Monday, December 31, 2007

High points, low points, what a year!

This has been my busiest storytelling year yet. Today was my 234th performance. Whew!

Here are some high points: storytelling trip to Belgium in February, doing a workshop at the National Storytelling Conference, going to the National Storytelling Festival, the Iola residency, vacationing in North Carolina, working on Queen Berta and King Pippin, finding other great stories to tell, starting to develop my Punch and Judy show, getting a great review in School Library Journal, going to the WOW weekend, getting my fence repaired, my mother's visit last week for Christmas.

The lowest point was my father's death while I was in Belgium and the subsequent grief. Big.

Other low points? Getting a cold just before the National Storytelling Conference. Car trouble in Choctaw, OK. Other than that, I don't remember. I'm such a pollyanna, I tend to forget the low points.

That makes me think of one of my favorite quotes:
I keep the telephone of my mind open to peace, harmony, health, love and abundance. Then whenever doubt, anxiety or fear try to call me, they keep getting a busy signal and soon they'll forget my number.
--Edith Armstrong.

Happy 2008, everybody!

Friday, December 28, 2007

I got a new microphone

When I first started telling stories in larger venues than the library, I got a lavalier microphone. That's the kind that clips onto your clothes, with a wire going to a little battery pack, which sends a signal to a transmitter, which in turn is plugged into a powered speaker. I used that lavalier for a number of years before I decided that it just wasn't loud enough. When I turned my head away from the microphone, I faded right out. If it got tangled in my clothes, the noise was awful or my voice was muffled.

I shifted to a microphone on a stand. I've used this for about ten years and have been happy with it. It's not wireless, but that doesn't matter--I've got a long cord that goes to my little powered speaker (Galaxy PA5X Hot Spot). I can reach about 250-300 kids in a gymnasium with this setup.

Still, I was thinking about how nice it would be not to be tethered to the microphone and stand. I took a deep breath and ordered a headset microphone from Mass Street Music. Yup, like Madonna or Garth Brooks, but without the undergarments or hat. I got an EV RE2, with a beige headset.

I haven't used it yet, though I've had it for a couple of weeks. I tried it out in my house. Hard to tell what it's like. The cat had no comments. I've only had one performance that required any amplification since I bought it, and I actually forgot to take my new toy. I don't think I'll need it until the end of January. I hope I like it!

By the way, that little Hot Spot is great. It weighs only about 20 pounds and is dead easy to use. I've had problems with it twice in the last ten years, and both times the folks at the factory in Wichita have fixed it quickly and for free, assuring me it was still under warranty.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Storytelling Tip #4

If you tell folktales, learn to use The Storyteller's Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children, eds. one and two.
This is one of my favorite resources for folktales. You can look up stories by title, subject, folktale motif, ethnic group and geographic area. If you know of a story and are wondering what versions might be available, this work is invaluable.

It's expensive, so unless you're deeply committed to telling and researching folktales, use these at your public library, if possible. I own them both and have been known to look up stories for folks who don't own them. Once a librarian, always a librarian.

There are a couple of confusing things about The Storyteller's Sourcebook. One has to do with the editions. There are two, which would lead one to believe that the second supercedes the first. Nope! The first edition covers books up to 1982, and the second edition covers books from 1983 to 1999. I'm still not sure why the publisher didn't call them Volume I and Volume II. Because of this confusion, I suspect lots of libraries got rid of the first edition and that's why a used one costs so much less than the second edition.

The second confusing thing is actually how to use the works. Once you get the hang of it, it's a snap, but it takes time. I'm not sure I'll succeed in explaining it here, but I'll take a stab.

Let's say you remember a story about pulling up a turnip. You pick up one of the two editions (this one is in both) and flip to the subject index. Under "turnip" you'll find a funny telegraphed entry. Here's the entry from the first edition (what I've put in as boldprint is underlined in SS--I'm just not sure how to do that here):
TURNIP: Bear gets tops of turnips--K171.1; pulling up turnip, chain--Z49.9; farmer takes an extraordinary turnip to the king as a present--J2415.1; man takes figs to king instead of turnips and they are thrown at him, "Thank God they weren't turnips"--J2563; man in moon for stealing turnip--A751.1.4.1; sheep live inside huge turnip all winter--X1401.1.2.
Ah, that second one looks right! You flip to the front part of the book where the motifs live. This is the Stith Thompson classification, and it has great headings such as "Marvels," "The Wise and the Foolish," and "Deceptions."

Find section Z (Miscellaneous groups of motifs), then find 49.9. Here's the entry:
Z49.9. Pulling up the turnip. Final formula: The mouse holds onto the cat, the cat holds onto Mary, Mary holds onto Annie, Annie holds onto grandmother, grandmother holds onto grandfather, grandfather holds onto the turnip--they all pull and pull it out. Tolstoy: Domanska TURNIP pb; Haviland Fairy 44-47; Tolstoy GREAT bp. Russia; Withers I SAW 98-99.
This is the synopsis of the story. At the end of the entry, you see author's last name, one word of the title and page numbers. Flip back in the Sourcebook to the bibliography and find the authors, in alphabetical order of course, and you'll find the title and other bibliographical information. Armed with this, go to your library catalog and see if you can find the story.

I love reading the telegraphed descriptions and the synopses. For Pete's sake, sheep live inside huge turnip all winter! I may have to go find that!

Huge kudos to Margaret Read MacDonald for the first edition and for bringing Brian Sturm in to work with her on the second edition.

Shameless plug: I tell the Bulgarian version of The Turnip on my CD The Ghost With the One Black Eye and Other Stories.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve traditions

It was always best if it snowed on Christmas Eve, more likely in Vermont than in Rhode Island. My grandmother and great-aunt usually arrived on that day. Granny came with Veeeee, her cook and general factotum, from Springfield, Massachusetts. Auntie Alice came from Montreal.

Sometimes went to the afternoon church service, though as we got older we stayed up for the midnight service.

In the late afternoon, we had tea with Granny and Auntie Alice. This wasn't just for Christmas Eve, but an everyday occurrence with that generation. As we got the tea ready, making sure the kettle boiled a yard high, scalding the pot, putting in one spoonful of tea for each person and one for the pot, we often heard gentle bickering from the living room, as the two sisters settled in to being around each other for one of the few times in the year.

In our family, children were not allowed to have real tea until we were thirteen, lest it stunt the growth. Before then, we had cambric tea--a tiny amount of real tea, lots of milk and lots of sugar. This was served, as was the tea for the adults, in bone china cups with saucers. These were put on a tray with a jug of milk and a sugar bowl, and carried ceremoniously to the living room. With real tea, we'd ask Gran to read our tea leaves afterwards. She did so in a voice full of mystery.

An hour or two after tea, the adults had a drink and we got ready for supper. Some years we had a special supper of fondue, either beef or cheese. Yum. Veeeee never ate with us, insisting on staying in the kitchen.

After the meal we cleared the plates. Every one of us remembers Veeee's fluty voice, "Don't stack them now, don't stack, just put them anywhere, don't stack."

When the kitchen was neat (and many dishes put away in the wrong places), we gathered in the living room. Veeeee always chose a straight-back chair near the door and the rest of us sprawled around on the sofa, the floor, in the chairs. Dad pulled out the Christmas anthology and the reading aloud began. Of course we always heard the Gospel, and most years we read the abridged version of A Christmas Carol. Every year Dad said, "We can't possibly read the whole thing. It takes hours!" (True--my friends Mary and Andy have hosted a full reading of it for many years, and it does take about four hours.)

We passed the book around and read various parts. One of my favorites was my mother reading "Dulce Domum" from The Wind in the Willows. Mary or I always read (or joined in reciting) "'Jest Fore Christmas" by Eugene Field. Tiny birdlike Auntie Alice perched on the ottoman, in later years tipping dangerously as she fell asleep--she always caught herself in time. Sometimes we read "Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle," by Frank Sullivan. Occasionally we tried a story we hadn't heard, such as the deadly grim "Solange the Wolf Girl."

Then it was time to hang stockings. These were Dad's wool socks, which he'd get back several weeks later, possibly with a hard candy stuck in the toe. There were seven cuphooks screwed into the mantlepiece, one for each kid's stocking. I'm the youngest so mine was at the end. We made sure there was a glass of milk and a couple of cookies for Santa Claus on the mantel as well. I always wondered if Santa Claus disliked lukewarm milk as much as I did.

