Monday, September 17, 2007

The ethics of adaptation

Years ago, I read a compilation of advice from professional storytellers in an article in Storytelling World. I think it was Bill Harley who said something like, "You know you're a professional when you can say no to a job that doesn't suit you." Too true. (Wish I could find that article.)

I was early for my set at the KC Irish Festival a few weeks ago, so I sat and listened to the other storyteller. I know a lot of storytellers in the area, but didn't know this fellow. I still am not certain of his name.

He introduced himself by saying that he travels to many lands to find stories. Then the story: he began by setting the scene, a village with shamrocks all around. Huh? Strange image, not one I'd ever seen in the research I've done in Irish stories, but okay. He introduced a little girl named Rosie who liked to go down to the seaside. The more he told, the more suspicious I got. I knew this story. It wasn't Irish at all. I recognized Bimwili and the Zimwi, a story from Zanzibar, even before he messed up and used Bimwili's name instead of "Rosie." He did this several times, as well as forgetting that he had changed the drum in the story into a bag.

Would I have been less annoyed if he had gotten it right all the way through? No. I was outraged at the assumption he must have made that it didn't matter. He just picked up an African story, changed the names, and claimed it was Irish. He made the ogre into a leprechaun, retaining the physical description of the ogre.

It was clear to me that he loved the original story. I'll give him that. He went on to his second story, a stretched-out version of Daniel O'Rourke and the Leprechaun. At least that really is an Irish story. It sounded as if he had just found it in a book five minutes before the set.

He finished his set 20 minutes after he began. I guess I shouldn't fault him for not doing a full set (I'm still not sure if we were doing 30 or 45 minute sets). He obviously didn't have any more material, so we might have heard another African story or maybe a Cherokee story.

I was going to go speak with him, but I wanted to wait until I was less annoyed. By the time that happened, he was gone.

To be completely honest, in my set on Saturday, I told one English story. I told the audience the origins of the story. On Sunday, I told a number of non-Irish stories, but was honest with the audience and also had cleared it with the organizers in advance.

I understand what it's like to be offered a job and not have the stories to match it. I know what it's like to have the gas bill looming and need the money. Every time I've taken a job that didn't suit me, I've regretted it. I don't know anything about this storyteller, don't know where the organizers found him--maybe they were in a panic about filling the stage and just stuck him in there. He would have served the audience, the festival and storytelling better if he had been a professional and said he couldn't do the gig.

Still, I have questions. When is it right to adapt a story? How is this different from my telling of The Kansas Three Pigs? I used to tell an Ethiopian story that I reframed to fit into Vermont and New York City. I always told the audience about the origin, though. Sometimes I've taken jobs that have been a bit outside my comfort zone, and I've stretched to them, learning great new stories in the meantime. Am I the pot calling the kettle black?

1 comment:

larkspur31 said...

Interesting post. How do you answer your own question: when is it right to adapt a story, and if you do it, how do you do it fairly and with integrity (story's and yours) intact? A little note on that would be great!

Another piece of professionalism I think is to be fully prepared....