held each year in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the first weekend in October.

However, I knew from last year, that it was possible to follow the weekend vicariously, through Twitter. This year, I tuned into the tweets of @Storyconnect (the official twitter account of the International Storytelling Center that hosts the event), and various attendees, and a performer or two, including Ellouise Schoettler, a wonderful storyteller out of Maryland that I know from several worlds (the storytelling circuit, the blogging world, and Fringe Festivals), who was making her debut at the Festival this year.

And while the 140 character limit of Twitter can't help but fail to express the feeling of a three-day storytelling lovefest, there were some nice glimpses over the weekend of the festival's spirit:

@BuckPCreacy Ah I am here. . . Tell me some story 5:11 PM Oct 1st

@MargaretMeyers: Nat'l Story Night has a nature all its own. Stories so touching, audience in tune. 9:28 PM Oct 1st

@Storyconnect: A beautiful morning in J-borough. Watching families & excited festival-goers pin on their calico "tickets." Tellers, your audience awaits! 6:30 AM Oct 2nd

@Djeliba: I got up early to do my ritual of visiting the stage. There are people seated in the audience 2 hours before performances begin! Wow! 7:31 AM Oct 2nd

@iBelin: "There are no fairy godmothers in my story 'cause women stand on their own two feet where I come from." Gay Ducey #Storytelling 11:35AM Oct 2nd

@Storyconnect: Kathryn Windham, on being Southern: "We are not embarrassed by our peculiarities. We chart 'em out & tell stories about them!" 12:26 PM Oct 2nd

@LeeRosen: National Storytelling Festival totally doesn't get social media. Photos, videos, and device use prohibited. Fail. 12:51 PM Oct 2nd

@DavidJoeMiller: //// If you're in Jonesborough right now, stay out of Boo Alley after night fall. Legend has it that ....................... 4:26 PM Oct 2nd

@Djeliba: Just finished my performance (1,200) people in the audience. What an amazing experience! 5:12PM Oct 2nd

@Ellouisestory: Please excuse me. I am still glowing from my first time on a Jonesborough stage at Exchange Place. #storytelling 9:30 PM Oct 2nd

@MargaretMeyers: Watching Eric Wolf around town at #storytelling festival doing interviews. Waiting to hear what he does with them. 9:31 PM Oct 2nd

@LeeRosen: Awake and getting ready for big day of stories. Jonesborough will be packed today. 4:21 AM Oct 3rd

@VeronicaMcG: Crammed like a sardine in a tent w/ 1000 other people at the Natl Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tn., & loving every min of it. 6:53 AM Oct 3rd

@focusonthecloud: I've travelled the south looking for ghost stories & have only found 2 evil ghosts. Thats a lot better than the humans I've met. - Kathryn 8:44 AM Oct 3rd

@focusonthecloud: So there we were a catholic priest, a baptist pastor and a methodist minister flying thru the air with no punchline in sight. - Bill Lepp 1:32 PM Oct 3rd

@DianaBaldwin: At the National Storytelling Festival- the first real social media. Amazing, captivating stories, and absolutely zero backnoise. 3:54PM Oct 3rd

@Storyconnect: Irish scary stories never fail to terrify-- I am now afraid of cairns, bath water, pokers, & cake. You might not want to know why. 6:13 PM Oct 3rd

@Consultdoc: Had a great time at the Intl Storytelling Festival. Fun to get a little old school and laugh out loud. Highly reccommend it. 7:03 PM Oct 3rd

@DianaBaldwin: @storylaura just finished the ghost stories segment. Did you go? Amazing & under the perfect moon... 7:14 PM Oct 3rd

@Ellouisestory: listening to the train passing through early in the morning. Its the music of storytelling here in Jonesboro. 5:02 AM Oct 4th

@Storyconnect: A tent full of of thousands just sang three songs in four-part harmony. That's it's own kind of magic! 7:23 AM Oct 4th

@Storyconnect: Bil Lepp vs. mountain lion. Any takers on the bet? 12:17 PM Oct 4th

@SlashColeman: is back from Jonesborough....ahhhhh. 4:40 AM Oct 5th

Some of the Twitter users even managed a "tweetup" on Saturday morning (photo here)

Tweeter @LeeRosen's frustration with the Festival's policy on electronic devices is understandable, but that didn't stop several tweeters from snapping photos with their cell phones (I found pics of Sheila Kay Adams, Donald Davis, and Kathryn Windham via Twitter... well, most of the pic is row upon row of audience in folding chairs while at the far side of the tent was a tiny human being. If you say that little speck is Sheila, I'll believe you).

Meanwhile, over at @focusonthecloud, Matt Harris was actually twittering quotes from storytellers in near real-time. (Maybe Festival staff and tent volunteers aren't on the lookout for active Blackberries?) Not a substitute for hearing the whole story, but Matt was capturing some nice turns of phrase from these orators. And, if, like me, you've heard some of these tellers before, the tweets evoke the sound of their voices. So I appreciate what Matt was doing.

If I had been there? I would have found a way to post, but probably not during the performances. As much as I like to share the experience online, when it comes to performances, I'm there to experience the storytelling trance. The tweets can come later.

September 05, 2009

Tweets (and TV) from Timp Fest

Who was tweeting from this week's Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Orem, Utah?

Nice to see a storytelling festival get some buzz on Twitter. I know of two key Festival supporters who are also on Twitter regularly that surprisingly did not tweet from the ground (I suppose they were too busy).

Now if the Festival can just figure out to do with their blog ;-)


Oh, and I found this TV coverage from KTVX 4 in Salt Lake City, featuring storyteller Donald Davis-- which smartly aired a few days before the Festival:

August 26, 2009

Online Storytelling Resource: Storytell

STORYTELL, an email discussion list, used by storytellers and storytelling fans since its creation in 1995 by Karen Morgan, then a graduate student, at Texas Women's University, has a new home: the National Storytelling Network.

Have a storytelling question regarding technique, business, or material and want to crowdsource the answer? Storytell, while not the largest online forum for storytellers, is a very active list.

Most of my readers will already now about Storytell, but I'm posting this info as virtual bread crumbs to create a trail to its new URL.

For instructions on subscribing and using the list:

August 24, 2009

Lessons from the Campfire, Part "Duh"

When you ask your audience if they'd rather hear a fairy tale or "a wildly inappropriate story," the six- to sixteen-year-olds will choose the latter.

With wild enthuiasm.