Then it was time to either get ready for bed or ready for church. The last part of the tradition was insomnia on Christmas Eve, as I considered what would be in my stocking and under the tree the next day.

Merry Christmas

Lovely commentary on Christmas in this video:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

National Storytelling Network

I'm the Kansas liaison to the National Storytelling Network. I often forget this, as I'm a mediocre liaison. My job is to connect the storytellers and other interested folks in Kansas with the National Storytelling Network and vice-versa. Also, I try to keep Kansas storytellers apprised of related events happening around the state and the country. The main way I do this is through the KS Storytelling yahoo group. (Feel free to sign up.)

So what's the National Storytelling Network and why should anybody join? This organization began in the 70s as the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling (NAPPS), briefly became the National Storytelling Association, and has been the National Storytelling Network for several years now. It is based in Jonesborough, Tennessee, but there are members around the country and the world.

You can get the official scoop on why to join on the NSN website, on the member benefits page. Like so many nonprofit organizations, NSN has some challenges ahead, and some of these benefits may change, but I'll remain a member no matter what.

I'll give you my reasons for having been a member since 1991.

I'm a member because this is a way I can hang out with other storytellers around the country, especially at the National Storytelling Conference and the National Storytelling Festival. Nota bene, these are two very different events. The conference is much smaller, around 400 people, and is made up mostly of workshops. The festival is all performance, all the time, with thousands of listeners.

I'm a member because I enjoy receiving Storytelling Magazine every couple of months. I like reading about what's going on around the country and the world in the field of storytelling.

I'm a member because I like being affiliated with an organization that knows what I do and doesn't try to squish it into some other artform, like theater or performance art.

I'm a member because NSN offers grant opportunities, discounts in its online store and on the conference--these directly affect my wallet.

I'm a member because I do believe we should preserve and perpetuate the art of storytelling, and it's easier for us to do this together than individually.

My friend Cynthia Changaris said it eloquently in a letter in 2006:
I belong to NSN because it has offered me a rich banquet of storytelling, storylearning, and connection to storytellers all over the world. My relationships and my life have been enriched immeasurably by my membership. I feel connected to the heart of storytelling and story because of my connection to NSN.
I agree. I definitely recommend joining the organization. Let me know if you have questions about NSN and I'll do my best to find answers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What is storytelling?

Dang. The gauntlet has been thrown. Tim Ereneta wrote about storytelling definitions in his blog, Sean Buvala echoed the topic in his. I find myself saying, "Eh, do I have to?" Can't I just walk past that glove on the ground?

Maybe. Or maybe a little clarifying would be useful. I once, briefly, had a boyfriend who was a filmmaker. As we were getting to know each other, he proudly proclaimed, "You know, I'm a storyteller!" I didn't say what I was thinking: "Right. Your documentary tells a story, but lissen up, buster, you're not standing up telling a story out loud without a lens, without props, with only the pictures in your mind as you make connections with the audience. Do not call yourself a storyteller!" No, I smiled and said something fatuous, I'm sure.

Anyway, it has become high fashion for filmmakers, novelists, musicians of all styles and anybody else who does anything creative to say that they are storytellers. Yes, they do tell stories--we all do, in an attempt to define our lives-- in their way, but please, let them keep their named professions and let me have mine.

So what do I mean by storytelling? I mean the oral transmission of stories, usually live (though of course I have recordings, and though they were recorded with a live audience, the present audience is far from where I am), usually without the use of notes and with a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall.

Oral transmission. I'm saying the words out loud. I'm not painting them, filming them, drawing them. Dadgummit. Already I'm in trouble, because I've seen incredible deaf storytellers who may or may not speak their stories. Never mind, I'm keeping this.

Stories. By this, I'm thinking of narrative, something that has setting, action, plot. At times poems will fit the definition. Does that mess me up? Not too much.

Usually without the use of notes. Hmm, I've seen storytellers who have notes nearby in case they get lost. Is that okay?

With a fluid or nonexistent fourth wall. Huh? The fourth wall is a theater term, that wall between the actors and the audience, so the audience is just looking in on the action. In storytelling, the fourth wall goes up at times, say when one character is talking to another, but for the most part, the storyteller is directly addressing the audience. Bill Harley wrote about this in an essay called Playing with the Wall in the excellent book Who Says: Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling, edited by Carol Birch and Melissa Heckler.

Now I have to write about that title. According to the introduction of the book, "Five years into her storytelling career, Carol grew tired of hearing people say, critically and knowingly, under their breath: "Well, that's not storytelling!" She wondered, "Who says?" Her book helps me think about what storytelling is, and why. It's probably time I reread it.

Shoot. I'm not happy with my wishy-washy definition above. I don't know that there is one for all storytellers. Maybe we each have to work out our own.

Here's what I do: I tell stories out loud in front of an audience, without notes or a script or props (except for once or twice when I use a puppet in a story, and one story that uses a harmonica). I don't dress in costume, I don't have a set. I don't memorize the stories, though if I tell them a lot they do settle into a groove, and if there's a particularly nice turn of phrase, I remember it and use it every time. I use my body, my voice, my facial expressions to underline the words. I adjust my performances to the listeners, watching how they listen and paying attention to what works and what doesn't. I allow improvisation in.

Storytellers range from those who tell at the kitchen table on up to what have been called "platform storytellers." I'm one of those (do you like my platform shoes?) because in my profession, I tell in a more formal way than just hanging out shooting the breeze.

I've seen some great storytellers in costume, with props, with stories that are told word-for-word but still sound natural. I'm getting even more mired in what storytelling is and isn't, aren't I? Must be time to stop for the night.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Storytelling Tip #3

Check your facial expressions and body language in a story with a mirror or a trusted listener.

When I first began telling the story Unanana, I had to check to see if the expression I was using to show the baboon face looked enough like one. I tested which baby face worked by asking a live audience (risky!). This is where making faces in the mirror endlessly as a kid pays off.

Notice that I say "trusted listener." When you're first working on a story, it's just a tiny newborn, not ready for the cruel world, not ready for critique. Be sure that the person you're asking for advice is supportive.

Although I don't much like to watch videos of myself, they can be helpful in seeing unconscious movement and physical tics. More on essential and inessential gestures soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Snow day!

I'm out here in Salina, KS for two days. The plan was that I'd do a day of writing workshops with fifth graders today and then have performances at other schools tomorrow. It wasn't until I'd arrived last night that I learned that school would be cancelled today.

There was a massive ice storm here. Lots of houses (and the middle school) are still without electricity. Limbs are down all over town. I went out for a walk this morning and took some pictures. It was brilliantly sunny and the trees sparkled. I used my old-fashioned camera (remember, the kind that uses something called "film"?) so I won't have the pics for a while. I dug around on youtube and found some footage, not of the sunny scenes but of earlier devastation. I'm not sure if this is Salina, but it might be:

So today was a day off. I've been getting over a cold and didn't mind having more time to feel better. I had full confidence that I'd be in the schools tomorrow.

It was a pleasant day, a motel-based solitary retreat, with a short meeting in the afternoon. I stopped at Big Lots on the way back to the motel and was surprised to hear the cashier say that school was cancelled tomorrow as well. I thought about going home, but by chance I'm in a room with a jacuzzi. I'll hang out here and make my way home tomorrow before the next snowstorm blows in.

Time to fill the tub.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Storytelling Tip #2

It occurs to me that after that first tip, there is no order of precedence for the rest. I'm calling this Tip #2, but most likely it's not more important than Tip #34 will be.

Here it is: Know your story inside and out.

Goes without saying, right? Maybe, but I hear storytellers sometimes who have not done this step.

Try to imagine every character, every setting, every action completely. When you do this, you will be able to answer any question that comes up about the story. What color shoelaces does the heroine have? How old is the big brother? How does the cat cross the room? You don't need to put these in the story--in fact, if you did, the listeners may keel over from boredom--but you do need to know them. When you imagine the story that deeply, your choices about what images you use will be clearer. Hmm, is that true? Sometimes I make these pronouncements and only later do I wonder if it works for everybody.

I'm a visual learner. I see the pictures of the story in my head, almost like a movie. I translate those pictures through my heart and bring them out in my words, voice, body and face. More on that later.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Home from WOW weekend

Did I say I was going to write twice or thrice a week? I guess I wasn't thinking about this past week.

