Saturday, November 26, 2005

What the audience takes from a story

I usually don't know how the stories I tell affect the listeners, or what exactly they get from the experience. Donald Davis says "Meaning is the property of the listeners, not the teller."

Years ago, I told the story "Unanana and the elephant" at a school. Later that week, I ran into some of the kids at the grocery store. They said, "You came to our school! You told that story about the kings and queens!" Huh? I couldn't figure out what story they meant, until I remembered that this story has one line about kings and queens, princes and princesses. One line, but to these kids, that was the nut, the key to the entire story.

Another time, I told Japanese stories at a middle school. The following week, I was telling a therapist about one of the stories. She said, "I know you told that one. I have a seventh grade client who told me the entire story in her session."

Last week I was out in Salina, KS, one of my favorite places to perform. I had performances for elementary and middle school kids for three days, then a family performance with another storyteller on Saturday. On Monday, I received an e-mail from a teacher about one of the school gigs. Here's an excerpt:
On Thursday, my students found a large stick out at recess. I gave my usual warnings: "Don't run with it. Be careful so you don't poke your eye out. Don't use it as a weapon..." Elijah picked up the stick and began walking around. (He usually plays "zombies and aliens" at recess.) He said, "This is a walking stick. I'm an old man. I'm a storyteller." He continued to walk around the playground, and then said, "See this playground? This used to be a village a long time ago. I used to live here. See those bars? Those used to be the doors to my house, one for my children and one for me and my wife." In a few minutes, he was back to talking about zombies and aliens . But for a short time, he was an old man, a storyteller.

I told Elijah's mom about this. She said that the night before, he had asked if there were any schools in McPherson. He said, "When I grow up, I want to be a storyteller in the schools in McPherson." (We are not sure why McPherson!)

In my performances, I try not to take on any kind of "storyteller" persona--I prefer to tell the stories simply. There were no old men, no walking sticks, nothing that would lead Elijah to do this, but he created the image on his own from listening to the stories. Clearly there was something he needed in the stories, something that spoke to him on an archetypal level. I could never have planned that. All I can do is tell my very best every time and hope that the right connections are made.

I hope he DOES grow up to be a storyteller in McPherson!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Yesterday I was looking through a few collections of humorous stories. Tales of laughter, edited by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith, was published in 1908. Famous tales and laughter stories, prepared by the University Society and the After School Club of America, was published in 1912. Great folktales of wit and humor, edited by James R. Foster, was published in 1955.

As I read through these, I didn't find one story that I would be interested in telling. There were many I recognized, a few I already tell (primarily in Tales of Laughter), but most just weren't funny enough. Some were preachy (especially in Famous tales), some were boring, some were the kind of humor that puts down a class or group of people. Some were just plain dated.

That made me wonder what I find funny in stories. Definitely word plays and twists of understanding, such as in Master of all masters, in which the master uses his own particular words for ordinary objects, or the Tale of the Squire's bride, in which the pompous squire isn't specific about what he wants when giving his boy orders. Bizarre combinations or events, such as the marriage of the chicken and the cockroach in Poule and Blatte. The victory of the traditionally powerless, as in all the stories about the baby I tell. Gentle breaking of taboos, as in Robert Munsch's story We share everything. Unexpected endings, surprises, such as the end of the story of cat and mouse and the butter ("So cat ate mouse, and from that day to this, cats and mice have NOT been good friends.").

I started looking at theories of humor. What could be less funny than a theory about humor? I found this quote from George Boeree, that humor is "the sudden awareness of an alternative construction of a distressful situation which dissipates (to some extent) that distress" Huh? Here's a more digestible quote from Tom Veatch: "Humor occurs when something is wrong that you care about, but everything is actually okay, and only occurs if you see (and feel) both views at the same time."

Is that true? I'll have to think about it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Being recognized

Last week as I was on my way to Colorado to give some workshops (big fun!), I saw a group of teachers and school administrators in the airport, on their way to a conference. As we were chatting, I recognized one fellow in their group. In that same instant, he said, "Hey, you're the storyteller!"

In Colorado, one of the librarians in a workshop came up to talk to me--she'd been a librarian in Kansas years ago and had hired me to perform in her library. She'd even used something I'd taught her when she went to Colorado for her job interview.

I really like that kind of recognition. It usually happens with children. Today I was at the public library as a patron and noticed a couple of kids in sleepwear. Pajama day at school, I found out. One of the kids said, "We went trick-or-treating at your house!" I was pretty sure they hadn't, since I was home only a short time in between telling stories at Crafty and Co. and at an annual bonfire, so we discussed it a little more. I asked if she had perhaps heard me tell stories at the library. She wasn't sure until I mentioned a story I'd told. Yes! Her face lit up. Off she went with her mother to find my CDs in the children's department.

Once I was in a motel breakfast area in another town and had a mother recognize my voice. She and her son had heard me in their small town library a year or so earlier, and I think they bought one of my recordings.

It's a nice kind of fame to have. No paparazzi, just the occasional recognition that my stories or my puppets have connected with a listener.