August 09, 2009

More Lessons from the Campfire

I was camping in Yosemite National Park last month (missed Angela Lloyd by a week, I didn't know they invited storytellers in for workshops and concerts). The first night, my family and I went to the ranger-led campfire program. The interpretive program was on the "spirit" of the mountains (as expressed through artists and poets), and the audience sat on fixed benches in an amphitheater style arrangement, with the presenter sharing the stage with the actual campfire. That night, the ranger shared a personal story of climbing in Bhutan and invited stories from the gathering. Afterwards, she told me she hadn't quite known how to work in a traditional tale she'd learned in Bhutan, which she then told to my family (and to my 8-year old's delight, it had a more scatological ending than the version he'd heard from Laura Simms).

Once friends joined us in Yosemite, we had our own campfires each night in our campsite, where I told stories, after marshmallows had been roasted.

Some thoughts in comparing the two campfires:
The fire for the official ranger-led program we saw had at least eight logs in it, it was quite bright, and with both the light of the fire and the dusk (the program was at 7:00, so it was before sunset), the ranger was clearly visible (and the only one standing on the stage).
Our family campfire had just three logs in it, and usually the stories didn't start until after marshmallows had been roasted and the sun had gone down. Kids and parents were nestled in camping chairs drawn around in a tight circle around the fire pit. The fire was not roaring. It was a cozy, small flame. I, as the storyteller, also in a camping chair, was only dimly visible. And as the night wore on, less so, as the fire died down.

And though I took the role of the storyteller around the fire, just as the ranger had, the simply fact of darkness made the fire, and not me, the focal point for the audience's eyes. Though I was "onstage," and telling the story, there wasn't much point in looking at the storyteller. They were doing the imagining-- the "heavy lifting" of the story-- internally. Nice how something as simple as a campfire can remind us of that.

July 17, 2009

Process: Color and Advance

I'm in the process of adding some new stories to my repertoire. So, taking a page from the playbook of storyteller Priscilla Howe, I set up some informal backyard storytelling sessions, to give myself a live audience to whom I could tell these stories.

Two of the three stories are wonder tales, involving quests, with various tasks which tangle the plot, and familiar fairy tale motifs. But in this early stage, when I'm just getting to know the story, the main challenge for me is to simply hit all the plot points. And for my first run in my backyard, I managed to include most of them in my telling. Even got them in the right order.

Afterwards, reflecting on how these "first tellings" went, I realized that I was so concerned about the plot, that I left out pretty much any description that might help my listeners create the images of the story. Luckily, these stories are archetypal enough (and my audience young enough) that just saying "forest," "cave," "lion," or "giant" is enough of a prompt to get their imaginations going. But to me the story felt dry. Bare bones.

This feeling reminded me of an instructive game I learned when I was studying improvisation. The game, Color/Advance, involved two people: a storyteller and a director. One person would start telling a story, and the director could say only one of two directions:
"Advance," and the storyteller would have to keep the action of the story moving forward.
The other direction, "Color," when spoken aloud, meant that the storyteller had to stop the forward momentum of the story and stay in the moment, but embellish--go deeper--with description of the environment, the characters, or the emotion. The game was designed to get us thinking about key components of narrative.

So here was my thought about the bare bones: too much advance, not enough color.

It will come, with more tellings. The color is already there; I just need to bring it out. As I tell a story, I have visual images in my head of everything that's going on. In one sense, I'm simply describing what I see.

(Not all storytellers work that way, though many do, but I found this is a fairly useful description to explain to people how it is that I can tell a story without memorizing a text)

The trick is to translate those images into oral language, fluidly. With more tellings, it will happen. I'll begin to associate certain phrases with certain images. Over time, the language may become more and more set (but for me, never rigid).

This was a helpful revelation, as, at the same time, I was working on a new story for a local adult storytelling series, and for a change of pace, I was developing a monologue... which meant that the story was not simply plot and image strung together. I was working on giving voice to a character, and so I was considering sound, movement, attitude, and emotion in a way that I don't typically do in my "regular storytelling" (Thank goodness for all those years working towards a degree in Theatre).

All of these qualities in a character monologue are part of the "color." But this backyard lab helped me (wearing my playwright hat) by reminding me that my character could tell his story more effectively if he went beyond "this happened then this happened" to include details like "she was the kind of girl who..." and "two ogres? two ogres are stupider than one."

The Color/Advance game was an exercise to build awareness. We never came up with a formula for the proper ratio of each, and we never tried. It's been a helpful way, for me, to think about oral performance. I've noticed some storytellers tipping the scales toward too much color (taking a two minute story and stretching it into five, or ten, with description of time and place and character)-- I think the personal memoir genre encourages this. I really admire those storytellers who are economical with their color-- the details really matter to the story, they are there because they need to be. They're part of the meat, not the fat.

How about you? Which part of the storytelling process appeals to you, as a listener, or as a teller?

Color? or Advance?

July 01, 2009

Storytelling Fans and Facebook Statistics

With the recent buzz last week in social media circles about the new ease in getting vanity URLS on Facebook for Fan pages, I wondered to myself: how many storytellers are using Fan pages?

And since each of these pages publicly lists how many fans each storyteller has, I then wondered, who, in the eyes of Facebook, has the most fans?

Here's a sample of storytellers and their total numbers of fans as of July 1, 2009 (It's by no means complete. I'm purposely leaving out some storytellers who have not yet broken double digits):

StorytellerNumber of Fans
Kim Weitkamp16
David Joe Miller23
Olive Hackett Shaughnessy25
Tim Ereneta29
Big Joe the Storyteller30
Jay O'Callahan33
Eric Wolf37
Ruth Halpern41
Dianne de las Casas63
Jordan Hill75
Tim Lowry116
Bill Lepp158
Andy Offut Irwin236
Djeliba Baba the Storyteller303
Bill Harley451

TrixieI note with some alarm that Trixie, a puppet that appears in storyteller's Priscilla Howe's performances (photo at right) has garnered more fans (42 at last count) in a single week, than several of the tellers on the list, myself included.

In the storytelling podcast realm, Eric Wolf's The Art of Storytelling with Children has 162 fans, and Djeliba Baba's Timeless Tales has 112.

I'm well aware that on the Venn diagram showing the set of all storytelling fans in the real world and the set of Facebook users who like to keep track of their fandom on Facebook there is a very small intersection. That being said, take a look at storytelling events that use the fan pages on Facebook for their relative popularity:

Michigan Storytellers Festival14
Mesa Storytelling Festival27
Timpanogos Storytelling Festival43
Storytelling Arts of Indiana117
The Stoop Storytelling Series196
The Moth 5896

That last number gave me pause. Because it tells me that there are nearly six thousand people who, as part of their public identity on an online social network, self-identify with an organization devoted to storytelling. (Albeit one with a very specific focus on a very specific style of storytelling). This number of Facebook fans is more people than the entire actual membership of the National Storytelling Network (approximately 1900–2000 persons, although only 262 fans on Facebook.)