I worked like crazy until mid-day Thursday, on Storytelling Magazine, the publication of the National Storytelling Network. I'm the guest editor for the March/April issue, and I had to get all the articles in, which meant herding nine contributors, making sure all the pieces were put together and coherent. (By the way, I think it's going to be a good issue--all the contributors did a great job.) I got it sent off by the afternoon.

The articles in the magazine were on the theme of retreats. On Friday, I got up early so I could go on retreat! I left home at 6:30 a.m., bound for southern Indiana, with two stops in Kansas City to pick up two other storytellers. They made the road shorter. Still, it was about ten hours driving. I hoped I wouldn't fall face down asleep in my supper when we arrived.

We arrived in Bethlehem, IN at the Storyteller's Riverhouse, ready for a WOW weekend. WOW? Working on Our Work, the storytelling retreat set up by Mary Hamilton and Cynthia Changaris. The Riverhouse is Cynthia's B & B. This was their 27th retreat since they began offering these supportive coaching weekends.

My third WOW weekend did not disappoint. Nine of us gathered to work on our work in storytelling. Cynthia and Mary have designed these retreats well, so that each participant feels completely cared for and heard. We each got an hour of undivided attention from the group for whatever we wanted to work on.

I worked on Queen Berta and King Pippin. The story is still rough, but coming along. The comments of the group were helpful, reminding me of where to slow down, where to shine the light a bit brighter, where to allow the audience to settle in to the images.

What I've discovered about the supportive coaching model is that I learn in every session, not just my own. I first learned about supportive coaching from Doug Lipman, years ago. The model used at the WOW weekends is slightly different, but just as effective. The goal is not to correct storytellers so they all tell the same way, but to bring out the very best that the storyteller has to offer. Deep listening is at the heart of the coaching style.

We fit nine sessions into Saturday and Sunday, ending just before lunch. Wonderful and exhausting. After a delicious lunch, thanks to the excellent chef, we packed sandwiches for the car. Then we loaded up and got on the road.

The trip home was a little longer, a little more tiring, due to rain and then sleet. I'd gotten new tires and all kinds of car repairs before the trip, but neglected to get the windshield wipers replaced. Dang. In a case of closing the barn door after the horse is gone, I got new wipers today.

I got home at 10:30 p.m. last night. I'm really tired. That's it for now.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Storytelling Tip #1

There's one big rule in storytelling:

Only tell stories you love.

Sorry, didn't mean to shout, but it's very important. If you don't love the stories you tell, your audience won't love them either. If your audience doesn't love the story, they will let you know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, depending on how old they are.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? However, I've had experiences where I've tried to fit a story I only sort of liked into a program. It doesn't work.

Once I was performing in a library and the librarian asked if I would tell The Wide-Mouth Frog. I know this story, but it wasn't in my repertoire and it isn't one I love. Still, I wanted to please the librarian, so I told it. It was flat. Boring. Excruciating. It's a good story, just not good for me.

Sometimes storytellers try to shoehorn a story they don't love into a program because it fits a theme or is from a specific country. It rarely works out.

This is one of the few times I'll exhort you not to do something.When you tell stories you don't love, and you do a mediocre job, it reflects badly on your skills as a storyteller, on other storytellers ("Oh, we had a storyteller once. She wasn't very good. We don't hire storytellers anymore") and on the art of storytelling. Please, don't do it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Quotations on listening and storytelling

Here are a few good quotations I've gathered over the years:

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
Hannah Arendt

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

To speak is to sow, to listen is to reap. Turkish proverb

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song—but in this dance or in this song there are fulfulled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in our common destiny. Pablo Neruda

[T]he sound of story is the dominant sound of our life. Reynolds Price

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Karl Menninger

When the heart overflows, it comes out through the mouth. Ethiopian proverb

With me, it's story, story, story. Bernard Malamud

A good metaphor is something even the police should keep their eye on. Georg C. Lichtenberg

Friday, November 30, 2007

Last day of NaBloPoMO!

Whew! I did it! This is the last day of National Blog Posting Month, so here's my last post.

I've got a plan to post at least twice a week from now on. On Tuesdays, my post will be a practical storytelling tip. Otherwise I'll continue with random blather about my storytelling life.

Speaking of this storytelling life, I'm going back to the Lawrence Arts Center Preschool today for a couple of short gigs. I haven't decided if the new duck puppet will come. He'll definitely join me next Tuesday at Wonderscope.

Tomorrow I'll be part of a benefit for the Lawrence Community Nursery School, otherwise known as "The Little Red Schoolhouse." I'm part of the early family show at the Granada, performing just before The Terrible Twos. This band is the alter ego of The New Amsterdams, who will play in the later part of the benefit (the grown-up part). I've been listening to them on their MySpace page this morning. Whooeee! This is going to be FUN!!!

There's a piece in about the benefit. Ignore the fact that I'm listed as Patricia, please. In case you wondered, my name is not Patricia, Phyllis, Penelope or Persephone. It's Priscilla.

Never mind that bit of crankiness. If you're in the area, come on out to the benefit. We'll have a good time.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

New duck puppet

I didn't mean to bring home a new puppet today.

Here's how it usually happens. I find myself in the Raven Bookstore, drawn inexorably to the puppet racks. Look, a new shipment from Folkmanis! I'm compelled to try them out. The puppy's mouth is too small for my fingers, the kitten looks scary, nice frog but I already have one...what's this? A duck? It jumps onto my hand and starts talking or quacking or horsing (?) around. We next find ourselves (yes, I'm including the puppet now) at the checkout desk, pulling out the spondulix or the credit card.

Next thing I know, we're home and Joe is inspecting the new member of the household.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Working away from home

Some days it's hard to work at home. Today was one of those, so after lunch I walked downtown to Z's Divine Espresso. I used to go to this place more often when I lived on the other side of town, several times a week. Now it's a few times a month. The decaf is great, each cup made fresh in the espresso machine.

The coffeeshop was loud today. I could have used earplugs. There was a conversation about modern dance at one table, another about bike riding at another table, another about an embarrassing situation with a boyfriend and alcohol at the counter, and I heard the words "Cozumel, Mexico" from behind me. This coffeehouse is just one large room and I was in the middle of it.

Because of what I like to call my diffuse attention (okay, ADD, if you insist), I'm aware of everything going on around me. I heard all those conversations. I was aware of customers coming and going. Oh, and did I mention there was music?

I thought I was going to work on a writing project, but it became clear that I wasn't paying attention. Good thing I had my copy of Berte aux grands pieds with me, so I could read instead. The only way to block out the noise was to put my fingers in my ears. I got through about twenty pages in French that way.

On my walk home, I worked on the story. I use walks to move stories into my body, to find the right rhythm. Sometimes I tell myself parts of the story, sometimes I put myself in the setting or look for the emotion of the characters. When it's a particularly intense piece of a story and I'm profoundly involved, I find myself gesturing. I try to rein that behavior in when walking downtown, though I don't mind if I'm on the levee path with nobody else around.

If you see me walking around gesturing, lips moving but not speaking out loud, most likely I haven't gone off the deep end, I'm just working away from home.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari

The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories is my Fahrenheit 451 book. You know, when all the books are being burned, there are people out in the forest memorizing their favorites so the work will not perish. I'd be out there with this book. I've even written notes in it--I never write in books.

Why do I love it so much? Rodari was funny, smart and he truly understood kids. He packed this book with ideas, games, stories, random thoughts and serious buffoonery. If he were still alive, I'd be sitting at his feet. In his preface, Rodari writes:
I hope this small book can be useful for all those people who believe it is necessary for the imagination to have a place in education; for all those who trust in the creativity of children; and for all those who know the liberating value of the word. (p. 3-4)
Later he says: "In our schools there is too little laughter, if I may generalize. The idea that the education of a mind must be a dismal affair is among the most difficult things to overcome." (p. 14)

I love it that he has a chapter called Lenin's Grandfather. Here's how it begins:
This chapter is merely a continuation of the previous one. But I am too fond of the idea of a chapter title on Lenin's grandfather to give up the arbitrary caesura. (p. 20)
That cracks me up every time I read it. He goes on to explain that Lenin's grandfather kept benches under the windows in the living room, because the children liked to go in and out that way instead of through the door. He didn't forbid the behavior, he just made it a bit safer.

