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, http://www.timsheppard.co.uk/story/, and on Facebook at http://profile.to/timsheppard

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.

February 04, 2009

Now that's "Uncalled For": the Tour

Three storytellers (Kim Weitcamp, Bil Lepp, and Andy Irwin) with a common comic sensibility have put together their own concert and organized their own tour. Six cities in two months.

Such promotions are not uncommon in music, or in standup comedy. But in storytelling? I've never heard of such an enterprise.

I'd love to see this succeed as a new model of producing. Whether they succeed or fail, I suspect this is the only self-organized tour we'll see in the next three years, simply from inertia (doing the same old thing, producing wise, that's been done the past 30 years).

Tour opens in Idaho next week. Keep up with the tour on its blog.

Is it too much to hope for YouTube videos from the side of the road as the tour van breaks down?

February 02, 2009

India: the Weary Travelers Swap Stories

How hard can it be for a group of storytellers and storytelling fans travelling together (and living in the same hotels for two weeks) to get together to tell stories?

Harder than you'd think. On a fifteen day trip, our story swap didn't take place until Day 12.

There was plenty of time on Day 1 at San Francisco International Airport... but we weren't all assembled. Two of our group were already in India, and 3 or 4 were flying from New York instead of SFO.

The first couple of days were a wash too, as we navigated culture shock, jet lag, and began to feel out the vibes of our local hosts and tour guides.

Once we got our bearings, our trip leaders talked about a story swap, but there were plenty of other logistical snags they needed to manage, and our days, though scheduled to include evening free time, ran long, so that dinner often ended at 9 pm or later (and we'd been waking at 3 or 4 am with jet lag, or 5 am if we wanted to hit the beach for Laughter Yoga). Also, our hotels rarely had a comfortable place where more than 4 people could gather.

It turns out the tour bus was the best place for all of us to gather... but not an ideal performance venue, given not only the seating arrangements, but also the variable quality of roads in India, and a temperamental PA system.

Day 11 should have been the day. After a morning of sightseeing at the world heritage sites in Mahalabalipuram, and shopping for souvenirs at a "fixed price" shop (for being a fixed price shop, they were certainly ready to make a deal if you tried to walk away from a sale), the Tharisanam storytelling tour delivered us to a beach resort, and gave us a free afternoon and evening.

This would be a perfect time to swap stories. We had heard some of our group tell stories at the Kattaikuttu school or in the rural Irula villages, and over various meals we'd gotten to know each other. But even after a week, we had not yet sat around with each other in a story circle to share a favorite yarn.

But at the resort, we dispersed all too quickly to our own cabins, some to partake of the resort's pool or aryuvedic massage services, others to dip their toes in the roaring surf of the Bay of Bengal, others to deal with various sorts of local vermin (of both the mammalian and arthropod variety) who had apparently had double booked the same rooms we had. I found a hammock on the beach, cracked open my John Irving novel, and eventually took a nap.

Wednesday, Day 12, we had a full day planned. A morning trip to DakshinaChitra, a heritage museum of architecture and traditional art, as well an afternoon of shadow puppetry. It may have well been the hands-on shadow puppet workshop that made a swap possible. After a 40 minute demonstration and Q&A, we were turned loose with paint and posterboard and scissors. For nearly two hours we were engaged in small group process actually making tangible artifacts, and despite being weary from 12 straight days of touring (and the various respiratory and intestinal ailments that inevitably accompany such trips), the excitement of the group was energizing (it helped that our master puppeteer had a hard exit time in order to catch his train home, so we were racing the clock to finish our creations). The puppetmaking brought out the talents of the folks on the trip who weren't storytellers. Their eye for color, design, and topology (my team was making two mirror image parrots) allowed them to participate in the trip's activities in a much more active way.

Back to the city of Chennai on the bus, sadly passing right by but not stopping at the Madras Crocodile Bank, home of seven thousand snapping reptiles (as seen on The Amazing Race Season 10 Episode 5), back to the New Woodlands Hotel. My roommate Jeff and I agreed that tonight would be a good chance to organize a story swap. I had my doubts that the tour organizers would be up to wrangling such a meeting, so Jeff and I agreed that we could host it ourselves. Jeff did a quick survey of those seated near us on the bus to gauge interest. I started pondering options for locations.

My first choice: the hotel next door to ours. One driveway down the street from us was the Savera, a fancy four star high-rise hotel, with two bars. My primary hope was that they might have a lobby more conducive to sitting around a telling stories than the New Woodlands, the midrange hotel where we were staying. When we arrived back in Chennai, I stowed my bags and set off to the Savera. There were several parties going on there, so the lobby was noisy and crowded, I couldn't really see telling stories there. Besides, we weren't really dressed for weddings or birthdays, and I felt like we'd stand out for being underdressed. But, the concierge informed me, the hotel had two bars, and we were welcome to come by and visit them. I peeked in one: comfy chairs, but smelling of old cigarette smoke, and three television screens showing cricket matches and music videos. Not an ideal venue for storytelling (but the following night would provide an ideal venue for some of us to unwind over a pitcher Kingfisher beer.) The other I dismissed, as it was the poolside bar, and our group was weary of battling mosquitoes.

Second choice: our own hotel lobby. The desk clerk told us that yes, we could have a "meeting" in the lobby, and so, at dinner, Jeff and I announced that at last, we would host an official "unofficial" (i.e. not on the tour itinerary) story swap in the lobby at 9:30 pm. Many of our group begged off, citing the late hour and flagging energy levels.

And at 9:30 we gathered in the lobby to find that the city electrical grid had cut off power to the hotel again, so that hotel management cranked up the enormous diesel generator outside to power the place. But... the door from the lobby to the outside had to remain open (I can't recall if this was because the air conditioner wasn't working or because the doorman was off-duty), and so the sound of the generator drowned out any chance of storytelling. Jeff pleaded for the door to be closed, but the staff insisted it had to remian open, and that's how we ended up with 15 people crammed into Jeff's and my double room.

I felt bad as host that we could offer neither refreshments nor adequate seating, but our group didn't seem to mind crowding onto the furniture:

So we went around the room, eleven storytellers (and four additional listeners) from our group. We heard James Thurber's "The Unicorn in the Garden." We heard a Native American tale from the Pacific Northwest, a Buddhist fable, a Sicilian fairy tale, an original story about grief, a Japanese ghost story, a personal childhood story that connected to Indian mythology, an Abenaki tale, a folktale from India, and a Japanese legend.

We were delighted to hear each other's individual styles and choices. Despite the late hour and the weariness, we all listened appreciatively.

In the past, I've found storytelling round robins uneven affairs... usually because there's a layer of social navigation that's underdeveloped-- an ad hoc gathering of storytelling aficionados doesn't form bonhomie spontaneously (and even with warm facilitation, it can be a struggle). But in our hotel room, things were different. This group had spent nearly two weeks together on an adventure, and spent a significant part of the day together working collaboratively and creatively. Sharing stories and listening to each other not only gave us each a chance to step out of the role of tourist, but to share with each other a familiar and comfortable gift.