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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

No-Imaginationitis - An Epidemic Sweeping the Nation

          In the world of clown, literal thinking is funny.  You tell a clown to duck, and they start quacking, you say, “Split!”, and they try to do one;  and we all know what happens when the words “walk this way” are used.  Comedy like that plays on the fact that there are subtleties, that there can be more than just one meaning to a word or an expression, and that sometimes a phrase can have a connotation that seemingly has no relationship to the actual words used.  How many of us have actually been in a ship, much less with someone else, and yet say, “I’m in the same boat.”  The words and phrases are a stand in for something else, symbols that our minds de-code and then understand. 
          Sounds complex - this “decoding”, doesn’t it?  So how do those of us who don’t work in the military cipher division figure this stuff out?  The imagination.  That lovely little (or hopefully, not so little)e part of our mind that sees between the lines, interprets that there’s more than black and white, and creates what is not literally there.  We all have them, but just like some of us have not been acquainted with our psoas muscle in a while (it’s the BIG muscle that wraps around from your lower back, into your groin, and connects the top of you to the bottom half of you, and is used in every step you take), they are woefully under used.  And like a muscle which is not worked out, the imagination can wither.
          I wish I could say that I see this withering only in adults, but sadly, what moves me to write about this now is that I have seen it at younger and younger ages.  Just today, I saw a child of seven or so not able to pretend to be ANYTHING they wanted.  More, and more, I see a sort of deadness of the imagination, that makes me want to jump inside their brains and paint messy, out of the line pictures, OR dress up like a loin and ROAR!!!!  What frightens me is not that, “Gee, this kid is never going to be able to imagine enough to be in their school play, or write a short story for a homework assignment.”  It’s that without the ability to see more than what is evident and literal; these kids grow up missing so much of life. To quote the Little Prince “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.”  To not be able to take the folktales that the ancients have blessed us with, and think just because they may not be “true”, makes them less real is a – and I know I’m using a heavy word for this, but I feel it – TRAGEDY!
          In our work at the Morristown Juvenile Detention Center and Shelter, we four storytellers, see it over and over again.   We watch these young people listen to our tales, with more attention that I get any place else I perform – and that is no lie – but they are unable to understand that while there may not be a real mystical tree, or demon with ten heads, or a place where people’s wishes come true, it doesn’t mean that these stories have nothing to do with their lives.  Time and time again, we are astonished that these bright young people, seem unable to make the leap that the dark woods may not be an actual forest, but perhaps represents a place inside oneself that is somber, cold, and sad, or that the old woman at the side of the road offering wisdom might be the voice you hear inside of yourself, called your intuition. 
          Just last month, in THE MOST uncomfortable storytelling sessions I have ever had (and may it always stay the MOST uncomfortable), a young man – bright and articulate, could not see the metaphors and symbolism in the stories to such a degree, he was angry at us for wasting his time, and, I felt he was saying, lying to him.  My fellow storyteller (Paula Davidoff), and I tried – she a lot more clearly than I - I have to say, to get him to understand the meanings and connections that could be found in the stories he had RAPTLY listened to, but the more we talked, the more he pushed back.  For him there was no “grey” – all black and white.
          That conversation did two things to me – it saddened me, and then, in the same way I have always responded since I was a teen, and was told to do something I didn’t want to do – it made me more determined!  It made me see, even more, the value of storytelling and folktales, and it reinforced in me a sense of purpose.  I’m not a shrink, a social worker, a classroom teacher, or a guidance counselor, but I am an AVID user of my imagination, and I intend to use that skill to reach who I can, whenever I can.  It may not always work, we tellers may not always break through, but as I watch this epidemic of “no-imaginationitis”, I know I have to do something, and luckily for me I have the ammunition of the fabulous folktales from a multitude of lands to use.  And I know that out there, there are storytellers, librarians, teachers, moms, dads, aunties, and grandparents that take up this cause.  So, here are my closing words to those of you who see the spread of “No-imaginationitis” in our fine land.  Take the kids you can and  reach in and draw them out – dance, paint, read, dress up, EXPRESS!!   Imagination is not a skill that should go the way of the dinosaurs.  Let’s help kids evolve into human beings with rich, colorful imaginative inner lives, that will lead them to deep, meaningful outer lives. 
          Got a little preachy there at the end, I know, but I believe it all.  Thanks for reading!!!     Julie Pasqual   


