Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My life as an M.O.

The words “motivational speaker” jumped off the page at me. I have been called A LOT of things in my life -– everything from creative to hyper to short – but never in my whole entire life had I ever been called a “motivational speaker,” and yet, that’s what I was being asked to be in a project I began this month for Storytelling Arts.

In my brain, a “motivational speaker” is someone like Tony Robbins -– particularly in that Jack Black movie from a few years ago “Shallow Hal.” Kind of tall, in a dark business suit, sprouting phrases like “Think outside the box!” or “Follow your bliss!” while running power point presentations in large ballrooms. And, while I have trouble even finding the proverbial “box”, and, if becoming a storytelling dancer clown who teaches yoga isn’t following ones bliss, I don’t know what the heck is –- I just couldn’t cozy up to the label “motivational speaker” (hereto referred to as M.O.) But, like we outside the box bliss followers sometimes have to do –- I had to make it work. Lucky for me, folktales saved my un-Tony Robbins-like rear end!

I don’t know where real M.O.’s get material that will at once teach life lessons, while keeping a crowd interested and hanging on their every word. But, all I had to do was go to my friends and teachers -- my folktale anthologies. Within the world of folktales are a great many stories that teach us things we all need to learn. Like the Jewish story “Feathers,” that tells of a woman who, after spreading rumors about everyone, is sent before the judge. To teach her a lesson about the dangers of gossiping, he instructs her to take a feather pillow outdoors, shake out all the feathers, and then try to get them back in again. When she finds that the feathers blow away, and that she can’t get them back inside the pillow, the judge informs her that it is the same things for words. Once they leave our lips, we can never get them back again.

It was “Feathers” that I told a group of 5th and 6th graders in my role of M.O., and the “Ooooh, I get it!” that came at the end of the story made me smile. The discussion we had after that story, told me that there was no better entry into this topic than the wisdom of the ancients who had created this gem of a tale. Back then, they didn’t have power points – they had stories. Stories that spoke, and continue to speak in a language we all can understand. Stories that don’t hit us over the head with a point, but rather, offer themselves up so that everyone can discover the lessons wrapped in them on their own.

Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living, I always joke and say, “I’m a storyteller/dancer/clown/yoga instructor/chimney sweep –- just kidding about the last one!” But, maybe I’ve got a better, and perhaps truer, punch line, maybe, thanks to my pals, the folktales, I can say I’m a storyteller/dancer/clown/yoga instructor/motivational speaker/chimney sweep – hey, the chimney sweep part is too funny to lose!!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I Saw a Young Man Fall in Love With Language

JULIE PASQUAL is a self proclaimed “creativity junky” whose first art form was dance. After graduating from New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, she danced and sang in numerous musicals across the country and Off Broadway. She has acted in everything from Shakespeare to the work of young playwrights in NYC high schools. Along the way she learned stilt walking, clowning, American Sign Language, and how to tell stories. Her storytelling work encompasses all her skills as a performing artist, as she brings every aspect of a story to life. Her stories have been heard in such venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, and in schools, libraries, bookstores, hospitals, radio and private events across the tri-state area. As an artist for Hospital Audiences Incorporated, Julie performs in halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers and senior citizen homes. She is also the voice for several children’s and young adult audio books for the Andrew Heiskill Library for the Blind and Handicapped in NYC. When not telling tales she can be found performing as a dancer in shows across the country and as a clown doctor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, entertaining children in NYC hospitals.

I saw a young man fall in love with language this month. While that sight would always be a

gratifying thing, always make me do my happy dance just a little

bit, this was even more remarkable, because this event took place in a small

classroom, not in a school, but in a prison.

Over the last year and a half, my work with Storytelling Arts has led me into three Youth Detention Centers. And, each time I speak to people about this work, they are dumbfounded. “Are you nuts??? Aren’t you scared?? Do they listen??” – are some of the questions I hear from concerned and confused friends and family. I smile, because, frankly, I have asked myself the exact same things. So, as much for myself, as for anyone who might be reading this, I’ll answer those very sensible queries.

1) Are you nuts?? Of course, I am, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this!

2) Aren’t you scared?? Yes, but not in the way you might think. I’m not scared because I think I will be in any danger. I don’t envision burly men charging across the table trying to “shiv” me. No, I’m scared – well, nervous, actually, that I will not have the goods to reach through to these

young people – these kids. Because that is what they are – kids. They are children – even if they would never call themselves that – children who have made a bad choice. And who amongst us, has not? They are human, and the one thing I know “for sure” – as Oprah likes to say - is that humans are more alike than different. We all feel emotions, we all, in one way or another seek connection. The art of storytelling is all about connecting with the audience. A tale simply isn’t a tale until it has been told, shared with other human beings.

That is my worry -- that I will not be committed enough, articulate enough, interesting enough to touch these youths. Because folktales have the goods to inspire, teach, and move EVERYONE. With their archetypical characters, intriguing plots, they leave behind them a wake of interesting points to mull over, and to learn from. And, when I see audiences – be they five year olds, or the inmates in the Detention Centers, respond to storytelling, I know it’s not me, It’s the story. All I did was put it out there in a way they could hear. So, that’s my fear, that I won’t find the “way in” with my telling. Because if I can…well, let’s move onto the next question, shall we?

3) Do they listen?? YES, THEY DO!! I have seen a young man, who I was told was a double murderer, follow my every word like his life depended on it. I have seen another young man, whom I thought was asleep; lift his head, and his voice, to defend a character in a story. And, this past month, I saw that young man fall in love with language right before my eyes. He, and his “pod” had been told a wonderful story, by a wonderful storyteller – Paula Davidoff -- the day before, and he and two other fellows stood in front of their peers to retell it. LET’S JUST STOP AND ACKNOWLEDGE HOW AWESOME THAT WAS!

While the other two young men were more confident and outgoing, this fellow – I’ll call him J, was shy, stiff, and self conscious. With his hands tightly clasped behind his back, and his eyes lowered, he only spoke when his two companions “threw” him the story. But, then, half way through the story or so – he began to describe a horse as “strong and bold.” As he said those words, he too, became strong and bold. His body came alive, his eyes afire, and anyone could see his relish in saying that combination of words “strong and bold”. The little group then told another tale – this one they invented, and this time J was animated right from the start, interjecting wonderfully fluid language and body gestures throughout the piece. It was like seeing a flower blossom – the entire energy of the room had shifted and changed.

One could say this was a moment of victory, because that story, those words “strong and bold,” had reached into J, and touched on something that had lay dormant within him. He forged a true connection with that tale. And, connection is not only what storytelling is about, but what life is about as well. For to quote a book I just finished reading, “When you practice mindful connection, your life feels meaningful, and so it is.”


Masks like those below were produced as part of a Storytelling Arts residency at the Mercer County Youth Detention Center in 2009. Students created these to depict character traits of people in stories as well as in real life -- including themselves.