He writes about the fantastic binomial, taking two unrelated items to make a story. When he was a teacher, he'd have a kid write a word on one side of a two-sided blackboard and another kid write on the other side, at the same time. Then they would create a story from those two. He talks about story logic--for example, a character made of wood has to be careful around fire.

I've found great games in this book, such as "Little Red Riding Hood in a helicopter." Take a familiar story and add an unfamiliar element, then see what happens. Or "Fairy tale salad" where the characters from one story meet those of another (in adult books, Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes series do this wonderfully).

He was a puppeteer at a few times in his life. Here's something he says about puppets:
The true language of the puppets and marionettes is in their movement. They are not made for long monologues or dialogues. If Hamlet recites his monologue in a puppet play, there must be at the very least a devil who from time to time tries to steal the skull and to replace it with a tomato. On the other hand, a single puppet can maintain a dialogue for hours with its audience of children without tiring them, if it knows how to do this. (p. 72)
Trixie approves.

I first heard about Rodari in 1988, when I was in Bulgaria doing research on services for children in Bulgarian public libraries and reading rooms. My friend Vesselin asked me if I'd read this book. Nope, never heard of it. Before I left, he gave me a photocopy of the entire book, translated from Italian into Bulgarian.

I can read Bulgarian, but I'm lazy. I put that photocopy in the back of my file cabinet and forgot about it. Every now and then I'd search for the book at the university library, in case it had been translated into English. It was there in Russian, but because Rodari was Communist, it was not popular in the West. In 1996, Jack Zipes' translation was published. I bought it.

Did I read it? No. It sat on my shelf. In 1998 I was working on a library program that had at its base child-directed learning. I was learning about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (very cool!). When I asked a RE listserv for resources, the first response was, "Have you read the Rodari book?" I took it off the bookshelf, settled myself on the sofa and wolfed the book right down. I've now read it about eight times.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Oh, the long slog of this blogging month. I'll probably post more often than I did before this challenge, but not every day.

On days like this, when I've spent hours balancing my checkbook, I'm not sure you want to hear about a storyteller's life. It's not so interesting. This office stuff is also necessary, so when I go to visit my favorite tax advisor in the spring, I'll be ready. Boring, though.

I did have a nice break this afternoon. I responded to a freecycle request for a bubble wand this morning (I had an extra bubble gun, a battery operated item certainly made in China). I've received quite a few things from this freecycler, so I was happy to be able to give him something he wanted. His six-year-old son has been listening to my stories on a nifty stuffed animal mp3 player (hard to describe, but it works). They came over for the bubble gun and I showed Alex some of my puppets. He was an excellent audience. I also showed the puppets to his baby brother, who was startled by them all. Sometimes children who are the same size as Trixie find her unsettling.

Then on to the post office, the bank, the library. I'd better stop this before I fall asleep. ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sunday, November 25, 2007

New York Times crossword puzzle

I used to help my father do the NYT crossword puzzle when I went to visit. Some years ago he discovered that it can be done online, so he subscribed. This September I signed myself up. I do it in his honor and because I like stretching my brain this way each day.

Until Dad told me, I didn't realize that the puzzle gets harder as the week progresses, from Monday through Saturday. Monday I can do in well under ten minutes, but Saturday takes me forever and I usually have to resort to Googling some of the more obscure answers. Sunday is easier than Saturday but bigger.

Dad did the crossword puzzle up until the week before he died last February at age 86. As I solve the puzzle, I think of him sitting at his desk still in his pajamas and blue bathrobe, stroking his chin in thought and then triumphantly filling in a clue.

I wonder what he would have said about Rex Parker's New York Times crossword puzzle blog. Would he have enjoyed it or would he have thought of it as cheating? Dad was just getting the hang of reading my blog. Maybe he would have begun commenting on Rex's blog, joining the community. To date, I only read the comments.

I'm as addicted to Rex's blog as I am to the puzzle. When I'm really stuck, I let Rex help me out, but I do as much as I can before reading it. I've come to think of Rex and the many people who comment on his blog as my companions and a kind of cheering section.

(Rex has another fun blog called Pop Sensation, a cheeky look at vintage paperback covers. Highly recommended!)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Puppets, stories and Bizarre Bazaar

I'm so glad I'm not on the craft fair circuit. At the Bizarre Bazaar, there were many vendors who travel from show to show, selling their art. While I feel that I did fairly well, I don't think I could sustain that kind of life. I sold lots of buttons and I had a good time watching people choose their favorites. I sold them for a dollar apiece and three for two dollars, so my pocket was full of paper money by the end of the day. I also sold some recordings, tra la.

On the other hand, the other vendors probably couldn't sustain my kind of life either, so it works out. On the third hand (?) I put in a different kind of energy at Bizarre Bazaar than most vendors, because I had my puppets on hand, so to speak. Whenever there was a kid nearby or whenever I got bored, I'd get a puppet out of the bag. I only told a few small stories, mostly just played puppets.

I never know when a good piece of puppet schtick will pop into my mind--or the puppet's mouth, completely bypassing my mind. Today the baby puppet began singing "The itsy bitsy spider," with her own version (best imagined in a baby voice):

Da itsy bitsy tigah
wen' up da piggy snout.
Down came da train and
wash da piggies out.
Ou' came da sun and
it drove out all da train,
so da itsy bitsy tigah
went up da snout again.

The little girls who were in the booth were intent on getting the baby to do it right. Then one of them began her own version, heh heh. We'll see what happens with this.

Tired, tired, tired now. More tomorrow when I've recovered from Biz Baz.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving leftovers

Just a few scrapies. No, not the sheep disease--"scrapies" is the word we used when we had leftovers on a plate.

Mary's good comment was something I meant to say yesterday. It deserves to be in a post: often when I can't sleep, I start a gratitude list in my head. I don't think it puts me to sleep because it's boring but because it is comforting. I rarely get past ten.

Also, what I've found is that when I focus on what I'm thankful for instead of what's wrong in my life, I get more for which I am thankful.

I don't have a lot of Thanksgiving food leftovers. On Wednesday I made a giant vat of cranberry relish. I have a bit left.

Here's the recipe:
1 bag cranberries
1 apple
1 orange
1 lemon

Wash the cranberries and throw away the soft and/or icky ones. Core the apple. Grind up all the fruit in a food processor, including the orange and lemon skins. I usually cut the fruit into chunks before putting them into the processor. Add sugar to taste (maybe a cup, maybe two, depends on what you like). Tastes best if it sits for a day or two.

No cooking involved. My batch used four bags of cranberries and the corresponding amounts of other fruit. Three other households got to have leftovers of it. When you eat this tart concoction, you can feel the vitamin C coursing through your veins. In our family, we never had canned cranberry sauce or even the homemade cooked kind, just this. Yum.

I also have a quarter of a MarCon gooseberry pie, bought at the Community Mercantile. For store-bought, it was pretty good. I'm thankful for gooseberries.

That's it for today. Plate's clean.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving every day

I like Thanksgiving as a holiday, but it's not so unusual: I give thanks every day. Every now and then I make a gratitude list. If I'm feeling low, this never fails to raise my spirits.