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Trusting the Tale

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
    Seven Ravens, from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, is one of those stories in which a sister is unwittingly responsible for the suffering of her brothers. In the stories I’ve read, seven or twelve brothers are transformed into birds: swans, geese, or, in this case, ravens. The fate of the brothers is dependent upon the actions of their sister; she is their only hope for a return to normal human existence, but to save her brothers she must make some sacrifice.

In Seven Ravens, the brothers are transformed on the day of the sister’s birth. Because the babe was sickly, the father sent his oldest son to the well to fetch water, so that she could be christened immediately. All of the brothers ran off together and, in the ensuing commotion, the vessel in which they were to carry the water home was knocked into the well.  After waiting a time for his sons’ return, the father supposed that they had been distracted by friends or play and, frantic with concern for the sickly newborn, he spoke the words that must have haunted him for the rest of his life, “I may as well have seven ravens as seven sons.” At that moment, he heard a rustle of wings and, looking up, saw seven ravens fly over the house.
Of course, the sickly babe grew strong, even without the ritual lustration. In time, she discovered the story of her brothers’ disappearance and set out to rescue them. At this moment in the story, it becomes different from the other brothers-to-birds stories I know. First of all, the sister is very young when she begins her journey and she remains a child throughout it. Her journey takes her out of this world, to the homes of the sun, the moon, and the stars. In this last place, she learns that her raven brothers live in a glass mountain, and she is given a bone that will unlock its door. After another long journey, she reaches the mountain only to find that she has lost the bone-key. She despairs until, realizing that her own little finger is the same size and shape of the bone, she cuts off her finger, puts it into the keyhole, and unlocks the door. After this, the events of the story flow smoothly to the brothers’ change back into human beings, and all of the children return home to their parents.

I tell this story a lot. I sympathize with the poor father and pray that I will never be held to such close account for thoughtless speech. I am moved by the courage of the heroine, and I love the fact that, unlike many folktale sisters, she is granted her accomplishment while she is still a child. I love the images that come to my mind as I tell: the boys, looking at each other as the splash from the fallen pitcher echoes in the well, and therefore, each witnessing the transformation of the others; the seven great black birds flying over the thatched roof of the house; the sister walking through the world carrying her little chair on her back; the stars in shining raiment, each sitting in its own seat, and the little girl placing her chair among them. I remember the faces of my own children as I watch her earnest explanation of her predicament. Later, I see the thick, black velvet curtain behind which she hides to wait for the ravens’ appearance. I see the dull gleam of the mother’s golden wedding band at the bottom of the seventh raven’s wine glass, and I see the brothers and their sister start, hand-in-hand, on their journey home.
However, there is one moment in the story that I do not see clearly, that is the child’s self mutilation. My cerebral imagination by-passes the event. It is only accessible through the heart. I hope that the children to whom I tell the story also experience that moment as I do, but of course, I don’t know. I watch their faces as it happens, and I have never yet seen a sign of the horror that a vivid image of the picture must evoke. When the story is over, they often ask about it. The occasional fifth grade boy says, “gross” or “cool” when he refers to it. But children seem to understand that difficult tasks require a sacrifice and that the best things are worth it.  