Oh, and in case you didn't get the message, and I think only Baba the Storyteller did, once you hit 100 fans, you can get a vanity URL, i.e., You could already do this (starting about two weeks ago) with personal pages-- the ability to do this for a fan page (for pages with under 1000 fans) is new.

Not surprisingly, many of the big names in storytelling have neither a personal nor a professional Facebook presence. (It's a generational thing).

A couple more comments on Facebook's fan pages:
Facebook was late to the game on this one. So for a storyteller (or anyone, from a musician to a master yo-yo twirler) to set up a Fan page:
a) it's very difficult to do;
b) all the good models on how to use a fan page aren't on Facebook, they're on Myspace, and the lessons don't crossover

If you want to find the Fan Pages above, enter the name in the Facebook search box, and then when the results come up, click on the "Pages" tab to find the Fan page. You can "Become a Fan" from the search results, or click through to the Fan page and "Become a Fan" from there.

June 21, 2009

Tejas Storytelling Association eliminates Executive Director position

Another storytelling organization looks at their finances and makes some changes. Email today from Elizabeth Ellis, President of the Board of Directors of the Tejas Storytelling Association:
As a belt-tightening measure in response to the current economic situation, the Board of Directors of the Tejas Storytelling Association has eliminated the position of Executive Director and has become an all volunteer organization. This step will allow us to move toward a healthier economic future for our organization.

Christin Thomas has served as Executive Director for four years. We are grateful to her for her work on our behalf and wish her every success in the future.

We are grateful to you, our supporters, for your past support. We look forward to working with you more closely in the future as we continue together to support storytelling and the Tejas Storytelling Association. Please be patient with us during this time of transition.

June 11, 2009

Guest Post: Jack Volunteers, by Sue Black

Sue Black of Naperville, Illinois, is a storyteller and teaching artist, enthusiastically sharing her passion for telling and writing stories with audiences of all ages. She has graciously given me permission to reprint the following story, which originally appeared on the Storytell list.

ONCE upon a time there was a storyteller whose name was Jack, and he lived with his fellow storytellers in a worldwide community. They were very poor – some of them, moderately successful –others, but the storytellers worked hard and made a living by spinning tales.

Jack was busy living and writing and telling and listening and following email, twitter, and facebook conversations. He thought maybe he would do nothing but bask in the sun in the hot weather, when he had a free minute or two, or maybe sit by the corner of the hearth in the winter-time. But there was always more work to be done, not just for himself but for others too, and it seemed as though free minutes were filled with thoughts of contributing to the greater good. After all, there were always calls and emails and letters and general announcements about events to support, conferences to run and record, workshops to produce, websites to host, and various other volunteer jobs that needed to be done. The community had needs and this roused Jack, and he went out and volunteered himself for the next day to a neighboring farmer; but as he was coming home he met his mother or his brother or his sister (that part of the story doesn’t really matter, I suppose). "Jack, what were ya thinking?" they asked. "You should have done it this way."

He knew there was more than one right way to get a job done and Jack was always willing to listen. "I'll do so another time," replied Jack.

On Wednesday, Jack went out again and volunteered himself to a cowkeeper. Again, as he walked home – feeling good about the work he’d done – Jack met up with some of his fellow storytellers. They admired his work, but couldn’t resist saying, "Jack, what were ya thinking? You should have done it this way."

By now Jack had a bit of experience in the matter. He felt good enough about the good work he was doing and the good of the work for the greater community, so he was able to slough off the criticism and simply say, "I'll do so another time."

So on Thursday, Jack volunteered himself again to a dairyman. Now this time Jack was paid for his services, not much, just a fine piece of cheese. In the evening Jack took the cheese and went home. By the time he got home he’d passed several storytellers who felt entitled to ask, after all Jack was getting paid, "Jack, what were ya thinking? You should have done it this way."

"I'll do so another time," sighed Jack.

On Friday, Jack again went out, and volunteered himself to a baker. When he got home there was an email waiting for him. It simply asked, "Jack, what were ya thinking? You should have done it this way."

Rather than send a reply with the words, "I'll do so another time’, Jack sat at his computer and stared in disbelief.

Ever persevering, believing he was doing what needed to be done, wanting to contribute and willing to accept some critique, on Saturday Jack volunteered himself to a butcher. By the time Jack got home it seemed as though his mother or sister or brother (that part of the story doesn’t really matter, I suppose) was this time quite out of patience with him. It seemed that way to Jack, anyway, that patience was gone and that his efforts were not appreciated. The mother or the sister or the brother was not really out of patience, but by then that part of the story didn’t really matter to Jack. And Jack knew there was a bright spot ahead, a happy ending, a princess and laughter and great riches not just for himself but to be shared with his mother and his sister and his brother and the greater storytelling community. But by then that part of the story didn’t matter anymore either. Jack was tired and discouraged and beaten down and had walked that fine line between service and greater good and needing kind words for too long.

So on Sunday Jack stopped. Rested like the good book said he should. And on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and all the days that followed, the volunteer work did not get done. Jack was not tired by the work, but exhausted by the voices that drowned out the joy of service. And I’m sorry to say this is one of those stories that just might not end happily ever after.

(Ah, but read the comments for another storyteller's response)

June 04, 2009

Festival: Sigana International Storytelling Festival 3rd - 5th July '09

(via Kenyanpoet)

This sounds like fun: the first Sigana International Storytelling Festival in Nairobi, at the Alliance Francaise coming up July 3, 4, and 5. Eight storytellers, from across Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Zamaleo ACT, the host of the Festival, as Kenya's premiere storytelling troupe, is a key player in the African storytelling revival, so expect a high quality lineup.

What's that you say? You don't feel up to speed on the state of the African storytelling revival?

Well, here's a quick peek at a recent storytelling festival in Nairobi: (link),
and here's a link to Ntshengedzeni Collins Rananga's 2008 PhD Thesis, "Professionalising Storytelling in African Languages with Special Reference to Venda" (PDF, 1.1 MB). Note: it's really thorough... and really good food for thought, no matter what country you're in. This 430 page tome is going to provide lots of fodder for this blog. Includes lots of interviews with African storytellers (sadly, though, names are redacted).

If you're going to attend the Festival, leave a comment below.

