Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How to tell a scary "jump tale"

Scary stories are a perennial favorite with kids, and when told well can be a great addition to a campfire storytelling session or sleepover. One style of scary story is the “jump tale,” a story designed to make the audience leap in surprise. Sometimes the jump finishes the story, sometimes the story continues after the jump. The Golden Arm and Johnny’s Liver are a couple of examples of this style of story. Here are a few tips for telling jump tales:

1. Be careful telling jump tales to very young children. Nothing puts a damper on a storytelling session faster than child who has been scared into a crying jag. If you notice a child who may be too scared by the jump, you may need to tone the story down and make the jump less dramatic.

2. Use this style of story sparingly, one or possibly two per storytelling session. If you rely heavily on jump tales, you risk boring the audience.

3. Don’t tell the audience in advance that you are telling a jump tale. If you let them know, they’ll be ready and won’t be surprised.

4. Build the suspense in the story before you get to the jump. Draw the listeners in as if you were reeling in a fish.

5. Just before the jump, slow down. Get quiet. The listeners will lean in to hear you.

6. Right before the jump, pause for a couple of beats, and then make the jump quick and loud.

7. Some jump tales require you to reach suddenly for one of the listeners at the jump. You may need to move closer to that listener for the full effect. Be sure it’s a listener who will enjoy being the center of attention for a moment. (I prefer not to do this kind of jump tale.)

8. Usually the audience laughs in relief after the jump. Allow a few seconds for this laughter. If the story continues, pick up the telling again after these few seconds. If you wait too long, the audience will start talking to each other about how funny it was that they jumped and they’ll lose the thread of the story.

9. Have fun!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reflections on Going Deep

Last week at this time, I was in Bethlehem, IN at the Going Deep Long Traditional Story Retreat. Here's the view from the Storyteller's Riverhouse B&B, the venue for this amazing experience, at dawn: 

Barges glided up and down the river all weekend, red lights glowing at night. The B&B is owned and run by storyteller Cynthia Changaris, who with Mary Hamilton have been incredible midwives for the retreat. Cynthia borrowed several other houses in this tiny town for participants to use, she arranged for cooks, massage therapists, a palm reader and the old schoolhouse. Yoeman's work! We missed Mary, who was laid low by a flu, and whose hard work in past years (and in prep for this year) has made such a difference to us all. Here's the Riverhouse:

My friend Margaret came to my house the night before, and we drove the ten hours to Indiana, arriving just in time for a quick supper and the first story, The Grail, told masterfully by Liz Warren. We sat in a trance listening to the quintessential quest story. I'd heard Liz tell this in 2006 and also on her CD. It was just as powerful this time. 
Afterwards, we went back to the house to eat cake and hang out. Then we slept, dreaming about the story. One of the participants mentioned how hard it was to sleep because of the images pinging around in our heads. 

In the morning, Liz led a workshop on the story. The workshops are what really distinguish this retreat from other festivals and story events. We truly do "go deep" into the story and into our own lives. 

Afternoons at Going Deep are free, with all kinds of options from massage to palm reading to naps to singing. Next time, we may set up a space for a story swap for the participants. 

The second story was The Paths of Osun, told richly and well by Marilyn Omifunke Torres, who holds two Yoruba chieftaincies. Her telling (and singing) of five interrelated stories from the Yoruba tradition brought the audience to a new world of story.

Once again, we went back to the house. As important as the stories and the workshops are the times of just hanging out, eating together and chatting. 

Marilyn's intense workshop the next morning took us further into an understanding of the ritual and tradition of the Yoruba, and into our own wishes and dreams, culminating in a ceremony at the river. The Ohio is sweeter for our having been there!