Yesterday I was telling Seven Ravens to a mixed audience of about thirty people who were attending a holiday arts celebration in Madison, NJ. The storytelling site was a small, lovely alcove in the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts. Children sat at my feet on a richly colored Persian rug; their parents and other adults sat in chairs behind them. As the little girl in the story approached the glass mountain, I looked into the faces of the children on the front row. They were completely absorbed in the tale – their eyes were fastened on me, their mouths slightly open. I looked beyond them at the adults and saw that a young adult couple sitting on a bench at the side of the room were just as present in the story.
The youngest children in the room were between two and four years old, much younger than my usual audience, and as I moved toward the story’s climax, I began to doubt myself. I wasn’t sure that I should tell it properly. I was afraid of what the children might see. I thought that maybe I would just say that the sister put her finger in the keyhole without cutting it off. It wouldn’t be so different, I told myself. She would be using her intact body to release her brothers, instead of sacrificing her finger to her quest.
As I write this, it seems odd to me that I could have had this series of thoughts without breaking the narration of the tale, but in the five or six sentences between the time the sister realized she had lost the bone-key and the cutting of her finger, I went back in forth in my mind about what to do. Just as the sister realized that her finger might be a substitute for the key, I glanced up at the couple on the bench. They met my gaze and I saw that the young woman’s eyes were brimming with tears. In that second, I knew that I couldn’t betray the story. There was, at least, one listener who needed the tale intact. I didn’t dwell in the moment. As soon as the girl found the solution to her problem, I spoke in one breath, “She took the knife she had brought to cut her bread, cut off her little finger, and when she held it between her thumb and forefinger and stood on her little chair, it just reached the keyhole and the door of the glass mountain swung open.”
As I spoke, I enacted her movements, but when the girl entered the glass mountain, I stopped talking, stood still, and took as few seconds to see the interior of the mountain and to look into the little faces on the front row. The children’s eyes were open wide, but they were smiling. They knew that everything would be fine. I looked at the young woman on the side. There were tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling, too. 
Postcard illustration by Oskar Herrfurth

“Trust the story,” I say to parents who wonder if they should read the “real” fairy tales to their children. Sometimes, we tellers need to be reminded, too. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Girl Power: Notes from the field

By Luray Gross and Maria LoBiondo - Storytellers for Girl Power! held during the KidsBridge to the Arts Camp 2013

One of the Girl's collage's exploring themes in “Tipingee”

The girls slouched on couches in a half-circle near the end of a very busy day packed with theater, dance, choir, songwriting, and visual art. It was day two of Kids Bridge to the Arts Summer Camp, and energy was low. 

            Then one of our nine middle schoolers asked, “Why is this called ‘Girl Power’?”

            “Where is your power?” we countered.

The girls perked up.  Once the conversation on respect and self-empowerment started, their ideas flowed. Physical power was mentioned first, but then came the power of our words, the ability to take control of a situation, being thoughtful. This was the perfect lead in to writing personal poems that reflected what each girl thought about themselves.
            Describing herself as the element of water, one girl wrote: “I would be snow so that I can cover bad things. Then I melt and they are carried away.” Another wrote, My body is a temple…. Even when it is insulted, it stands strong always.”

The discussion about power also related to the story we would work on for the rest of the week: the folktale “Tipingee.” This story, published by Diane Wolkstein in her classic collection of Haitian folktales, The Magic Orange Tree, revolves around how spunky, savvy Tipingee, along the help of her friends, saves herself from being taken away by a stranger to be his servant. 

            It had quickly come to mind when we were choosing a story for a group of middle-school girls to hear, explore, play around with, internalize, and – ultimately – present for an audience of fellow campers (ages 6 – 13), teen counselors, and an assorted crowd of parents, grandparents, and other supportive adults.

             We wanted a story in which a girl, facing difficulty, takes charge of her fate, and a story that emphasized the role of young people helping each other. Our time would be quite limited, so we needed a story with mnemonic devices and a plot that would not be difficult to learn. Like many Haitian tales, “Tipingee” includes three nearly identical mini-episodes and a chant which listeners are encouraged to repeat. Overall, we wanted a story the girls could have fun with. We were, after all, planning for summer camp, not the heart of an academic program.

             We explored “Tipingee” through collage and journal writing as well as discussion. The girls keyed in to the emotions and examples of power in the story through both art forms.