June 02, 2009

Shout Out: Dale Jarvis, the Real Deal

Dale Jarvis on stage
I first got to know Dale Jarvis by his online presence. He's one of the few storytellers with stories on YouTube. He's one of the even rarer storytellers who has ventured into the virtual world of Second Life. I admired his choice of repertoire (at least via what I could hear on his podcast)-- in fact, a Corsican ghost story ("Goldenhair") had me and my six year old son spellbound in the car convinced me that I would have to hear Dale live and in person someday. However, seeing as Dale lives some 3,476 miles away from me in St. John's, Newfoundland, I didn't see this as very likely.

As luck would have it, Dale and I chose to attend the very same storytelling conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin, this year (Strange to think that Reykjavík, Iceland, would have been a shorter trip for Dale. And hah! I win the prize for longest distance traveled... Berkeley to Green Lake is farther than St. John's to Green Lake by just 23 miles! (and I flew via Phoenix)).

At the Northlands Storytelling Conference, I finally got to hear Dale Jarvis in person, both at a Friday night performance and at his Fringe concert Saturday.

On Friday night he told a Newfoundland Jack tale which delighted the crowd. It was at once a novelty (none of us in the room had heard Newfoundland folklore before) and familiar (the story had familiar motifs of Irish and English wonder tales), and told with aplomb. Dale's telling style was masterful-- confident on stage, with a strong, clear voice, thoughtfully placed gestures, rhetorical flourishes that harkened back to an earlier era, a playful attitude toward the audience, and a deferential one toward the story.

His fringe show the next night introduced not only more Jack tales, but put them in context (after all, he's a professional folklorist): Newfoundland and Labrador has had European settlers for more than four hundred years. So the stories from their home countries like Ireland and England (and France, Portugal, Spain, etc.) have had time to be passed down through generations, evolving, slowly changing. And in a traditional economy based on fishing, with isolated communities, the oral tradition lasted well into the twentieth century. In Dale's telling, he leaves in the rhetorical phrases that old tellers would use (e.g. "and he walked and he walked and he walked and he walked") that you rarely hear anymore from modern storytellers who by and large are not oral/aural craftsmen, and build their stories from images and sentiment.

Dale told a Jack tale that he himself had heard from a elderly Newfoundland woman, who heard it from her grandmother. He's the real deal-- a folklorist who's passing along the oral tradition (instead of assigning it a number and filing it away in a dissertation somewhere). He can tell us stories collected in Newfoundland, he can tell us about how the story was collected, where and when it was collected (whether by himself or by folklorists from earlier times), and by whom.
When was the last time you got to hear a storyteller do that? It has become all too rare.

Dale also tells local ghost stories in St. John's, on haunted hikes, and he's still collecting them... he's even got a column in the local paper sharing supernatural folklore.

You can listen to Dale on this recent interview with three storytellers at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival: (link)

And here, to end this mash note, if you'd like to learn more about Dale-- check out Brother Wolf's interview with him on collecting ghost stories at The Art of Storytelling with Children (link), subscribe to Dale's podcast via iTunes or this page, or visit Dale's very own storytelling blog.

May 19, 2009

National Storytelling Network: 2009 Annual Budget Released

The National Storytelling Network has, for what may be the first time in its history, published its annual budget on its public web site (link). Thanks, NSN!

It has also released its IRS 990 tax statement for tax year 2007 (as a nonprofit, NSN's tax returns are public information. If you knew where to look, you could find this information). It's not that easy to locate though, so, here's a VERY brief summary of NSN's finances over the past years. I collected this information from its publicly available IRS tax returns.


Tax Report datedRevenueExpensesExcess or deficit


oct 31 2000$519,281$464,248$55,033


oct 31 2001$603,478$510,590$92,888


oct 31 2002$671,926$559,091$112,835


oct 31 2003$659,593$650,004$9,589


oct 31 2004$653,516$636,889$16,627


oct 31 2005$656,323$728,608-$72,285


dec 31 2006$610,903$610,263$640


oct 31 2007$573,350$631,182-$57,832

I'm not sure when NSN files, but I'll find out when the 2008 tax return will be available.

(I got the announcement via NSN's e-newsletter to members, at approx. 382 days after the organization's finance chair publicly announced the finances would be available "soon." I haven't stopped the clock yet on the widget below until I know more about if and when the 2008 audit will ever be published).

May 03, 2009

National Storytelling Network Financial Situation: They Tell Me it's OK

The Back Story:

So, the National Storytelling Network, the primary national organization for storytelling in the United States, hit a financial crisis recently. The impacts of that crisis are ongoing, and the particulars of the crisis has never been fully explained.

On December 5, 2007, NSN Board Chair Karen Morgan sent out an official NSN bulletin via email informing its membership that since at least 2005, expenses for the organization had exceeded revenues, and the organization was drawing down its savings. In addition to changes in financial and operational procedures at the time, the Board of NSN charged a task force of "elders," various respected board and staff members who had served NSN over the years, to review the finances and present a plan for the organization's sustainability.

They did, and their plan would have re-shaped the organization from a membership network to a quasi-foundation, cutting staff to a bare minimum.

An official email bulletin from NSN on December 31, 2007, noted that the Elders' plan had an annual budget of $234,000.

It also noted-- and this was news to us members-- that Executive Director Bobbie Morgan and the NSN staff had come up with their own counterproposal to streamline procedures and enhance revenue, with an annual budget of $623,000.

What they didn't tell us at the time was how big a budget NSN had before that.

The bulletin also announce that the majority of the Board decided to go with a modified version of the Staff plan and NOT the Elder plan, and that as a result, three experienced Board members were resigning.

As 2008 came along, no financial news was forthcoming from NSN. I spoke with two Board members at the time personally on phone calls, who assured me that things were looking up, that the tide had turned, and the organization would be fine. I asked that financial statements be made available to the members (not only for transparency's sake, but because of the large disconnect between a $234K and a $623K budget).

On April 14, a bulletin from the Board noted that the organization would need major restructuring to survive-- and that the Executive Director position was being eliminated.

On May 2, 2008, the Board posted an FAQ, and an explanation of the financial crisis (in the simplest terms. It didn't name names, but, if you knew who to talk to, you could find out who spent what-- and the names of the Boards of Directors (who nominally had fiscal oversight for the organization, even if they failed to exercise it) were public knowledge, although no one was reporting on this.

That FAQ noted that NSN would make available to its members the results of the audit and a budget for 2008, once it had been completed.

