Friday, May 28, 2010

Leaving a mark

I live in an old house made of soft brick. I've been here almost ten years (whew, how did that happen?!). People who lived here long before me made their mark on the house, and so have I. No, I haven't carved my name in the brick, as the unknown Mark and Tom did, but I've made it my own, with a new back door, with rose beds and perennials and with an ineffable Priscilla-ness.

That's what I do with stories. I make my mark on them, turning them around in my head, my heart and my mouth so when I finally tell them they are my own.

Ah, but here's the trick. They're not completely mine. I have to let them go. When I put them out in the world, when I tell them, the listeners then own them as well. I can't--and wouldn't want to--control the images the listeners hold in their heads. Every time I see those names carved in the brick of my house, I think of my brothers Mark and Tom. A different Mark and Tom carved their names, but I see images of my brothers, aged about 7 and 9.

I once heard Donald Davis say in a workshop, "Meaning is the property of the listener, not the teller."

I've thought about this a lot. It's true, and it's also true that if I do my job completely, if I imagine the characters, action and scenes so fully that they come out of my mouth as fully dimensional, the listeners may imagine them clearly as well. When we're all truly present to the story, we all see the pictures. The story leaves a mark.

Oh, I'm so lucky to do this work!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Down came the rain

It's raining. Again. Cold, too. I've gotten used to May in Kansas being pleasant and warm. Last week I had a fire in the wood stove. I'm considering having another today.

Or I could turn my attention further to water, to the summer reading theme Make a splash at your library. The program I'm offering for the theme is called Didja ever see a fishy? and it will be a medley of puppets, stories and songs. Trixie is considering wearing a shower cap, Ray the ray puppet will swim up out of the bag thanks to the "mistic hand." I'm certain that Prince, formerly known as Frog, will make an appearance. I suspect the baby will sing The Itsy Bitsy Tiger.

The title of the program is from a song I learned from another storyteller. Here it is:

Didja ever see a fishy on a hot summer day, (wipe sweat from brow)
Didja ever see a fishy all swimming in the bay, (mime fish swimming)
With her hands in her pockets and her pockets in her pants, (hands on front pockets, then on back)
Didja ever see a fishy do the hoochie koochie dance? (little dance)

You ne-ver did (clap, clap), you never will.

Didja ever see a fishy on a cold winter's day, (shiver)
Didja ever see a fishy all frozen in the bay, (mime hands forming a block of ice)
With his hands in his pockets and his pockets in his pants, (hands on front pockets, then on back)
Didja ever see a fishy do the hoochie koochie dance? (little dance)

You ne-ver did (clap, clap), you never will.

I'm still playing with stories. I'm thinking of The Pincoya's Daughter, a Chilean story about an old woman who finds a baby mermaid, and Little Crab's Magic Eyes. Maybe also Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch. I just found a newer story Munsch wrote called Down the drain that might work.

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What really happens in the puppet bag

In April, I visited second grade classes as part of the Learning About the Environment Through the Arts residency, through the Lied Center of Kansas and USD 497. Many of the kids wrote me thank you notes. I love this one!

At the top, Jonah wrote "the bag. the bag. the bag." This is indeed my puppet bag. Over on the far left is the bat marionette. I think there's another one with more detail on the other side of the poker table. Yes, that's Prince, formerly known as Frog, sitting at the table under a single light bulb, looking at his cards. In the middle, Trixie is sitting on the baby's head. Near the top, to the right, the baby is popping her binky (a.k.a. pacifier, a.k.a. passy) out of her mouth. Best of all, on the far right, is "the mistic hand." That's correct, my hand as perceived by the puppets in the bag.

Here's the text:
"Dear Ms. Howe, Thank you for coming to Sunset Hill. The puppets were really funny. The predators and preys were something good to learn. Also the bats were cool to learn about. your friend, Jonah."

What a great letter from an eight-year-old! Will I ever reach into the bag again without thinking about "the mistic hand"?

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Itsy Bitsy Tiger and Other Ridiculous Stories and Songs

You're invited!

On Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 10 a.m., I'm giving a benefit performance for the Lawrence Schools Foundation. I'll tell my most requested stories about the inimitable brave baby in The ghost with the one black eye, along with some other ridiculous songs and schtick from the baby puppet and Trixie.

It's a kind of "greatest hits" show for kids under age 10, and will be held at the Union Pacific Depot in Lawrence at 10 a.m. All of the proceeds at the door will go to the LSF (suggested $2 for kids and $5 for grownups). This performance will be filmed, in hopes of getting a good DVD. I hope not too many trains go by to interrupt us.

Feel free to spread the word.

Baby stories

I wanted an excuse to post this picture. I was pruning the yew this afternoon when I realized this nest was there. I stopped immediately. I hope mother and babies aren't too traumatized.

In fact, I want to talk about baby stories. By that, I don't mean stories for babies. I mean the four stories I tell about the inimitable brave baby in The ghost with the one black eye. I've performed them for audiences of all ages, from preschoolers to highschoolers to college kids to nonagenarians. These are the most-requested stories I tell.

One theory I have is that these stories, in which the baby is the bravest character of all, give the listeners--especially children--a feeling of vicarious power. There's also a great release of laughter at the end of the stories. I've learned to channel the explosion of energy after The ghost, by inviting the kids to repeat the three important lines together, with me. If I don't do that, they spend the next five minutes telling bits of the story to each other, ignoring me completely. Sometimes I retell that very physical story in French or Bulgarian to let kids know that telling a story is more than just saying the words, and that they could learn a foreign language, too. It's fun to see them join in the telling in another language.

I've heard from teachers that kids retell The ghost to each other for the next week, on the playground, in the lunchroom, at home.

I didn't write these campfire tales. They're from children's folklore, similar to handclapping games and counting out rhymes. I first heard The ghost from my friend Mike Rundle, who heard it from somebody else, and on back to the first kid who made it up. Of course, I've tweaked it and shaped it to fit my own personality.