            On Thursday, we decided how to divide the story for telling, and one of the girls suggested that her role would be to come up with an introduction. There was just time to try it out and be sure everyone knew where to begin and end. 

             As the hall filled on Friday afternoon, one of our very capable, but also self-conscious girls, came up and announced, “I’m not telling my part.  I can’t, I’m too nervous.”

    “But, Kyara,” we said. “We need you. We need all the parts of the story.”

     “Is everyone else going to do it?”

     “Yes,” we said, counting on no more attempted defections.


            Of course, Kyara did not leave her friends in the lurch.
        “I’m Tipingee, she’s Tipingee, we’re Tipingee too,” the girls chanted together from their places on the stage at the afternoon showcase, the culmination of the Trenton, NJ, Kids’ Bridge to the Arts Camp 2013. In a week, “our” girls had become a cohesive and powerful group of storytellers. Proud as any parent might be, we watched and listened from the back of the crowded hall.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Terrible Beauty

CĂșchulainn in battle, illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

For the past few weeks, I have been preparing for a workshop I’ll be teaching at the NJ Storytelling Festival this weekend. The workshop will offer advice on how to keep focus through the telling of a long story. It’s a workshop I’ve taught once before and it’s about something that I do all of the time, but for some reason, I’ve been having a hard time putting it together for this event. Today, Friday, practically on the eve of the event, I think I’ve hit upon my problem. It has to do with the story I’m using as the center of the workshop.
Because the workshop is about working with lengthy texts, and because I like to practice what I preach, I’ve been working on a new story to present as a workshop model. The story, The Tain Bo Cuailnge, is the center of the much longer Ulster Saga. These are very old stories about the Red Branch Army of Ulster and its tragic young hero, Cuchulain. Many of the stories in this cycle are stories of war, and the Tain is particularly bloody and violent. This week as I worked on the story and the workshop, I asked myself, “Why are you telling this? Why on earth would you decide to offer the people who are taking your workshop such a terrible story?”
The questions stopped me. The story choice had been automatic. It is a story I love and that I have wanted to tell for a long time. It seemed appropriate for the workshop because it presents the teller just the kinds of problems that make many of us avoid trying to extract a meaningful performance piece from an epic tale. It is intricately connected to the larger story. The cast of characters is large and many of them come with a history that adds context to their actions in the episode of the Tain, but which is hard to include in the story without taking the audience out of the tale. Deciding which parts to keep and what to leave out of the center of the story is an exercise in, literally, picking your battles because, like many stories of heroic deeds, the Tain is, in part, about a series of combats. So why am I, a mother and grandmother and a modestly calm and peaceful person, so drawn to it?

The story begins in the bed of Queen Maeve of Connaught when she and her husband, Aillel, begin to argue about whether she is better as a result of her marriage and association with him. After establishing that they are equal in birth and temperament, they decide to measure their belongings, one against the other, to settle the point. At the end of this accounting, Aillel comes out ahead by one bull, a creature so wonderful and valuable that it has only one rival in all of Ireland, the eponymous Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Ulster. This discovery sets up a series of events that ends in the deaths of thousands of men, the loss of much property, and the destruction of the land. Woven through this tragedy are the stories of individuals: soldiers, fathers, sons, and daughters who get caught in the merciless rush of war, and these are part of what attracts me to the story.
There is Queen Maeve, herself – manipulative, ruthless and selfish, she is admirable for her courage and for her insistence that a woman can take her place to rule and fight among men. Yet, in spite of her insistence on her own autonomy, she doesn’t hesitate to use her daughter Findabair as bait for any man whose army or battle prowess might serve her purposes. Other compelling characters in the piece include Fergus mac Roich, a wise and powerful king who exiled himself from his kingdom rather than compromise his integrity, and Ferdiad mac Daire, a young soldier of Connaught whom Maeve manipulates into fighting his friend and foster brother, Cuchulain. And, of course, at the center of the story is Cuchulain, himself. He is a hero in the Greek fashion, the child of a god and a mortal, who is somehow able to maintain his courage, strength, and integrity in the midst of impossible physical and moral odds.