I've had various board members since that time assure me that the finances were in such a mess the audit was delayed, and that it would eventually be completed. Also that the financial report to those who attended the conference in summer 2008 was very well received. Also that the finances were looking good.
Also that I could get my very own copy.

That's all very nice, but without numbers, it doesn't mean a thing. I've posted public reminders on the NSN forum, which was set up for members to communicate with the Board. Repeatedly.

...for an entire year.

The NSN Board of Directors has been paying lip service to transparency since the crisis began. I'm attempting to hold them to it.

(The transparency, not the lip service.)

April 29, 2009

Hoosier Storytelling Festival canceled for 2009

I missed this story last week, as I was rushing off the Northlands Conference.

Ellen Munds, the executive director (and sole employee) of the Storytelling Arts of Indiana organization, posted the notice on her blog that there will be no Hoosier Storytelling Festival this year. She hopes to bring it back when the economic climate allows for better funding (The festival relies heavily on public arts funding). The organization will continue to produce events throughout the year.

Indy Theatre Habit blogger Hope Baugh covered it on her blog.

News coverage:
Hoosier Storytelling Festival canceled | | The Indianapolis Star

Storytelling Arts calls off fall festival | Indianapolis Business Journal

Call for Tellers: 13th International Storytelling Festival, Iran

(via Twitter)

"Storytellers to narrate Persian tales in English at Iranian festival"

The International Storytelling festival is open to foreign tellers, and this year specifically encourages tales to be told in English. Last year the theme was Quranic tales, but this year it seems epic tales (with Iranian themes) are sought.

I think the festival will take place in December around the solstice (I can't read Farsi, so that's a guess). It did last year, when the festival was held in Isfahan and the international guest list included Georgiana Keable of Norway, American storyteller by way of the Netherlands Mary Sue Siegel, and Angela Knowles from Scotland.

(I can't give this Festival credit for being the first to send out a call for storytellers via Twitter, since the announcement came via the Mehr News Agency, and some of the Iranian blogs picked it up, and from there into the Twitterstream... nevertheless, I'm quite delighted that there are now tools available that make it possible for a Festival far away to get the word to an interested party some seven thousand five hundred miles away.)

April 27, 2009

Reports from Northlands Storytelling Conference 2009

Thanks to blogger, storyteller, podcaster, and frequent commenter here Sean Buvala, my thoughts on the 27th Annual Northlands Storytelling Conference are available online as audio interviews in mp3 format

April 24, 2009

Almost Live Tweeting from Northlands Storytelling Conference

I'm at the Northlands Storytelling Network conference this weekend in Green Lake, Wisconsin. Got at least 3 folks on Twitter here.

In case you want to follow along this weekend on Twitter: link

(Wireless interenet from the conference center lobby and dining room... not from the breakout sessions, so there won't be much tweeting in real time. I suspect we won't be texting on our cell phones in the interactive workshops.)

Photos on Flickr, thanks to Dale Jarvis. More as weekend progresses.

April 16, 2009

Tales from the Body 2009: Online Post-Mortem

And welcome to the second installment of my reviews of 2009 storytelling events I didn't attend.

I feel like I should have a name for this. Like the "2009 Carnival of Crankiness."

As I wrote in my post ranting about how storytelling conferences are like shouting down a hole, I'm going to be reviewing storytelling conferences based on their online presence during but especially after the event.

I'm focusing on conferences because they are focused on "getting the word out." To allow practicioners to come together to experience professional development, share best practices, and, to some extent, allow networking to feed future collaborations and innovations. And it drives me nuts that in this day and age... when the marginal cost of disseminating discussions from an event like this is so low... that so little thought seems to be given to sharing out.

I may toss in a performance-centric event (e.g. Going Deep), mainly because the National Storytelling Network is co-sponsoring seven regional events this year in lieu of a national conference, and a couple of those events are more festival than conference.


Chronologically, the first NSN Year of the Regions Event was: TALES FROM THE BODY: Storytelling About Illness and Disability, produced by the Storytelling Center of New York.
Date: January 25th, 2009
Location: New York Society for Ethical Culture, New York City
Format: Storytelling Concert, Panel Discussion, Story Swap

Kudos to the Storytelling Center for posting a post-event writeup with photos on their site: link.
NSN has posted a report from organizer Donna Minkowitz on its website. link.
Seems like it was a small event, so just by attendance numbers alone I didn't expect any blog posts or tweets. But documentation on two web sites? I can't get cranky about that.

Philip David Morgan, who handles the web site for the Storytelling Center, let me know that he did record most of the event, but getting the video files edited and online will take some time... and the Center isn't clamoring for its own regular Twitter feed or Facebook presence. Oh, but Philip... I look forward to seeing the highlight reel.

Shout Out: Stateline Storytelling

Always nice to see a new storytelling open mic start up (especially one that has its own Wordpress web site). Discovered this one via Youtube, of all places.

If you're in the Beloit, Wisconsin, area, check out this new monthly storytelling venue for adults.

April 04, 2009

Notes from the 2009 Going Deep Storytelling Retreat

Blogger Hope Baugh of Indiana, over at her Indy Theatre Blog, gives us a report from the 2009 Going Deep: The Long Traditional Storytelling Retreat. (She did the same with last year's event, as well).

Going Deep not only treads new ground in the storytelling circuit (by focusing on a niche market of epic stories, and setting up the logistics of the event accordingly, i.e., making it a retreat rather than a series of one-off evening concerts).

Hope has posted her reflections on the three stories presented during the course of the retreat:
I especially appreciate her careful notes on the workshops that followed each performance-- they give a more rounded context to the storytelling event and allow us a glimpse into the artistic process for each performer, as well as a sense of how a retreat differs from a standard festival.

I should also point out that storyteller Priscilla Howe, one of the co-founders of the retreat, has posted her reflections of this year's event over on her blog.

And Sean Buvala of has an .mp3 interview with retreat founders Priscilla Howe and Liz Warren over at the Amphitheater (from 2006?).

March 28, 2009

Storytelling Conferences: Shouting Down a Hole

There's a motif in several European fairy tales, where a sister has to rescue her brothers from a supernatural fate (such as their transformation into geese, or ravens), by remaining silent for a lengthy period, say, seven years, seven months, and seven days. Often, the consequences of remaining silent bring her hardship and grief, and in some stories she digs a hole in the earth, and into this hole releases a torrent of emotions in words and sobs. She must then cover the hole, and bury her emotions, so that no one will know that she has broken her silence.

Sometimes I think of storytelling conferences in this way.