Here's a list of 111 things I'm thankful for, in no particular order:
  1. Being alive
  2. My family
  3. My friends, near and far
  4. Joe Fish
  5. Buster, Finn, Puck, and other dogs in my life
  6. Laughter
  7. Music
  8. Interesting ideas
  9. Kindness
  10. Generosity
  11. Making and finding connections
  12. Having a good education
  13. La Maison de Conte (my house, otherwise known as the Vortex of Well-Being)
  14. Living in Lawrence
  15. The wide range of stories, jokes and anecdotes in the world
  16. I get to tell stories for my living!
  17. Hearing stories
  18. Listeners
  19. Other storytellers
  20. The Going Deep Storytelling Festival
  21. Story-listening trance
  22. The fun of working on stories
  23. The National Storytelling Network
  24. Puppets
  25. My microphone and sound system for performances
  26. My computer
  27. The Internet
  28. E-mail
  29. My website
  30. DSL
  31. High ceilings
  32. Hardwood floors
  33. Original art
  34. The toaster and toast
  35. Clean water
  36. Showers
  37. Effective plumbing
  38. Electricity
  39. The washing machine and dryer
  40. The refrigerator
  41. Magnets
  42. The stove
  43. The US postal system
  44. National Public Radio (KCUR and KANU, especially)
  45. Telephones
  46. New towels
  47. The woodstove
  48. Having plenty of firewood
  49. The porch swing
  50. Meditation
  51. The meditation bench Rick made me
  52. Roses
  53. Irises
  54. Orchids (the dendrobium is about to bloom)
  55. Geraniums that bloom in the south window in the winter
  56. Silly-looking gerbera daisies giving extra color in the winter
  57. African violets
  58. Comfortable shoes
  59. Comfortable clothes
  60. Sweaters
  61. New pillows
  62. Plenty of blankets
  63. Pens of all kinds
  64. Pie
  65. Chile relleno
  66. Tea
  67. Butter
  68. Olive oil
  69. Garlic
  70. Fresh fruits and vegetables
  71. Eggs
  72. Cheese
  73. Yoga and the Yoga Center of Lawrence
  74. Breathing
  75. Being healthy
  76. Having good teeth
  77. Dental floss
  78. Pears soap
  79. Being able to speak other languages
  80. Books
  81. Travel
  82. My reliable car (226,000 miles and counting!)
  83. The Champion juicer
  84. Libraries
  85. Games, especially Pounce and dice
  86. Having a garage
  87. The New York Times Crossword Puzzle
  88. Rex Parker's Crossword Puzzle blog
  89. Freecycle
  90. Google
  91. Revereware pots and pans
  92. Cast-iron frying pans
  93. Friendly encounters
  94. Wheatfields Bakery
  95. The Community Mercantile
  96. Z's Divine Espresso
  97. La Parrilla
  98. Johnny's Tavern (Monday night, half-price pizza!)
  99. Checkers grocery store
  100. Cottin's Hardware
  101. Target
  102. Scarves
  103. Hats and mittens/gloves
  104. Ginger
  105. Chocolate
  106. My recently-repaired fence
  107. My minidisc recorder
  108. Memory
  109. My button machine
  110. Photographs
  111. Ceiling fans
Of course, this isn't everything. What's on your list?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Biz Baz buttons

I think I have the Bizarre Bazaar button ideas all done, though I keep finding more. Tonight I'll get the machine out and start the button factory. If I can get the cat to help, maybe he'll launch into Hi, my name is Joe.

Here are some new ones, both story-related and not:

  • "No Story Left Behind." Thanks, Granny Sue!
  • "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." —Yogi Berra. Thanks, Jill!
  • "It's not the heat, it's the humility."Yogi Berra
  • "No bread. Then bring me some toast!"—Punch, 1852. I couldn't find more info, so I'm assuming it's from the magazine Punch, not from our dear wicked friend Mr. Punch.
  • "With me, it's story, story, story." Bernard Malamud
  • "If you can't handle the heat, don't tickle the dragon."
  • "Metaphors be with you!" I tried to find an attribution for this one, to no avail. If you know who first coined it, let me know.
  • "A good metaphor is something the police should keep an eye on." Georg C. Lichtenberg
  • "Trixie rules!" This shows her picture with a red background and is a companion button to "Vote for Trixie!" Here's the picture.

And then the brainstorm, late last night, the famous Ghost (note the one black eye):The button isn't yet made, so you'll have to imagine this round and shiny. It uses a lot of black ink, so I didn't print a lot of these.

Time to set up the factory.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Back to Wonderscope

I did my regular Wonderscope Children's Museum gig today for the first time in a month, due to the Iola residency. I missed it! I'm there on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at 9:30 a.m. This time ensures that most of the audience will be parents or grandparents with children under age 5, with a few occasional homeschooled kids. It's gratifying that some of them come regularly.

Today was typical. About fifteen people, including four roving toddlers. I don't mind that, as long as the parents are paying attention and nobody's getting hurt or screaming. As these tinies come to more performances, they start to figure out that they can sit and listen. They also learn that I'm not TV. I think of it as training to be a good audience. I have no problem with the parents taking the kids out to the rest of the museum after a short while, if they're done with stories.

I mix the stories for this crowd with lots of fingerplays, puppets, songs and stretches. The die-hard listeners stay for 45 minutes. My friend Finn and his mother Janelle are in that category. Today Finn brought me a bouquet of mums from their garden. Lovely! Finn, his sister Nora and their parents are a great example of listeners who turned into real friends. I love that.

I'll be back at Wonderscope on Friday at 10:30 for a special performance for Grandparents' Day. We just arranged that, so I haven't put it in my website calendar yet. This reminds me that I've got other events not yet in the calendar. Maybe I'll get to that this afternoon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Going to the library

I've got a meeting up on the university campus this afternoon. I'll take the opportunity to go to the library to browse. That's one of my great pleasures, browsing in libraries of all kinds. At the KU library, I love going into the old Dewey Decimal stacks to wander through the holdovers from before the library converted to the Library of Congress Classification. I spend most of my time downstairs in Anschutz in 398.2, where folktales and fairy tales live. Or maybe they just sleep, until I breathe them back to life.

I'm a little worried, though. Space is a perennial problem in libraries and it is only a matter of time before those Dewey books get put deeper into storage. Their home in Anschutz is already partial exile. If they go into full exile, I'll still be able to find them by using the catalog, but that's not the same as browsing, flipping through a collection of stories, finding one that will be just right to tell. It might be the sixth or seventh time I look at a book before a story hits me just right.

Even as I write this, I remember that it has been a few months since I went up to Anschutz--what if the books are gone already, locked up never to see the light of day? I mourned the day that I discovered that my favorite volumes in that section were only available to be borrowed overnight, instead of the regular loan period of six months, because they're periodicals. That was the Revue des traditions populaires, a French publication from about 1884-1911. I'm pretty sure I was the only person to use them.

Off to the library to see what I can find.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Portraits

Yesterday's afternoon Tellabration was a different model from most. Usually there are five or six performers who go one after another on a stage, sometimes with a featured storyteller. That's what happened in the evening performance at Maple Woods Community College.

In the afternoon, we were at the John Wornall House Museum. There were performers in each room of the house, telling to different groups as they came through. The listeners arrived in twos and threes with a tour guide, also a storyteller, so everyone got a chance to hear stories all through the house.

Because it's a historic house (nope, you can't get me to use the indefinite article "an" with the word historic, as we DO voice that h in American English) and because most of the listeners were adults, I told The Portraits to three groups. The portraits in my story were probably
painted in the 1840s, before the Wornall House was built (1858) but it's close enough.

This is the portrait from the story. It was most likely done by an itinerant painter who had all the forms done and just filled in the faces. My mother found out that it was painted on a bedsheet. Though in the story I say she's my great-great-great grandmother, in fact she's my five-greats grandmother, Sarah Visscher Schuyler Hoyle. I was truly afraid of it as a kid, and of the portrait on the other wall. That's the seed of truth from which that story grew. My brother Mark has the portrait of the Bishop, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe (the Bish added the e to DeWolf, "to add tone" and it was later removed).

I usually only tell that story to fourth grade and up (age 9 or 10) but in Iola, a bunch of younger kids told me they'd listened to it on the website. They liked it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

NaBloPoMo Day 17

I've made it so far, writing a blog post every day of November. Is it cheating to write that I just don't have quite enough time today to write? On top of that, my mind is blank.

If I have time after Tellabration, I'll write a real post, maybe about what I told. I'd like to do some stories I haven't done. Though I varied the stories I told in Iola, I tended to pull from a small part of my repertoire. It's time to shake it up a bit. Also time to find some new stories for the youngest listeners.

Friday, November 16, 2007

My storytelling videos online

These are from my DVD, The Bully Billy Goat and Other Stories, performed live at Sunset Hill Elementary School in Lawrence, KS, April 2006. I'm still trying to figure out how to make these videos smaller to put in the sidebar. For right now, I've put them at the bottom of the blog. Oh, and in this post.

Here's The Bully Billy Goat:

And Shaking Hands

Whaddya think?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

More residency rambling

I thought the Iola residency went well, from beginning to end. Big thanks to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center for bringing me in. I enjoyed myself thoroughly in the Allen County schools. Here are some random things that happened yesterday:

In a fifth grade class, I made an offhand comment about having ADHD (never diagnosed, but I'm fairly sure). The teacher told me afterwards that the kid I happened to be looking at then also had ADHD. He was one of those kids with all the lights on, so that wasn't a surprise to me.