We also had an equinox ceremony by the river in the late afternoon, before supper and the last story of the retreat, Gilgamesh, told by David Novak

One of the cool things about this story is that in 2006 David mentioned wanting to tell it, at the first Going Deep. We leapt on that, asking him to tell it for us. He created a simple set with river reeds, bamboo mats and tiles. David comes from a theater background, and that comes through in terms of the set, lights and music, but it's still very firmly a story, not a play. We reveled in yet another intense experience as we listened. There's a reason this story has lasted millenia!

As in the past years, on that last night, there were two camps in the after-story: those who were almost giddy from the stories and those who dove deeply into conversation about them. 

David's workshop had yet a different flavor from the other two workshops, with more discussion of the artistic choices he made and the ways in which stories work. Part of the beauty of the retreat plan is that each workshop reflects both the story and the storyteller. There was a lot to chew on in this session.

I was a little sad at lunch, knowing we'd have to go right after we left, and knowing that we've decided not to have Going Deep at the Riverhouse next year. It has been wonderful to be there, but it's time for us to grow up and spread our wings. We are deeply grateful to Cynthia and Mary for nurturing this project for so long. 


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Create A Storytelling And Reading Aloud Ritual In Your Classroom

Adults often tell me about teachers they had in elementary school who read aloud in the classroom. They looked forward to those read-aloud times, to the quiet space in which the class lived together within a story. Years later, this is a treasured memory. Teachers today can create the same special atmosphere in the classroom. Here are a few tips on how to do this:

1. Establish a specific time for the storytelling or reading aloud. Are the students bouncing off the wall in the last fifteen minutes of school on Friday afternoon? Maybe this is the time to calm everybody down with a story. Or try Monday morning, as the perfect way to begin the week.

2. Establish a place for the story experience. Will the children stay at their desks or sit on the floor close to you? Many teachers create a reading and listening corner in the classroom, with carpet squares or cushions for the listeners and a rocking chair for the reader or teller. Be consistent about where the students will listen.

3. Take into account the kinesthetic learners, who need to move a little bit in order to listen. Consider allowing the children to draw while listening. If you are telling stories, think about places within the story where you can incorporate participation in the form of repetitive gestures or phrases or both.

4. Allow the children to listen in a relaxed manner, as long as they are not bothering the other students. I often have the children sit “criss-cross applesauce,” (cross-legged) if they are on the floor, so the listeners behind them can see. At the same time, if there’s space, I don’t mind if they lie down. If they are at their desks, they may be more comfortable with their heads down.

5. Look at this special time as a treat for everyone, including you. As you tell or read stories, the children are using their imaginations as well as learning valuable literacy skills. They are expanding their vocabulary, visualizing settings and characters, sequencing and predicting events in the story.

6. Have fun!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tips for Telling Funny-Scary Campfire Stories

Night has fallen. The campfire flickers and pops, coals glow, listeners creep closer to the fire and the storyteller. It’s time for scary stories. But wait…some of the listeners are too small for the stories of la llorona or hookman. It’s time for a funny-scary campfire story, just enough for shivers, not enough for nightmares. As many of you know, I’m best known for telling The Ghost With the One Black Eye, and many other classic funny-scary campfire stories. Here are a few tips for effective campfire storytelling for the youngest listeners.

1. Notice the body language of the listeners as you introduce the story. Suggest that the smallest children sit with an older sibling or adult. Some small children like very scary stories, but it’s kinder to the adults who have to be with the child later on to tell gentler stories to young children.

2. Let the listeners know right away that this will be a funny-scary story, not a scary-scary story.

3. Choose a story with a joke ending. You can find a few of these in Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, in Simon Bronner’s American Children’s Folklore, or ask a ten-year-old who has been to camp.

4. Err on the side of goofy characters, not scary, for young listeners. Build in a hand movement or repetitive phrase so the audience can join in.

5. Sometimes even a funny story can scare a small child. Reassure the individual child that it will all be fine in the end.

6. For a little shiver, pause just before the punchline. This builds suspense and creates an even bigger laugh at the funny ending.