Conference attendees gather from all over, get together to speak, but the logistics of the conference are such that if you weren't there, you'd never know that anything was said. For all intents and purposes, the conference covered over the hole where the discussion went on.

I don't envision gatherings of storytellers as sharing of grief, though. So the other vision I have is that of Fight Club. Or maybe a conference of ninjas. The attendees think of themselves as a secret brother and sisterhood, with knowledge to share among each other, but not to those outside the secret club.

Now I've been to some of these conferences. I've learned a lot at them, networked a lot, met some great people, seen some terrific stuff happen as a result of conversations that started at these conferences. I'm not knocking storytelling conferences per se.

I am knocking their dissemination and distribution.

I can think of a lot of historical reasons why storytelling conferences didn't publish proceedings, probably many related to logistics and money (i.e. no papers to publish (because the focus was not academic), there not being enough financial incentive to record and distributed keynotes).

That's all changed. The barriers to entry for publication and distribution have fallen dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web.

Ten years ago, Story, from fireplace to cyberspace : connecting children and narrative (1998), a conference of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Allerton Park Institute published its proceedings as a journal. Nice to see that they've released all the contents digitally... so you can read what presenters like Anne Shimojima, Janice Del Negro, Joseph Sobol and Karen Morgan said there. (Link)

I can't find a single storytelling conference since then that has done the same. Online? In print? Anything? It's been ten years. (Please-- someone, anyone-- correct me! Show me I'm wrong!)

In 2007, I was not able to attend the National Storytelling Network's National Conference, held in July. In October, I inquired about obtaining a copy of a recording of a keynote. It took months for anything to happen (An audio of the keynote was, for a brief time, made available for sale. It is not currently). For that 2007 conference, the text of the keynote by Ron Turner is publicly available via the Web (link) for anyone to read. The text of the keynote by Jo Radner is publicly available via the journal Storytelling, Self, Society. (And good luck trying to get a hold of a copy of that particular issue of that particular journal if you're not an academic).

In 2008, Eric Wolf brought his own recording equipment to his panel discussion at the National Storytelling Conference and released the audio of the entire session on the Web as an mp3 file, under a Creative Commons license. I can't find any evidence that any other part of the conference is available, in text or in audio.
(BTW, Eric Wolf is singlehandedly doing the work of a national storytelling advocacy organization: via his podcast, he is disseminating discussion and insights from a wide variety of respected practicioners to an international audience. For free.)

<Oops. Left out a significant source of conference coverage and interviews on the Web: See comments, below.

With the economy what it is these days, I'm predicting that there will be fewer people in attendance at storytelling conferences this year. That makes it even more essential that these gatherings make an effort to share and disseminate widely the goings on.

I'm attending a storytelling conference next month. I had hoped to encourage liveblogging and twittering during my session. Turns out my room will not have WiFi coverage (although, there may be cell phone access if anyone wants to text out). I will be blogging from the conference.

Coming up in future posts: I'm going to look at various storytelling conferences held in 2009 across North America and rate them on their accessibility for those who could not be there in attendance. (I'll likely look at both accessibility during the conference (via blog posts and Twitter), and dissemination afterwards (via their own websites, YouTube, blogs, Storytell, etc)-- let me know in the comments if there is a metric you think I should track)

March 25, 2009

Have Stories, Will Travel. On Foot. Or Horse.

(via BBC News)

Storyteller and songwriter Eric Maddern is going on tour. He's got a new show, it's up and running, and he's taking it across Wales—on foot. Also on bicycle and on horseback. That's unusual enough that it made the news. Of his tour, Maddern says:
“In Australia, a songline is an ancient mythological route that connects sacred places across a landscape. In a way, I’ll be journeying along songlines in Wales, starting off by walking over Snowdon and visiting Dinas Emrys, where legend has it that dragons appeared and Merlin made his first prophecy; spending a night on Cadair Idris after which, according to folklore, you wake up mad or a poet; walking across the Preseli’s, where the bluestones for Stonehenge came from; travelling east-west along old drovers’ roads as well as cycling on the more modern Sustrans bike paths. I want the experiences of meeting people during the day as I slowly cross the land to enter the performances I do at night. The whole thing is an exploration in how to sustain and restore the world in these challenging times. What’s more, I believe it’s possible to have a great adventure without going to the exotic ends of the Earth. I spent ten years travelling the world in my youth, but as far as I’m concerned, Wales is as good as it gets. So I’m really looking forward to getting to know the country more intimately.”
Eric's repertoire of songs and stories have always reflected his interest in ecology and sustainability. His new show for adults, What the Bee Knows: Songs and Stories to Sustain and Restore the World, is described as "a provocative look at the roots of our current global crisis, threaded around the story of the bee."

Nice to see a storyteller who has carved out a niche aligning his business with his values. He's walking the walk (literally).

If you're in Wales this Spring, and want to catch his show, venues are listed on Eric's website, here.

March 24, 2009

Condensed Thoughts

Came across this question on Twitter on Sunday morning.So I just had to respond to @ContentedCopy, who had asked it. (She later confessed that she posted this question strategically, as a way to start a conversation. Heh. It worked.)
My reply:
Is breathing still relevant? Storytelling is always relevant, recognition of that fact waxes and wanes over time.
Twitter limits such responses to 140 characters. But soon I had a flurry of "tweets" --exchanging ideas with someone 2500 miles away. That wasn't surprising, as I've been using the Web for 15 years, and know that it shrinks geographic distances.

What was surprising was that the limitation of Twitter, that is, that my posts can't exceed 140 characters, actually managed to clarify my thoughts.

I'm reposting our conversation here (with Carol's gracious permission), so you can see this abbreviated exchange of ideas. The # you see is a hashtag-- we're essentially bookmarking these posts (so that later, we, or anyone else interested in storytelling could search on "#storytelling" to find key entries).

Carol (@ContentedCopy) responded to me:
agree 100%. Given your bkground, and mine, are we moving into a new model of storytelling? Esp. via soc media etc?

Me: media gives us tools to connect and collaborate and engage. Re-inventing storytelling: no. Marketing: yes and how.

Carol had another response to my post about relevancy:
So why then are storytelling festivals so hard to get audience #'s out to? How do you make it inviting to joeblo?

Me: For 30 years, storytelling festivals have been telling the wrong story about #storytelling. Great talent, lousy marketing.