At lunch I sat with the kids, as promised. At one point, I sat next to a kingergartner with Downs Syndrome. He looked at me, smiled, then circled his eye with his finger, just as the kids all do with The ghost with the one black eye. Then he did the next step in the story, patting his knees to show the characters running up the stairs.

I happened to have my copy of Berte aux grands pieds with me. In answering a question about where I find stories, I decided to show it to a class of fourth-graders. That very book was printed one hundred years before they were born. I'm not sure what they thought about that.

The teacher of the last class had warned me earlier that her class was having a bad day. She hoped they would behave. I tried to reassure her, but she didn't seem convinced. By the end of the session, she was pleased--the class behaved wonderfully! Yes, there were some chatty kids and one kid tipped her chair over twice (not for attention, but because she was busy listening), but they really responded to the stories.

Before I left, the school secretary told me that the kids had written down my website so she could go listen to some stories.

I drove home content and tired. In the 26 days from Oct. 20 to Nov. 14, I gave 59 performances. I slept well last night.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Residency food

I just packed my lunch: yogurt, two apples, grapes and pretzels. This Best Western motel has a refrigerator, but I'm about to check out, so I've put my lunch into an insulated bag. I'll eat with the kids at McKinley Elementary today. Yesterday I sat with the kindergarten and first grade and then went out to get a salad at Party Girls to eat in the staff room.

I've tried out some of the restaurants here in Iola. El Charro had an excellent chile relleno (try dinner number 5) and very tasty salsa. I didn't have the buffet at China Palace, opting instead for Governor's Chicken. Spicy, garlicky, yum. The Hunan chicken wasn't as interesting. I also had a fine burger at King's Sandwich Shop. The King in question is Elvis, I believe. In these past few weeks when I've had trouble deciding what to eat, I've had a sandwich from Subway.

I was disappointed that I couldn't trek over to Yates Center to have lunch at Frannie's. Apparently Frannie fell and isn't serving for a while. That's the place where you pay a dollar for lunch and iced tea. You get what's being served. Pie is also a dollar and there's a larger choice, whatever Frannie made that morning. The last time I was there I had gooseberry. Lunch that day was a slice of ham, baked potatoes, green beans and one slice of white bread. Customers put their own money in the till, including the tax. I hope Frannie is up and about soon.

I'm leaving out the most important meal of the day, aren't I? The coffee at motels is usually so horrible I don't even set foot in the breakfast room. I confess, I go down the street to McDonald's. The coffee is strong and they have real cream for it. I usually order the sausage egg McMuffin, no cheese.

McDonald's in small towns has taken over the place of the diner (or maybe it's in addition to the diner). There's always a table or two of older folks having coffee in the mornings, reading the one or two copies of the paper, checking in on each other.

Just looked at my watch. Time for breakfast.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Last school on the residency

I would have been here in Iola through Thursday, but they kindly rescheduled so I'm only here until Wednesday. I wouldn't have minded being here for the whole time, but this means I only have to spend two nights at the Best Western. That's good.

Today I was at McKinley Elementary. No school dog, but still a very good day. I began with a group of kindergartners, then had first graders, then second and finally fifth. They were all great listeners. Do I say this every time? I always expect them to be and then I get what I expect. Works neatly, eh?

I've got to say, the fifth graders this afternoon laughed more uproariously than most audiences. Not forced laughter, they just were enjoying the session. Sometimes the oldest grade in a school will be a bit reticent about joining in to some of the sillier stuff. These kids participated willingly.

On this whole residency, the students and teachers have been wonderful. There was only one class that I can think of where they were slightly less than stellar when I walked in (and they were much more focused and attentive at the end of my session). I found out the next day that the regular teacher was absent and the one who was there was a substitute. It might have been helpful to know that.

This leads me to think about a slightly odd situation, one I may have written about before. Often, the teachers or principals or librarians don't introduce themselves to me when I arrive. They know who I am so they seem to think I know their names. It's a funny assumption.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hello, La Harpe Elementary!

This post is in case any of the kids in La Harpe, KS are reading my blog. When I left the school this afternoon, the third graders were in the computer lab. I looked in to see my website on all the terminals and headphones on all the kids.

I had a good time there, with preschool through third graders. Tomorrow I go on to McKinley Elementary in Iola, KS, where I'll be through Wednesday afternoon.

Short post today, as I'm going to go have a nap.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tellabration Sat. Nov. 17

Next week is the annual Tellabration storytelling event, held around the world on the same date. This was begun in 1988 in Connecticut, the brainchild of J.G. "Paw Paw" Pinkerton. The date is easy for me to remember, because I went to a Tellabration that first year in Chester, CT, and our storytelling group put one on in 1989.

That was the first time I told stories to adults. I was nervous, very nervous. I was wearing silk pants, so it was clear to the audience that my knees were shaking throughout my story.

I'm rarely nervous storytelling these days. Somewhere along the line I gained confidence. My friend Tom Overholser put it wonderfully: "If you own the material, they can't take it away from you.

Anyway, back to Tellabration. The initial idea was to have storytelling all over the country at the same time, the way that all over the country on Sunday mornings many people are doing the same thing--I've always wanted to ask J.G. if that's what made him think this up. Now Tellabration is worldwide.

I'll be in the Kansas City Tellabration, put on by the River and Prairie Storyweavers a.k.a. RAPS. There are two performances, one at Maple Woods Community College, one at the John Wornall House and Museum. I'll be at the Wornall House, along with about fifteen other storytellers.

Here's the info for Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007:
John Wornall House Museum
146 W. 61st Terr.
Kansas City, MO
1-4 p.m.
Family Stories
Admission $20 per family, individual adults $10, children $5

Maple Woods Community College
2601 NE Barry Rd
Kansas City, MO
7:00 p.m.
Student Center Theater
Stories for adults featuring Tracy Milsap
Admission $10

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Storytelling and shy children

I was a shy kid. Not within our family (I can hear some of you snickering--that's enough, now), but in public. I clearly remember hiding behind the door on the first day of nursery school, and that was in the church where my father was the minister, a familiar place.

At one of the schools on the residency in Iola, a teacher told me that one of her shyest students had already told her two of my stories on the playground. This was a child who never spoke in class. The teacher was amazed. She's now thinking about how to encourage the student. As she put it, "Storytelling might be the place in the classroom where this kid can shine!"

What a great teacher, to recognize that.

I understand those shy kids. Those of us who are introverts (in the Myers-Briggs explanation, in that we get our energy from being alone) are able to bring our inner landscape to the outer world through storytelling. I'm right on the line between introvert and extrovert, though I lean more toward introvert the older I get. Here's a wild generalization: Introverts tend to work on their stories inside before allowing them to be heard. Extroverts are more likely to work on stories in front of an audience.

I'm going out now to cut wood with my brother. He'll cut, I'll carry. This is a great time to work on stories, mulling them over inside as I do some completely mindless labor.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Bertha Big Foot, or Queen Berta and King Pippin

Bertha Big Foot is the direct translation of Berte as grans pies (Old French), or Berthe aux grands pieds (Modern French). Sounds terrible in English, doesn't it? That's why I've been calling it Queen Berta and King Pippin. In fact, in Medieval times, having long elegant feet was a sign of being refined, noble. I like that thought. I'm a size 11 (42 in French sizes).

I just had a conversation with Beth Horner about loglines, one-sentence descriptions of a story. Here's one for Queen Berta and King Pippin: Queen Berta's identity is stolen, she's taken to the forest to be killed, she escapes only to face brigands, bears and brambles. How will her big feet save her from this terrible treachery? Okay, two sentences, it's hard to be brief with a story that will take over an hour to tell.

I've been working on this story for months in preparation for next April's Going Deep Festival. I first found it a few years ago in Norma Lorre Goodrich's book The Medieval Myths. I went searching for a version in French. No dice. All I could find was the Old French. I read it once, then set out to make my own translation. A couple of weeks ago I decided to put that on hold and just read it again in Old French without trying to write out my version. In the meantime, I went online and found a couple of copies of the story.

I thought there wasn't a translation into Modern French, but I was wrong! How could I have missed this?! One arrived yesterday from an antiquarian bookseller in Brussels. It's by Gaitan Hecq, published in 1897. This copy had never been read--the pages were unopened (that's the term used when they need to be cut apart). Because I wasn't collecting it for its worth as an object, I used an index card to cut the folds.