7. Don’t be surprised if children say “That wasn’t scary!” at the end. This is most likely not a true critique, just an observation--and sometimes a way a slightly scared child has of finding courage.

Once the little ones have gone off to bed, and you’re sure that those who are still around the fire can handle it, if you have time and inclination, then tell the truly scary stories.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My voice

Yes, that's my voice, the very beginning of the story Queen Berta and King Pippin

For years, I didn't realize I had a distinctive voice. It seemed to be like everyone else's. It's certainly like my sisters' and my mother's voice. I began to understand that people recognized my voice when I called on the phone. A few years ago I was performing in a small town in Kansas and reconnected with a former library patron from Connecticut who knew me mainly by my voice. Listeners who have heard me only on CD or DVD are surprised that the same voice comes out of my mouth. I guess it's distinctive. 

About my accent: I don't sound like I'm from Kansas.  Though I grew up in Rhode Island and Vermont, I don't have a strong accent from either place. In the past few years, people have asked me more often if I'm Canadian. I answer that though I'm not, my grandmother was and my mother went to school in Toronto, so I've inherited some of that. Listen to The Ghost with the One Black Eye and you'll hear some of this (my sister-in-law laughs--nicely--at how I say "room"). 

Then there's the quality. I don't know how to describe this.  My sister Mary and I have discussed a slight whispery undertone we seem to have. We hear it in our siblings and some cousins as well. Whatever it is, people who are losing their hearing have trouble understanding me--when I tell stories at retirement centers or nursing homes,  I always bring my sound system. 

Have you ever heard older singers in interviews? Sometimes their voices are wrecked! There are  a few things I do to keep my voice in shape. Many years ago, before I began telling stories full time, I took singing lessons to strengthen my speaking voice. I still have a practice tape (now on CD) which I use in the car. I got lazy for a few years but am now back to practicing almost every day. Even fifteen minutes of singing helps.

I also keep hydrated. Water is the best drink for the voice. Especially when I'm performing, I down lots and lots of water. At times even this isn't enough, so I reach into my bag for an elderberry cough drop. I try to remember what a speech therapist told me once: it's better to cough a little  than to clear the throat. 

I use a microphone when I have more than about 45 listeners and/or if the venue has bad acoustics. I don't strain if I can help it. 

This is the voice I have, distinctive or not, and I want it to last a lifetime.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Intergenerational storytelling

On Monday of this week and Thursday of last week, I was at Ottawa (KS) High School working with high school students and elders from the community. This was the fourth or fifth time I've done this intergenerational project.

We have a few goals:
  • Build bridges between the generations through storytelling
  • Teach basic storytelling skills
  • Have fun
Right, I know we don't put that last one on proposals, but it's an important component. If the participants aren't having fun or being challenged in a good way, they won't take much away from the experience.

In this program, there are always some elders who have done this before. They're a great group, some of whom have been friends for ages. Ottawa is a small town, so everybody seems to know everybody else. We make sure that the elders are sitting with the kids. They chat a bit before we begin.

I usually start with a short story. I ask what the audience noticed about how I told the story. Then I ease the participants into telling some of their personal stories to each other. Donald Davis' book Telling your own stories is invaluable here.

We talk about the use of the senses to create a strong story, about how to portray emotion in a story, about how stories are structured.  We play games that underline these ideas, we take apart a story, we tell and retell stories.

I especially love hearing the elders connect with the kids. John talked about being a gunner in WWII--he began by saying, "You know that park across from the tire store, the one with a cannon in it? Well, I've shot those..." At the end of the second session, I heard a student talking with one of the visitors. She was saying, "Do you know my grandparents? They live near where you do." 

On Friday, the kids have an assignment due: they have to write their reflections of the workshops. The teacher will send these to the Area Agency on Aging, who sponsors the workshops. These will be used to justify having the program again. One of the visitors said, "I hope you write good reviews. I look forward to this every year." So do I.