Saturday, February 28, 2009

Settings for storytelling

Often, when I tell stories at schools in the US, I'm in a gymnasium, with kids on the floor in front of me. I always need my sound system in the gym. I prefer to be in the library or a classroom.

In Belgium, I was in the primary and secondary libraries of the European School of Brussels. Here are a couple of views of the primary library:
The kindergartners built Arabella, the apatasaurus. The fourth or fifth graders decorated the Hans Christian Andersen chair. The library used to have big cushions on the floor for the kids to lounge on. Last time I was there, in my very last set, a kindergartner out of my sight methodically emptied a cushion or two of its stuffing while listening. When they left, there was a huge pile of pillow innards on the floor!

At the little English immersion school in Familleureux, we were cozy in the tiny art room. You can see the sink and soap dispenser behind me. On the teacher's desk was a fishbowl, very handy for the story of "The Great Sharp Scissors," in which a fishbowl figures prominently.

There are settings that don't work (see my post on telling to kids in bleachers,) but these spaces worked well for the audiences.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another of my videos up on YouTube

Today I got an e-mail from Jackie Baldwin, who airs the Story Lovers World radio show on KSVY-FM on Sundays at 5-6 p.m PST. Jackie plays my stories on some of her shows, and she'd had an e-mail from a listener asking when she had aired my version of Drakestail

That was the little nudge I needed to post the video of the story on my YouTube channel

And now for your entertainment, here's the story: 

Remember, quack, you can never have too many friends!

House concert

The house concert of "Queen Berta and King Pippin" went well. About 30 people turned up at my sister's house with potluck snacks and food for the local pantry.  

I had gotten a stomach bug the night before, so I wasn't at my best, but when I'm performing, most physical ailments drop away. I focus so completely on the story and the audience that I override whatever might be bothering me. This has held true for most of my 21 years of storytelling, except a time years ago when I excused myself while telling at a senior meals site, went into the bathroom, threw up, came back and picked up the story at the next sentence--that was extreme. 

Anyway, I did leave out a few details in the story, but mostly it held together nicely. Afterwards, I asked if the audience had questions. While I did record the story (I haven't yet listened), I turned the recorder off for the Q and A. I wish I'd left it on, as the questions were all thoughtful. People asked about my sources for the story, about my process for learning and telling this and other stories, about my repertoire in general. Many people came up afterwards to ask more or to tell me their other insights about the story or about storytelling. 

Of course I love telling stories to children, but it's a treat to tell to adult audiences. Usually this happens at the Going Deep Long Traditional Story Retreat,  in house concerts or in performances I set up myself, such as when I rent a hall, send out press releases, put up flyers, e-mail everybody under the sun and hope twenty people show. House concerts are much less stressful for me.  When it's not my house, I'm not in charge of food or drink or even the seating. I don't have to deal with the invitations (or not much). All I have to do is turn up and do my best work. I love that. 

Thanks, Mary!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Queen Berta and King Pippin, yet again

I'm giving a house concert of "Queen Berta and King Pippin" tomorrow. Am I working on the story now? No. I'm simultaneously stalling and chastising myself for not working on it. This is my pattern. I know it, it happens often with large projects, and yet...

Still, I did work on "Queen Berta and King Pippin," a.k.a. "Berte aus grans pies" or "Berthe aux grands pieds," intensively while I was in Belgium. Because I didn't have performances every day, I set myself the task of translating the story into English. I began this two years ago, working from the Old French (OF). That was before I dug up the Modern French (MF) version (published in 1897, and delivered by mail from Belgium, coincidentally). I read the whole thing several times and slogged through translating about half of the OF. The last time I studied OF was 26 years ago.

I didn't need to prove to myself that I could translate the OF. What I wanted most was the story, so I worked on the translation from MF. Adenet Li Rois, the author of this Medieval work wrote it originally in verse. The MF version was in prose. Much easier. In both, there's lots of repetition, likely because the story was intended to be read aloud and that way the listeners could have a short reminder of where the reader left off in the previous session.

I did it! I finished on the Wednesday before I came home, fortunate as my friend had warned me that she wouldn't take me to the airport if I wasn't finished (my sweetie at home, when I told him this on the phone, said something along the lines of, "Ahem. I'll come get you in that case").

It was incredibly satisfying to get to the last page (165 in the book, translated to 70 in a single-spaced Word document), to chapter CXLIV.