I've been reading this translation and am quite pleased. I did fairly well with the Old French. Still, there are some things I missed. For example I don't remember reading about two brigands who attacked Berta in the forest and then got into a fight over her, enabling her to escape again. Good stuff. I think I'll spend some time this afternoon reading the rest of it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Individual classrooms vs. large assemblies

Let me start by saying that I like telling stories in all kinds of venues, for varying sizes and ages of audience. I'm happy to do assemblies (please, not more than 250 kids at a time, for the best experience for the listeners) and I'm happy to do individual classrooms.

Here are some of the differences:

Large assemblies are cost-effective. I 0ften do two performances at one school in the morning and two at another in the afternoon, so each school gets a good deal. If we split it by kindergarten to second grade (or third, depending on the school) and third through fifth (or sixth, ditto), everybody seems to have a good time. I'm cheaper than a field trip!

Kids expect something extra special from an assembly. There's a lovely air of anticipation as the kids come into the gym or the library or the cafeteria. As a performer, I get a lot of energy from the group and in an assembly, it can be a huge vortex of energy.

Classrooms are more expensive, as I can only do up to four sessions in a day. After four, I'm pretty much comatose. To tell in classrooms, schools must usually have the underwriting of a local arts agency or an outside grant, if the whole school is going to benefit.

In classrooms, there's more chance for kids to connect with me more directly. The experience is more intimate. The kids seem to feel that they know me even better when they have heard me tell stories in the classroom. I'm coming in to their environment so I can see evidence of what they've been doing--sometimes I integrate that into the stories.

I also can tailor the stories more directly to the kids. Today, for example, I told a very scary story to fifth graders, one I would never tell to younger kids. With the kindergarteners, I sang a silly baby song perfect for that age.

When I get to be in a school for an extended time, in the classrooms and hanging out with the kids in the cafeteria, I'm not doing what my friend Sharon refers to as drive-by-art. It's a longer-lasting connection. That's how I've felt these past three weeks in Iola (and I'll be there again next week).

With all kinds of performance venues, I manage the energy in the room, in myself, in the listeners. I often feel like an orchestra conductor. Maybe the difference is that an assembly is the symphony and the classroom is a chamber group?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What I told today

It's so nice to be able to tell stories in individual classrooms. Different age groups get different stories, appropriate to their developmental stages. At Lincoln Elementary, I'm trying to vary the presentations for each group slightly, though everybody gets to hear The ghost with the one black eye and everybody meets at least two puppets.

Here's what I told today:
Fourth graders heard Who's afraid, a scary story by Philippa Pearce with a jump in it; The ghost with the one black eye in English and Bulgarian; The portraits, a strange story I wrote; Gramps' appendix, a story my Uncle Herbert told me; The twist-mouth family, a joke/folktale. We also discussed the treasure trove of stories found in the 398.2 Dewey Decimal classification in public libraries. I explained that I like to tell The ghost in two languages for three reasons--so they know that storytelling is more than just the words, so they understand that they could learn other languages, and because it's fun.

Second graders listened to Alligator Baby by Robert Munsch (they had read lots of his books); The ghost with the one black eye; Chickens, another funny-scary story about the same baby; The cat and the mouse; The Gunniwolf. We also sang the echo song My aunt came back.

Third graders got We share everything by Robert Munsch; The great sharp scissors by Philippa Pearce; The ghost with the one black eye; Now I've gotcha, another story about the same baby; The small-tooth dog, an English version of Beauty and the Beast. More discussion of 398.2.

We had time for questions and answers with the third and fourth graders. I don't do that with younger kids usually, because they tend make statements instead: "I liked that story about the baby!" or "My grandmother has a dog." The older kids have good questions about stories. Today one of the third graders asked what I like best about telling stories to kids. I have many answers, but the one I gave was I really like it when we all go into the world of the story together.

Trixie and the baby puppet came out for third and fourth graders, and the second graders also met the Gunniwolf. The puppet dialogue changes a little bit with each presentation. Today the baby began claiming that they're playing poker in the bag. "Poke, poke, poke Trixie," she says. Trixie and the Gunniwolf say the game is really Go Fish. Who knows?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

People tell me stories

Is it my face? Is it because I was brought up to be polite? Does my raging curiosity show? Is there something specific and nonverbal I do to invite other people's stories?

Long before I was a storyteller, people told me their stories, often out of the blue. Since becoming a storyteller in 1988 it has happened even more, or maybe I'm just more aware of it.

A few years ago, a new neighbor stopped by to ask if I'd seen that her car's window had been smashed. I invited her in for a few minutes (I thought), and she told me her entire story, even acting out some parts. I heard all about her Jamaican boyfriend, her past as a used-car salesperson, her business selling jewelry on E-bay, her life in California and subsequent move to Kansas, and much more. She punctuated the story with a raised right hand and an emphatic "Swear to God!". Did I mention that she was wearing leather pants and cowboy boots?

A few weeks ago I was in between performances at a school and heard all about the custodian's son's divorce and the problems he was having with his kids. One of them ran away but is home now, thank goodness.

This morning I was at McDonald's having breakfast (the coffee is always better there than motel coffee). A scruffy man sat down at the table next to mine and struck up a monologue--certainly not a conversation--about finding $850 in an unmarked envelope and what he did about it and why. I also learned that he doesn't like cold weather.

It's only very rarely that I put these accounts into stories I tell in performance, and when I do, they are camouflaged. I do, however, repeat them in casual conversation.

For the most part, I don't mind hearing strangers' personal stories. We're all so odd in our own ways, all so much alike. What a world!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Another school dog!

Iola schools rock! This week I'm at Franklin, where I met Java this morning. She's a lively small yellow lab, wiggling her way down the halls of the school. I'm told she's about 2 years old, just a teenager in dog years. She wasn't allowed to be in the lunchroom with the kids--they'd be all too willing to give her some of their chicken-fried steak, I'm sure. She knows just where certain teachers stash their treats.

Off to get some supper. Hmm, maybe I need to write about my favorite restaurants in Iola so far.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bizarre Bazaar, not yet ready

I went to the organizational meeting for the Bizarre Bazaar this afternoon. It's the eighteenth year of this odd art fair but only my second. It's always the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the Lawrence Arts Center. Last year I sold buttons with interesting slogans on them. Here are a few:
As an afterthought, I brought my recordings and ended up selling quite a few. Another afterthought was my bag of puppets. They came in handy in the quiet spots in the day. Also, I was right next to Amy Trettel's wonderful children's clothes, so the parents shopped there and the kids hung out with me and my puppets. Amy and I are sharing a booth this year, so that will happen again. Her clothes are all cotton and hand dyed in great colors--if you've got children under age 6, stop by to check them out. We'll be downstairs in the room that is to the right of the central staircase (booth D21).

But enough from our sponsors, let me get back to the point of my blog. I'm not ready for this year. I have a bunch of buttons made but would like to have some new ones. I especially like the story-related quotes or slogans, such as:
  • All my stories start with a seed of truth.
  • Stories rock!
  • That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
  • It was a dark and stormy night...
I also have some that are not story-related:
  • You're not the boss of me!
  • "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken"--Oscar Wilde
  • Question reality.
  • Frequently wrong, never in doubt.
In all, I think I have about 30 sayings, but I want more. Any suggestions?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Getting ready for winter

It's nice to be home for a few days. The cat agrees. He's on the sofa, basking in the heat of the wood stove.
Yesterday I piled firewood, moving it from one side of the house to the porch where I can get to it easily. I moved the picnic table into the garage, replaced the screen insert in the front door with the glass insert, closed the storm windows inside, drained the garden hose and stored it, put a cover on the outdoor faucet, pulled up the tomato plants, put the porch swing away, put the gladiolus bulbs in a paper bag in the cellar (they'd been drying for a week). I'm almost ready for winter. I brought the houseplants in a few weeks ago. Around that time I made pesto with the remaining basil--it's in the freezer, ready for February suppers to remind me of summer.

Tomorrow I'll change the gaskets in the wood stove. If I have time, I'll weed the back garden, in hopes of having it be in better shape next spring.

