Friday, September 30, 2011

Residency reflections

I'm home, after spending most of four weeks in Allen County, KS, telling stories in every elementary school class in the county (three towns: Iola, Moran and Humboldt). I did 56 sessions in all, shaping each performance to the grade and attention span of the kids, as always.

I had up to four sessions a day, then most often went back to my hotel for a nap. When I'm doing a residency like this, after work I sleep, read, do office work on my laptop, answer phone calls, explore the town, even watch a little tv. By the end of the residency, I'm famous--just going for a walk, I run into kids who says "You're the storyteller! I told my mom that story, the one about the baby!" This happens in the restaurants and stores, too. I never mind this. Whenever possible, I stop and talk with them. I had a great conversation with a fourth-grader in the grocery store in the second week. She waved me over to show me to her mother and father, and to tell me that her mother knew the Mexican story I'd told. She translated for her mother as we talked about different versions of La Llorona.

The whole point of storytelling is to connect, and this is part of it. I know that in a few years they might have forgotten me, but they'll remember the stories. That's what is most important. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Iola Residency, 2012

I'm back in Iola, KS this month, doing another performance residency for most of September. This is thanks to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center

I don't think I've given enough credit to the Bowlus in the past. This is an excellent arts center in rural Allen County. The Bowlus presents all kinds of performances--music, theater, arts--from regional and national companies throughout the year. The Bowlus is also well known for the annual Buster Keaton Celebration, coming up on Sept. 24 and 25. The Center hosts the school district art, drama, speech, forensics and music programs. It's one of the reasons I have hope for the arts in Kansas. 

The benefactor, Thomas H. Bowlus, is quoted on the front of the building:


This residency in Iola was contingent upon funding from the Kansas Arts Commission, which of course did not come through (see my previous post), but the Bowlus is committed to the arts in this community, so they honored the contract. They have had a storyteller in the schools every year for many years. Last time I was here was in 2007.

As I've written before, residencies come in different forms. In some residencies, I visit the same classes multiple times. Some are workshops instead of performances, like the Deep Roots, Strong Kids Family Story Residency. This one is a performance residency, one in which I visit every elementary school classroom in the district (three towns) once, tailoring each session to the age and grade of the kids. It's a treat for me to visit classrooms instead of doing assemblies. 

More on residency reflections next. 

Friday, September 09, 2011

The arts in Kansas, again

"In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history's catalogue.

"Art is a nation's most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish."
Lyndon B. Johnson

Photo at a rally in Topeka by Ann Dean, with permission.
Usually I try to keep this blog non-political. However, I also try to write about what's going on in my storytelling life, and at the moment, politics in Kansas affect this.

I know I wrote about the arts in Kansas last winter, when Governor Sam Brownback abolished the Kansas Arts Commission by executive order. This was overturned in the Kansas legislature. There was bipartisan support to fund the KAC at $685,000. In May, Gov. Brownback did a line-item veto on all KAC funding, and planned the vote for a day when many legislators weren't there .Zero funding. Kansas is now the only state without a funded arts commission. Governor Brownback instead created a private arts foundation. His philosophy is that the arts should not be state-funded, but should be supported by private funds only. This completely ignores the fact that the arts in Kansas have always been a public-private partnership. It has never been a free lunch.

Before this, the KAC received matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations. Without the KAC, Kansas is no longer eligible for these funds.

I've been on the KAC Arts on Tour Roster since 1994. Organizations around the state would apply for funding for 40% of my fee from the KAC. This year, the organizations that hired me with KAC grant funds are still having me, scraping the funds together from other sources, but in the future, those contracts are unlikely to be written in the first place. A teacher workshop day I usually participate in didn't happen this year because of the issue. I'm affected outside Kansas as well: by dint of being on the KAC roster, I was on the Mid-America Arts Alliance Roster which offers grants to surrounding states. The KAC doesn't fit the guidelines, so today I received a letter telling me I'm no longer eligible for those grants. I'm not sure what this does to a grant that is pending for work in Oklahoma in November.

This affects my livelihood, but what's much worse is that it limits how much art the kids--and adults--in Kansas are exposed to. Small town arts organizations used KAC money to support all kinds of arts projects, from storytelling to murals to music. I've been brought in to tell stories to preschoolers, to provide writing workshops for fourth graders, to teach middle school kids about oral communication skills. Governor Brownback wants all the funding to come from the private sector. There are wonderful people and businesses all over Kansas that have supported the arts for years, but they're tapped out.

Not all of my work comes from the KAC, by any means, but it does make a difference. I also want to live in a state where the arts are encouraged and supported. Fortunately, there are many people in Kansas who support public funding for the arts. I know I'm not the only one to write to my legislators. There have been rallies in Topeka. Kansas Citizens for the Arts has been organizing planning meetings.

We will make our voices heard.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Vermont, and a hurricane story

I'm a little obsessed with the video coverage of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont. When I was almost 12, we moved from Providence, RI to Springfield, VT. I went to junior high school, high school and college in Vermont. Though I've lived in Kansas for 21 years, I am a New Englander to my core. Home.

It's hard to see home in such disarray. Here's a picture my friend Donn Cann took of the Cornish-Windsor Bridge a few years ago: 

That's Mt. Ascutney in the background, the Connecticut River in the foreground. This 141-year-old bridge connects Vermont and New Hampshire and was the longest covered bridge until 2008. Here's a clip post-Irene (I think this must be from the other side): 

You can hear somebody say that the river was a good two or three feet higher at the worst of it. It had better luck than the Bartonsville Bridge, which was swept away: 
That bridge spans the Williams River in Rockingham. I used to swim in the Williams River with a couple of friends after school on hot June days. Unlike kids in Kansas, we were in school until the third week of June.  The water was cold and though flowing nicely, it wasn't anything near what it was last weekend.

My family and friends are okay, though one friend told me it took him ten hours to drive what normally takes three and a half, due to closed roads.

Springfield wasn't hit as hard as some communities, but it still was bad. Here's a clip from somebody in North Springfield: 

You can hear the raw emotion in the previous two video clips. Where there's emotion, there will be stories. As the waters recede and people clear out the muck, they'll be telling those stories. 

I found myself doing that during Irene, remembering my favorite hurricane. Gloria hit New York in 1985, the year I was getting my Master's at Columbia University. I left International House, my dorm, on my way to work. I was about ten steps out the door, having passed a sign that said, "If you don't have to go out today, DON'T!" The rain was torrential. I turned around and went back inside. 

Over 500 students lived in International House. Only one-third of the residents were American, from graduate programs all over NYC. That was the only day in the year that everybody was home. We hung out, played Scrabble, went up on the roof (!), and generally relaxed. At the end of the day, the hurricane had passed, so a group of us went for a walk. The quality of the sunlight after the the storm was crystalline. 

Do you have storm memories?