In stories like the Tain, as in Homer’s Iliad, I think that war provides the kind of exaggerated picture of human experience that we are used to finding in fairy tales where mothers are either child-devouring witches or exemplars whose goodness transcends even the grave. War allows us to view the virtues and foibles of men and women under a microscope. Nothing is subtle; everything seems either hideously deformed, intricately lovely, or heart-wrenchingly noble.
In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Cuchulain stands at a ford in the river day after day, tirelessly meeting one enemy combatant after another, and each battle presents its own particular problem. Sometimes the challenge is physical: an enemy with the heads, arms, and legs twenty-eight men. At other times it is mystical or spiritual: the druids and satirists who fight with spells and curses, or the goddess Morrigan who seeks revenge for spurned sexual advances. But harder than any of these are the complexities of facing in battle men whose actions have earned his love and respect. At the end of the story Cuchulain is so covered in wounds that “if birds were in the habit of flying through human bodies, they could fly through his rended flesh.” Yet, he perseveres until he is sure that he has done all he can to defend his homeland from destruction.
When I first called the Tain Bo Cuailnge a terrible story, I meant an unpleasant, uncomfortable story, a sad gift to give at the opening of the Storytelling Festival. And it is that. But it is also terrible in way of W.B. Yeats's "terrible beauty" of April 1916, that is, awe-inspiring and wonderful.  It is a story that changes us by forcing us to think beyond our limited existence, to marvel at the deeds of those who came before us, to wonder about the lives of those who will live after us, and then to try to maintain our humanity in the face of these reflections. A good way to begin a festival day.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Chance to Think

While reading the novel Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster this jumped off the page (screen) at me:

...she had a knack for pausing every so often in the middle of a sentence or an idea, and those little breaks in the telling produced rather startling effects.  They gave you a chance to think, to carry on with the story yourself, and by the time she started up again, you discovered that your head was filled with all kinds of vivid pictures that hadn't been there before.

The pauses we take when telling our stories are invitations to discovery.  Cool!

Thursday, August 29, 2013


by Jack McKeon
Yesterday (8/16)  Julie DellaTorre and I attended a performance of a play written and acted by Girls Surviving, the program in Morristown that Paula Davidoff has been a guiding part of for years.  It was my second time to watch these girls perform  in the summer program and both times I have been impressed by the cohesion, cooperation and even acting abilities of the girls, who must, at first, show up with all the baggage of  “girls at risk”, and by the sophistication of the ideas explored in the play itself, written through a process of self-exploration and mutual discussion focused on issues of immediate consequence to the girls.

The play was titled “Hidden”.  The concept paired the girls, one as the socialized persona trying to keep to the right path and the other the hidden shadow urging them on to some sort of self-destructive, if immediately pleasurable, behavior.  A second theme was dreams, what they are like, what they can give us or unleash in us, and how we can try to make them real.  The lovely opening put the girls onstage, the hidden self behind the open one.  They began to speak of dreams while performing slow dance movements, hidden interweaving with open.  If these kids got that concept, as they must have, what a wonderful thing for them to experience.

As the play went on, I was struck by the fairy tale concept in it.  It was, in fact, a good representation of the princess/waiting maid conflict in “The Goose Girl”.   I spend much of my storytelling time with this kind of analysis so I was happy to see it open up on stage and, I would think, in the imaginations of the girls.  At one point, one of the girls becomes her Dad’s “princess” and her mother tells her that she will always be close to her daughter’s heart.  It was an impressive parallel to the Grimms’ tale, even after (Duh!) one of the girls during the post performance Q and A mentioned that Paula had told them a story which had influenced the shape of the play.  Of course this was “The Goose Girl”.  Paula, I now remembered, had introduced her wonderful analysis by saying she was going to use it in a situation involving “alter egos”.