Before I finished the translation, I told it twice in Belgium, also at Marie's kitchen table. You might remember that I told the story last year at the Going Deep Long Traditional Story Retreat, and I told it a few other times. Each telling gets a little richer.

I'm planning to run through it tomorrow morning, possibly on a walk where I can't interrupt myself to do laundry or bake bread or vacuum the living room or engage in any number of other stalling techniques.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Watching other performers

One of the great pleasures of being in the performing arts is that watching other performers is part of the job. It's especially a pleasure to see performers who are incredibly gifted and who know exactly how to read their audiences. 

Last Saturday I went to see Rachel Ponsonby in her new show, Mon Opera, a one-woman clown opera in Brussels at La Samaritaine. Woohoo! Though it was a show in English, I wasn't the only one in the audience rolling on the floor with laughter. 

Rachel plays the part of Virginia Davis, a stereotypically buttoned-down Englishwoman of a certain age, who has come to tell us about the life and work of Lady Penelope Flower, the famous (really?!) English opera singer. Virginia plays many parts in the show, changing seamlessly from one to the next. We were never confused about who was speaking or singing. 

When I watch other performers, I pay attention to essentials, such as pacing, clarity of the scene and of articulation, physical movement, as well as to the story being told (in whatever artform). Rachel got all of these right--as I knew she would, since she has been a clown for almost two decades and had excellent training. Her timing especially was spot-on. 

On top of all that, she plays at least five instruments and sings. One part of the show is the Hallelujah chorus, in which she sings all the parts (you'll see part of it in the clip). The audience roared. And did I mention the hulahoop of fire?  

I also watch other performers for the arc of the show. If this had been one unrelenting laugh-fest, it would have been too much. Rachel brought the audience along on an emotional journey. There was plenty of tenderness, for example when Lady Flower finds herself dumped by her true love for Maria Callas. One of my favorite lines in the show: "Maria Callas! She can't even English." 

As good storytellers--and other performers--know, it's important to bring the audience home at the end of the journey. We all arrived back safely with Miss Davis. As my friend Marie said afterwards, "C'etait super!"

What a satisfying evening. Aaah.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

That's good, that's bad

In fact, this post has nothing to do with the book, nor with the "That's good, that's bad" style of story. I just like to have a picture and this was convenient. 

What I really want to write about is a question I had from one of the teachers at the European School of Brussels today. I did two performances for 13-year-olds. At the end, as I usually do for this age, I asked if they had any questions. In the second set, one of the teachers asked one:
Is the storytelling about the story or the action of telling it? 
I didn't quite know how to answer this. It's about both, to me, but he wasn't satisfied. He rephrased it:
Is it better to have a good story told badly or a bad (or mediocre) story told well? 
I had to think about this. Neither. Why not expect excellence every time? 

I've heard good stories told badly and it sets my teeth on edge. It's awful to hear a story butchered. This afternoon, that was the response I settled on. Now I'm thinking about stories that were told very well but in the end had no substance. Though they were told in an engaging way, I didn't remember what they were about later. They had no impact. 

What do you think? Is this a question worth asking? 

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Yesterday I told stories at an English immersion school in Familleureux, here in Belgium. I had four performances before lunch, under the influence of jetlag, but it went well all the same. In the second set, for the youngest children, I told Robert Munsch's story Mortimer. In this story, Mortimer doesn't want to go to sleep. Everybody in his family goes upstairs to tell him to go to sleep. After each try, they go downstairs for a nice cup of... I wait for the kids to tell me.

Yesterday, I said, "Mortimer's father sat down in the living room with a nice cup of..."

One of the teachers called out, "whiskey!"

Some days, it's hard to compose myself after a moment like that, but I did. I laughed about it with her afterwards.

On a serious note, this would never, ever, ever happen in the US. Occasionally a kid will suggest beer or wine, but a teacher would never suggest whiskey. Is it just because we live in politically correct times, or is it the long streak of puritanism?

Sunday, February 01, 2009


That was yesterday at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Now I'm in Belgium, feeling like my eyes are full of sand.

Here's my method for minimizing jetlag:
Drink lots of water.
Don't eat the supper on the plane. Do eat the breakfast.
Take a melatonin just after embarking.
Put earplugs in and pull the blanket over the head in an attempt to sleep.
After arriving, have no more than a two-hour nap.
Stay awake until at least 9 p.m.
Take a melatonin before bed. Do this every day until the jetlag is over.
Ignore the urge to get up at 2 a.m.
Get on the local schedule as quickly as possible.

The hardest part is staying awake until 9 on this first day. Wish me luck!