Saturday, January 29, 2005

Storytelling at the Raven

Last week I had a pretty fun gig at the Raven Bookstore in downtown Lawrence, KS. Back in December I decided it was time to do a public performance in town, after being asked for about the fifth time in a week when I'd have a show. I went directly to the Raven and asked Pat if I could do a performance in January. Easy peasy.

It turned out to be a great time to do a show there: the middle of January, when not much is going on in town yet, and in a slow news week for the arts. I got several small notices in the Journal World and a bigger one in the arts calendar for the weekend, not to mention the ads the Raven put in. I felt like the flavor of the week. (Thanks, Mindie!)

Whooeee! I had a substantial crowd in this small space. Most were groupies, most were under age 9 though accompanied by their adults. There were even some unaccompanied grownups. I asked for requests. The kids gave me a collective blank look until I explained that meant I would tell stories they particularly liked. The hands shot up and I launched into "Poule and Blatte," the story of the chicken and the cockroach who fell in love. Then on to other requests.

I did tell one story most of the listeners had never heard:"The Bellybutton Bird," a Japanese folktale. I also told "The Ghost with the One Black Eye" in Bulgarian after telling it in English. It's such a physical story that the kids understand it all and some even join in. I got partway through that and realized that the fellow by the door was in fact Bulgarian. Yikes! One observer part of my brain shifted into worry that I'd messed it up, while another observer said, "Get over it. Keep telling the dang story." I listened to the second.

Later my sister reminded me that this guy was probably pleased--where else around here could he go to a storytelling performance with his kids and hear a story in his own language?

I ran into Pat a few days later. Though she hadn't been there, she said she'd heard lots of good feedback about the performance, including from her own grandchildren. It's likely we'll do this again next January.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Little red dragonhood

I'm focusing on summer on this cold January day. Summer, heat, fire, dragons, puppet shows...

I'm working on a new puppet show for this season. I don't do puppet shows with a stage very often. I prefer the simplicity of host puppets, who chat with me in between stories. The shows with the stage require a lot of schlepping and a different kind of planning. Also, I can't do them for schools, because I have to have smaller audiences for puppet shows. Still, one library asks me to do a show every year, and I always say yes.

First I decide on the show. I'm partial to fractured folktales. Once I figure out what I'm doing, I make sure the essential elements are present: plenty of action, funny dialog, only two characters on stage at a time, props that are identifiable and large enough to be seen from the back of the room.

Then I see what puppets I have on hand. Do I need to make more or buy some? The puppets I make look, well, like I made them. With my teeth and maybe in the dark. My puppets aren't the kind that make people comment "Wasn't that beautiful?" Weird, funny and maybe oddly ugly, but not beautiful.

What props do I need? Do I have materials on hand or do I have to go to my favorite craft store (Crafty & Company, of course) to get more? Creative problem solving is key. Let's see, how can Bettina pick just one rose from the bush? What's the best way to make straw turn into gold? Do I need a musical interlude so I can mess with the props for a few moments?

Then I try the show out. I do it for my neighbor, for my cat, and for anybody who will sit through it. Once I flagged down some friends who were riding their bikes past my house, all for the sake of an audience.

I'm stuck right now on what show to do. The theme is Medieval, so I may have my dragon puppet Crispin either take part or be the emcee. The ideas so far have been "Little Red Dragonhood," "Dragonlocks and the Three Bears," and "Three Dragongoats Gruff." Or I may stray from the theme.

Right now I think I'll stray right into the kitchen for some toast.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Family stories

Last summer on a visit to my parents, I discovered a typescript of the reminiscences of my great-grandfather, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe. This ancestor was born in 1808 and died in 1895. In 1955, my uncle typed up the reminiscences as a present for his siblings. I had no idea it existed until last summer, though it turns out my brother Mark (yes, he got the full name, missing one "e") has a copy of it.

I nabbed the book and have been transcribing it into my computer so I can send it out to other descendents. This ancestor was the Episcopal Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, the father of 18 children (three wives in succession, and only 11 of the children lived to adulthood). The span from my great-grandfather to me is huge because my grandfather was the youngest of the 18, my father was the youngest of 6 and I'm the youngest of 7.

Anyway, as I transcribe the reminiscences, I'm keeping my eye out for stories. Here are a few snippets:

MADewH was baptised at age 3. After the baptism, he was taken home by a servant. He says that then was "all my fine toggery taken off, so that I was left with only a little undershirt on, and when she had gone to get other garments, I slipped out and went into the church again, which was only two doors distant, showing in a very early day my predilection for the church service. My father, hearing the pattering of my little feet, looked in his consternation at my condition, wrapped me in his kerchief and carried me home."

He grew up and went to Middlebury College for a short while, then to Brown University, became a teacher and then was ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was married in 1834.