What does this have to do with storytelling? As I piled wood into the wheelbarrow, I thought of the Aesop's fable, The ant and the grasshopper. I always thought I was the grasshopper, fiddling away all summer, playing, playing, playing. Now I realize I'm also the ant, making sure I'm going to be comfortable in the cold months.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Good school impressions

It's big fun to go to a school where the students, teachers and staff all seem to be having a good time. That's what it was like this past week at Jefferson Elementary in Iola. I spent Monday through Thursday there, doing 13 performances in the classrooms, thanks to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

Here were some initial signs that this would be a nice school in which to perform:
  • The floors at the entrance were freshly waxed and clean.
  • The secretary (actually a sub) was friendly.
  • The principal was standing in the hall with a dog on a leash. Vegas is a gentle, placid service dog who was on loan for a couple of days. The principal took him everywhere he went.
  • The principal was extremely welcoming to me and clearly liked the kids. He spent time in the lunchroom and the classrooms as well as working in his office. I can't tell you the number of times I go to schools and never see the principal.
  • The walls were covered in interesting bulletin boards and kids' artwork. Every classroom showed great creativity.
  • The staff lounge was pleasant and well-used.

Those were just first impressions. What really mattered was that the kids and teachers were expecting to have a positive experience, and so they did. The teachers welcomed me not just in the classrooms but in the staff lounge as well.

Oh, and here's another good sign: Halloween was celebrated at this school, including an all-school assembly where the principal emceed the kids' costume parade and some of the teachers did a cheer. Give me an R! Give me an E! Give me an A! Give me a D! What does it spell? READ!!! After the assembly, the kids took off their costumes and got back to schoolwork.

May every school experience be this positive.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Scary stories

I love Halloween. Not for the candy, not even for the costumes unless they're original, but for the stories.

All last week and all this week, I've been telling scary stories, ranging from the funny-scary Ghost with the one black eye to Mary Culhane and the dead man. I tell these all year, but they're even more welcome in the fall.

I'm careful about what I tell--I'll do the funny-scary stories for all ages, but the really scary ones are only for older kids and adults, unless I've given plenty of disclaimers. Last weekend I performed at the annual scary story concert in Salina, KS (outdoors, brrr!). I like the way this is set up: gentle stories for the younger kids, then a break so the tinies can go home. The last set of creepy stories are only for the brave. I don't want to give small children nightmares. The older kids demand to be scared.

Now for the confession: I get scared easily. I don't like to listen to scary stories, but I like to tell them. When I'm telling them, I'm in charge and I know how the story ends. I've come to love looking for scary stories, anticipating how the listeners will react.

Off to Jefferson Elementary in Iola, where I start with fourth graders (9-year-olds). I think I'll try a moderately scary one with them.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Residency fun

This last week I began my four-week residency in Allen County, KS. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Humboldt, Wednesday and Thursday in Moran. Every kid in kindergarten through fifth grade in Humboldt and kindergarten through sixth grade in Moran has heard me tell stories. I'm famous in those schools.

What's a residency? Essentially, it means that I'm "in residence" in a town or a school for an extended time. Some storytellers use the term to mean teaching instead of performance, but I find myself doing performance residencies more often than teaching kids about storytelling.

This four-week set is a performance residency. I'm with small groups of kids, one or two classes at a time. This is a real treat--instead of performing for 250 kids in a gym, I'm in the classroom or in the library, a more intimate setting. I do have stories that catch the interest of wide ranges of kids, but doing it this way allows me to react differently to the listeners. I can give the sixth graders more sophisticated (and sometimes scary) stories than I tell to the first graders.

One of the other treats of a residency is that I often eat with the kids. In Humboldt I brought my own lunch, while in Moran I had the salad bar for the teachers. Occasionally I'll eat school lunch, but it's not my favorite (gluey pizza, gack!). I love table hopping, sitting with kids who have already heard me tell stories. They tell me which stories they liked. I ask what they like best for school lunch (gluey pizza!), if they have pets, if they know any jokes.

I've got something new for this residency: a study guide. I've known for years that I needed to create one (or more), but it wasn't until this summer that I finally applied myself. The teachers last week were universally pleased to hear that the study guide was available.

I'd better go pack. All this week I'll be at one school in Iola, the hub of this residency and where I'm staying. More later, especially starting on Thursday, the beginning of NaBloPoMo.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Looking forward (?) to November

I'm getting a little nervous about NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). Not only have I told myself I'd do this, I've told all of you and I've signed up officially.

I'm wondering how I'll manage, when I'll be smack in the middle of a school residency (I think I'm going to be in every k-5 classroom in Allen County, KS, BIG fun!), as well as working on buttons/badges for the Bizarre Bazaar, as well as being guest editor for Storytelling Magazine, as well as working on the long traditional story "Queen Berta and King Pippin." Oh, and doing the normal things like going to the grocery store and doing laundry. Patting the cat. Eating. Sleeping.

Ah, well. Everything gets done. This might just be the warning that my blog posts in November will be frequent but short.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Back home from Jonesborough

Whew, what a festival! I met my friend Margaret Meyers for supper at Dogwood Lane just after pulling in to town. After fortifying ourselves with Greek salad and good conversation, we went on to the National Story Night performance (Willy Claflin was a hoot, as always). We began to see old friends as we arrived. The tribe was gathering. Some were performing, some were emceeing, some were like me, just along for the ride.

And what a ride it was. There were lots of "New Voices" this year (they're new to the National Storytelling Festival, not to storytelling). Some of my favorites:

Motoko, who is Japanese but now lives in Massachusetts, tells polished gems of stories with a delightful simplicity. I was reminded of that phrase about how yoga should be "effortless effort." Motoko's mix of story and mime was exactly that.

Gene Tagaban refers to himself as "one crazy raven," and how true that is. He's Tlingit, Cherokee and Filipino. His stories were a mix of personal narrative and traditional story, and at the end of one of his sets, he donned his regalia and treated us to a raven dance. The cadence of his speech reminded me of a student from Haskell Indian Nations University who attended a workshop I gave a couple of weeks ago. I think he was also Tlingit. I mentioned this to Gene who told me he also went to Haskell.

I wish I'd gotten to hear more from Dolores Hydock. I went to her performance of "Silence: A Medieval Adventure in Story and Song," which she performed with the Medieval music troupe PanHarmonium. She comes from a theater background, so this long traditional story was told in costume and with an English accent, but neither impeded the story. The tent was full (1000 people or more?) and she got a well-deserved standing ovation. It was fabulous to see how hungry people are for long traditional stories.

I also got to hear some of the "Old Guard" of storytelling. It was a pleasure, as always, to hear Bill Harley, Jay O'Callahan, Donald Davis, Kathryn Windham--she's 89, I think! I went to the Exchange Place, the regional stage where each performer gets about 12 minutes (I performed here in 2001). Some of those performers will definitely be back on the main stage, I'm sure.

And then there was the general hanging around. I got to see my New England story buddies, old friends from Going Deep and WOW weekends, Midwestern friends, folks I've known from countless conferences and festivals. It felt like a large family reunion.

At lunch on Sunday, I was seated with three bewildered ladies from North Carolina who didn't know there was a storytelling festival going on in Jonesborough. They had just come over for a day of antiquing. As we sat in the din of the restaurant, I explained that a gathering of storytellers is rarely quiet, except during performances. I told them about the story magic in the tents. I don't know if they dared stop to listen to stories. If they did, I bet they'll come back next year.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Off to Jonesborough this week

I'm going to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. Can't wait! I went for five years in a row, 1989-1993, then in 2001, when I performed at the Exchange Place (the regional stage). I haven't been back since. It's time.

The festival is markedly different from the National Storytelling Conference. The conference consists mostly of workshops on the art of storytelling, and there are around 500 participants. At the festival, there are literally thousands of people and the main activity is listening to stories.

It's intense. From Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, Jonesborough is filled with the sound of stories, laughter, applause, conversation between stories, and the occasional train passing through town. The train is a running joke with the storytellers, some of whom wait, some of whom incorporate it into the story, some of whom launch into "I've been workin' on the railroad" whether it fits the story or not. Since I live a short block from the tracks, I wonder if I'll even notice (there are 50-75 trains that pass here every day).

The first couple of years I went to Jonesborough, I tried to go to every session--I was afraid I'd miss something. It was exhausting. Now my plan is to go to one of the six tents and find a good seat to listen in for a while, then take a break, walk around town, look at the bookstore tent, then find another place to hear stories. I haven't decided if I'll go to the midnight cabarets. Depends on my energy. I'm essentially a morning person and an introvert, so I need to recharge by being alone. I'm looking forward to hearing new stories and seeing old friends, but I'll probably disappear every now and then.