Carol: #storytelling what is the right way to market a festival? Very curious now!
Carol: We're having a Frog Storytelling Festival this yr, with green issues too. Boomers make up our largest audience
First step: forget the epic journey myth and hold events close to where people live. #storytellingfestivals
Audiences prefer genres (in dance, theatre, music, art, movies). Why do #storytellingfestivals offer smorgasboard every time?
I don't know the marketing secret, but #storytelling as -antidote to hectic pace of modern life- no longer the right message

#storytelling as relief from modern life = message for boomers. Younger generation likes constant connection afforded by tech

How many music concerts/ series/ festivals market the idea of "music"? Zero. They market the talent. #storytellingfestivals

#storytelling festival marketing: Q: Who would enjoy this event? Answer: everyone. That's not a message that grows audiences.
I elected to re-post our conversation here not only as an example of how Twitter made me focus my thoughts on a storytelling issue into concise points, but to leave these here as seeds for future conversations.

Leave a comment if you'd like to sprout one of these seeds.

March 09, 2009

Storytelling with Twitter? I don't think so.

Question: is Twitter, the social messaging utility, a good platform for storytelling?

Short Answer: No.

Not that I heard anyone say it was. But with Twitter being the "in" tool this year, and storytellers jumping in, I wanted to add my two cents.

Do I use Twitter? Yes. I appreciate its functionality for those times when I need to be connected in real time. I'm impressed that its fans have been able to build online relationships despite the tools built in limitations, namely, the 140 character limit for each message.

I don't see these two primary features (real-time messaging, and limited length) as essential to storytelling.

That there's a tool, ie Twitter, that lets me receive messages in real-time from friends, relations, colleagues, celebrities, politicians, and NASA missions is cool. I like being connected, being reminded on these people-- those that I have a relationship with in real life, well, it helps "grease the wheel" of that relationship during that time when we're not in contact. But Twitter is about the "what I'm doing now" not about "remember when we..." or "once upon a time."

Could you use Twitter to tell a story? Yes, of course. But it's an inelegant tool.

(I'll grant that when it comes to stories for journalism, however, Twitter is useful as a tool for gathering information of stories-as-they-happen, as events in San Diego, Mumbai, and the Hudson River have shown us)

But in terms of spinning narratives: using Twitter is like selecting a toothpick to paint on a canvas that's meant to fill a room.

Partly it's the 140 character limit. Now, Flash fiction is nothing new. Storytellers from Vishnu Sarma to Aesop to Jesus were using the short short form long before the publishing world took a shine to very short tales in the 1990s. Setting limits, even arbitrary ones, can prompt some very creative output, so I can see the appeal of using Twitter to share these mini works of fiction.

Some of my favorites:
This bit of magical realism/spy novel and this melodrama from David Vanadia.

This retelling of a fable from Jerrold Connors.

Two writers in particular, I've found, who use Twitter to write nanofiction. I would categorize their work as character sketches and platforms --more seeds of stories that could be than actual beginning-middle-end kernels, but sometimes worth a look:
@nickwarren (I especially like Nick's use of first person, since it plays within the Twitterverse milieu nicely)

Smith Magazine, home of the six word story, set the bar higher (or tighter, I guess. You can fit a lot more than 6 words on Twitter). It's difficult to pull off a good six-word story, so you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the gems, and then, there's not so much a haiku feeling as a "wish they served dinner instead of hors d'oeuvres"... still, Twitter seems an excellent channel for them to utilize: @smithmag

Portland Story Theater sneaks around the limitations of length and genre with a serial format:

Do you follow anyone on Twitter that is creating interesting stories? Post them in the comments!

(And just so we're clear: "creating interesting stories" does NOT mean "promoting their business" (story-based or otherwise)


So maybe you're not looking for Twitter to deliver bite-sized stories. Maybe you just think it'd be cool (for this year anyway) to receive real-time messages from working storytellers. In that case, here are some current storytellers with active or semi-active Twitter accounts:

Baba the Storyteller: @Djeliba
Hope Baugh: @Hope_Baugh
Karol Brown: @Browntones
Buck P Creacy: @BuckPCreacy
Lynn Duddy: @storywoman
EthNohTec: @ethnohtec
Tim Ereneta: @tereneta
Stephen Hollen: @mountainstories
Sean Buvala: @storyteller
Terry Free: @TerryFree
Rachel Hedman: @StorytellingAdv
Priscilla Howe: @priscillahowe
Dale Jarvis: @DaleJarvis
Carol Knarr: @ckanrr
Debra Olson-Tolar: @storytolar
Laura Packer: @storylaura
Ellouise Schoettler: @ellouisestory
Tim Sheppard: @TimSheppard
Dianne de las Casas: @storyconnection
BZ Smith: @bzsmith
Teresa Clark: @teresaclark
Limor Shiponi: @Storyteling
David Vanadia @Vanadia
Eric Wolf: @Ericwolf2

(Yes, I left out a bunch of "organizational narrative" and "corporate storytellers" who are very active on Twitter. That's by design. They've got their own blogs. When the day comes that they tell a story around a campfire, then I'll add them to my list here.)

February 19, 2009

Copyright and the Oral Tradition: A Guest Commentary

Over at the Professional Storyteller site, a discussion on storytelling ethics by some American storytellers-- specifically on acquiring material, asking permission, and citing sources-- led me to post an inquiry asking UK tellers for input. I had recently read a marvelous collection of selkie tales from the late Scottish storyteller Duncan Williamson. The stories had a powerful effect on me, and I am inspired to tell one or two of them. But the collection was not just stories from long ago: Williamson had personally collected the stories from persons he met as a young man as he worked the West Coast of Scotland. I wanted to get a sense from the storytelling community that knew Duncan personally, of what the etiquette was when it came to these stories. Storyteller Tim Sheppard posted an interesting response, which I am reprinting here (with Tim's permission):

Duncan was a storyteller in the oral tradition. He would have been horrified to hear that some storytellers imagine that copyright applies to the oral tradition, or that they might avoid telling stories because he had published them in an effort to spread them around more! He didn't own his stories, and nor does anyone else. Publishing the words of one particular telling doesn't give rights over any other instance of its telling anyway, and not just when someone deliberately changes it. The oral tradition is just that, and books are merely a modern convenience on top of it.

All storytellers I've met, except for in the USA, pay no attention to copyright and can't understand why Americans are so obsessed with it - it's a much misused law brought in long after the oral tradition brought all our wonderful stories into being, and aimed at preserving printing rights for original work not at stealing stories from public ownership or telling. When storytellers in the UK hear about the US hand-wringing they literally look open-mouthed at each other and shake their heads - I've seen it many times! Duncan was merely a caretaker for many stories, and not the exclusive one. He could no more have asked tellers not to tell the stories he knew than he could have insisted they not breathe any of the air he had breathed. It would be like a priest teaching the wisdom of God, but then instructing everyone listening that they would have to go and invent their own god to worship because his was taken.