My great-grandfather's first wife was delicate, so they went to the Caribbean to try to coax her back to health. On the voyage, they went through the Horse Latitudes. The Horse Latitudes were named this because when ships had horses on board, often the horses didn't survive the rough seas there and had to be thrown overboard. There was a horse on board, but it was saved because they put it in a sling and padded the stall so it wouldn't be hurt. The ship was struck by lightning at one point, and the topmost spars rattled down onto the deck. That trip took 4 weeks, instead of the 10 days it should have.

The trip was a failure: my great-grandfather's wife died. He wrote, "In the last few weeks of my wife's continuance, I could scarcely leave her at all, as I had no female friend who could wait upon her [...] and after my wife's breathing ceased, it fell to my lot to close her eyes, and to get out from her trunk the apparel in which she should be clothed. On the next morning, my friend, Mr. Sargent came in to see me, and I shall never forget, he read to me the 103rd Psalm in a very solemn and impressive way. That was the only ministration of a consolatory nature which was given to me at that awful juncture."

He returned home (as did his wife's body, preserved in a cask of rum), grieving terribly. This is one of the saddest parts of the reminiscences, though he did go on to live a full life.

I've still got about 20 pages to transcribe. My brother Mark tells me there's some interesting stuff in the next section, about a missionary trip to San Francisco in 1871.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Being invited back

I love being invited back to tell stories.

Today I had a call from a school that had me just last year, as well as in 2002. Not only are they asking me back, but they want me to do the same program, "Mostly Munsch." I tell the ridiculous stories of Robert Munsch (with his kind permission). What makes this particular school so fun is that the kids have studied Munsch's stories and they know them all.

Picture it: the gym is full of 300 2nd and 3rd graders, with teachers and some parents. First my old lady puppet Trixie* and I do a little back-and-forth (no, I tell her, we aren't here for the big basketball game, we're here for stories). Then Trixie retires for a nap. At 111, she naps often in the daytime. I ask the kids which stories by Robert Munsch they like. Hands shoot up. I point to kids, who yell out the titles. When I hear one I think would suit at the moment, I stop them and tell it. Trixie comes back, we chat some more, then we do it again. Very fun. I'm likely also to tell them "The ghost with the one black eye," if they request it (which they do). We all have a good time.

*you can see pictures of Trixie on my website She's the one in the hat. The one in the pink bracelet is Mavis. I'm the one in the vest. Could you tell?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Ice storm

It began yesterday, with a light rain. Temperatures dropped. By the late afternoon, a thin sheen of ice covered everything, including the lock on my garage. No matter, I wasn't going anywhere. The cat and I stayed inside by the woodstove, occasionally going out on the front porch to see how the trees looked. A couple of neighbors stopped by. At about 9 the power went out, so I read by camping lantern until it came back at 10.

Today it's snowing. The trees are still beautiful, that dangerous cracking beauty we get here once or twice a year. We had an ice storm earlier this season, which took out a nice young redbud across the street. There's a tree down the street that split for the second time, a huge section crashing down on the back deck of a neighbor's house. I walked down to look at it, taking a break from planning some workshops I'll be giving this spring for next summer's library reading program.

"Planning" is a loose term. I started thinking about these workshops last summer. Every now and then in the fall, I picked up a book or two and read through the manual. Today I wrote down more notes. I've promised an outline on Monday. I'll have it done, but most likely I won't work much on it until Sunday. I do best if I do some initial work long before a project is due. Then I leave it alone, letting ideas percolate on the back burner of my mind. When it's time to actually do the project, these ideas pour out into a good strong brew. (Weird metaphor--I don't like perked coffee unless I'm camping.)

Time to put another log in the woodstove.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Traveling tales

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

I had a good time on part of my trip home, hanging out in O'Hare airport for about five hours in between legs of the trip. I always travel with a puppet, just in case. This time it was Prince, formerly known as Frog. He's a Folkmanis puppet with great legs and quite an attractive complexion, as well as a Connecticut accent and a wild laugh.

I noticed an exhausted family sitting together: three small boys and a mother on the floor, with the grandmother in the one available seat in the waiting area. I took a chance and approached, asking if maybe the boys would like a story. The youngest, maybe 3, opened his eyes wide at the sight of Prince, who suggested to me that I tell "The ghost with the one black eye." It worked. Then I told "Chickens!" Both are sure-fire funny scary stories with reassuring endings (listen to "The ghost" on my website, ). After that story and a little more Prince schtick, the mother noticed that their flight was being called, so they went to get in line, all three boys giggling. The mom thanked me, saying that this was just what they needed, as they'd been traveling for about 24 hours.

Later I mentioned to a bored but well-behaved five-year-old that I had a frog in my bag. Prince introduced himself and we were off again with puppet nonsense, songs and stories. This young gent was traveling with his grandmother, who joined in a little.

This undercover storytelling work has some rules. Always, always be respectful of the child and the accompanying adult. If they don't want to hear stories, back off. Make sure it's okay with the adult. Remember that sometimes people are too tired or wound up to take in stories.

Still, as the old tale says, at the right time and in the right place, stories can shorten the road.