Of course Duncan, like all tellers from the oral tradition, forcefully insisted that anyone hearing 'his' stories had a duty to re-tell them. I can't emphasise this enough to Americans - being a storyteller in any traditional sense means that you have a duty to pass on the stories, not to tie yourself in knots about an irrelevant modern law that, if invented earlier and wrongly interpreted as in modern US telling circles, would have ensured we didn't have a body of wonderful tales in the first place. Stanley Robertson, another wonderful Scottish Traveller like Duncan, tells his audience 'Now you've heard my tale you MUST NOT rest until you have told it to someone else'. Does that sound like he might be concerned about someone 'taking' his story?

There is also another strong value of the oral tradition, not always followed now that fewer tellers have been steeped in it, that one should never change a traditional tale in its essential form. That means no combining stories or changing the ending etc. so that it becomes your 'own' version. If the current tactic of US tellers trying unnecessarily to be 'ethical' by introducing personal alterations were to have existed a millenium or two ago, we would not have the amazing body of long-lived tales today that storytelling depends on. Storytelling is based around communal values, not individualistic territorialism trying to ring-fence versions or avoid stepping on others' territorialism. Normal polite respect and professionalism goes without saying, but bowing before egoistic protectionism is totally destructive to the essence of the storytelling tradition.

That is the generous and communal attitude of the tradition. Now please go and tell stories, for they are more important and enduring than the mere storytellers, however skilled, who briefly catch the ball of thread of ancient tradition before tossing it on to the next weaver of words.

At Tim's suggestion, I should point out that his argument is rather condensed and comes after a long and ongoing debate in the storytelling world. This is neither a comprehensive answer to my question nor a definitive one, so consider any pronouncements here part of an exchange of ideas.

Tim Sheppard is a storyteller and coach. You can learn more about him online at his web site,, and on Facebook at

February 09, 2009

Guest Reviewer: Mary Grace Ketner on the Zauberwort Festival

Storyteller Mary Grace Ketner of San Antonio has graciously given me permission to reprint her review of the Zauberwort Erzählkunstfestival held in Nuremberg, Germany, back in January 2009. Her review originally appeared on the Storytell list.

On Saturday my daughter and son-in-law drove me over to Marktredwitz to catch the train to Nuremberg to go hear Richard Martin, the only English-speaking storyteller at the Zauberwort (Magic Word) Festival. I had been to Nuremberg for just a day trip on Dec. 23 to go to their famous Christkindl Market (and, handily, the Steiff teddy bear shop). Amazingly the festival was being held in the very same area of downtown, near the train station, and my hotel was right there, too! I walked to the hotel, then to the site of Richard's telling, the Erzahl Buhne, just to get my bearings. After visiting the Lorenz cathedral and grabbing a quick, delicious sandwich at Cafe Pane, I headed back to Erzahl Buhne.

(Richard, don't tell anyone how badly I'm spelling these German words, because so far they're all impressed! Little do they know!)

The room was a perfectly intimate all-purpose space attached somehow (underground, I think) St. Katherine's Cloister. I arrived about 20 minutes early, and the room was already about half full. (I didn't know until later that Richard had asked them to save a ticket for me, otherwise I might not have been able to get in!) The platform was an orange back drop set with a table with a black tablecloth--and before you think of Halloween, let me say that the shades were not quite right. The table had a candle and Tibetan bells on it. When the time arrived, Richard came out and began his program, lighting the candle.

He started with the Arthurian legend of What Women Want Most, which in Richard's version opens with some humor that gets you right into the setting; in fact, it was a while before I realized what story he was going to tell as it sounded like it might be a parody on Arthurian legends, with Sir Gawain being played by Sir-Prise. The neat thing was that, the way he did it, the story goes through all of Elizabeth Ellis's stages of ha-ha, aha, a-ah, and amen in just one story! If that had been all I had gotten to hear, it would have been enough.

I should mention here that Richard has that kind of voice that oozes into your blood so that you seem to be hearing the story from the inside as well as auditorily. And he's very much at ease, so you just relax right into it!

He did a rat-a-tat-tat old Old Woman and her pig that the all-adult audience just loved, then he told a Jack tale I'd never heard before: "How Jack Built the King's Ship." Perhaps it's less known because it takes a level of knowledge about wooden shipbuilding to even "get" the story, much less tell it, but Richard filled us in on the necessary lore at the beginning. He said he'd only recently consulted with a shipbuilding expert, but the telling rolled out with such natural ease that I'd have thought he'd been telling it for years!

His next story was one that he told me afterward had been posted on Storytell about a year ago by Richard Marsh, the one about Einstein's lecture tour of the USA when, tired of nightly lectures, Einstein took his driver up on the offer to trade places with him to give him a night off. After all, he'd heard the speech over and over again and knew it letter perfect! All might have gone well had not the local university's physics professor not taken the occasion to show off his own brilliance with a tedious question which, of course, meant nothing to the driver. When the professor finished, the substitute lecturer declared that that question was so simple, why even his "driver" could answer it. Einstein proceeded to the lectern and carried the ball from there.

What delighted me so much about that story was that Richard added some "physicist" humor that is so true! So true! My son-in-law whose home I've been staying in for almost a month now, is a physicist and, frankly, I'm not sure he'd have appreciated the humor himself. He is a great guy, but humor is not his long suit, which was part of Richard's sideline jesting.

Richard closed with a delicious version of my all-time favorite, Mr. Fox, a perfect--or perfectly horrible, take your pick--way to end an evening (Well, not counting the curtain call and short, funny encore and happy, quick visit afterwards!)

I have to say that this was the most expensive single storytelling set I've ever been to, if you count the train fare and hotel room, but definitely one I'll remember. The timing was perfect for a break for me and for the new family I am staying with. If fish and company smell after three days, I was a pretty stinky houseguest and very glad to have something of my own to do!

Some things that are quite different from US Festivals I've been to was that the events took place at several different buildings around downtown Nuremberg. Sessions were mostly two hours apart to allow for going from one place to the next. Also, there were no "breakout" sessions, so those of you who complain about not being able to choose which to go to get to go to everything. Also, the tickets--which were very fancy, real ticket tickets (not printed on someone's home or office printer) identified the name of the person telling, like he was a big star--which is Richard's case was true, but still, I've never seen that done. It was more like a ticket to the symphony or the San Antoino Spurs basketball game.