What a vivid example of the power of story.  These girls were able to see the patterns of their own lives revealed in the pattern of the story.  They could take that notion, work with it to make it their own and see in it some hope, some indication of the power they have over their own lives.  At the end of the play, the two halves embraced or, hand in hand, opened the door to the future.  In ”The Goose Girl”, the maid and the princess don’t quite make that accommodation, though I believe that the maid’s self-imposed punishment is carried out, perhaps according to her desire, for the good of the whole.  In the Q and A, it became even more clear how these girls, strangers at the beginning, had been drawn together by the experience into a unified, supportive group, a “troupe” as the playbill has it. Even the youngest, an 8th grader, felt accepted and protected by the older girls.  They were sharp, articulate and clearly pleased with what they had accomplished.  The success of the program in general was evident by the number of alumnae there were in the audience.

Having taught high school for many years and worked at the juvenile facilities in Morristown for the past year and a half. I am always curious about what effect we have on the kids we work with.  Sometimes we know, usually we don’t.  However, Julie Pasqual (who also worked this summer in the Girls Surviving program), at the Sussex County fair ran into a boy who was at the detention center when I started with the program.  He recognized her (big surprise there!), was delighted to see her, proud to be out, going for a GED and working.  Julie said he looked like just a kid.  It would be nice to think that his joy at seeing her reflects a little of what we all might be accomplishing, of what storytelling can do.  Maybe you all have many reports of a similar nature. 

Anyway, “Hidden” was a wonderful demonstration of how empowering it can be to tell your story – even if your audience is just a stove. 

Not to put you on the spot, JP, but it would be interesting to know about your experience with the girls.  The joy seems apparent.  What were the difficulties, if any?  And, Paula, if I have misrepresented anything, please comment.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Last week’s post spoke to my participation in a marathon storytelling performance of Monkey: Journey to the West and of the workshops, reading and studying with Diane Wolkstein and colleagues in preparation for our production.

This previous experience made the viewing of Monkey: Journey to the West at Lincoln Center even more enjoyable. Because I was so familiar with the story and the characters, I was able to understand and flesh out parts that may have seemed flat or unclear to others. Just a sentence or two, or a setting or a prop, prompted my memory of the whole episode being portrayed. I was also able to watch with a professional storyteller’s eye. What choices were made with regard to story, episodes, characters, music, movement, colors, costumes and expressions? These were some of the same decisions with which Diane and we grappled.

Here are some of my impressions of the Lincoln Center production Monkey: Journey to the West by the creative team of Chen Shi-Zheng (concept, text and director), Damon Albarn (composer) and Jamie Hewlett (animation and costumes).


The production included animation, circus performers, martial arts battles as well as acting and singing. I loved this form. A live orchestra played in the pit, using some traditional Chinese instruments. The music composed for this production added much to the Chinese feel, and the live music brought the animation to a higher level. Although a colleague of mine hated the opening animation scene, I liked it. Hundreds of years passed by very clearly and led seamlessly to the live entrance of Monkey. I was taken right away with the live, loud drumbeats booming as the stone egg bounced off the mountain peaks. (In the Lincoln Center trailer cymbals are used- drums are much more effective.)

The other animated scene that worked well for me was Monkey’s trip to the Undersea Palace of the Dragon King. Again I felt to length of the journey and the depth of the sea. When the scrim lifted to the live scene on stage, I found I was holding my breath as if I were underwater.

I don’t know much about martial arts, but it certainly added to the battle scenes. One tended to meld into another for me, but that’s the same with the hundreds of battle scenes in the novel.

The circus pieces were colorful and fun to watch and though they may have added some to the mood on stage, I don’t think they added much to the story. But I don’t get to see the circus much and loved watching the rope-swingers, fire throwers, acrobats and contortionists. Again, it certainly added to the Chinese feel of the story.


I was glad to have spent time exploring the characters in depth before attending this production.

Dear Monkey King was delightful, naughty, audacious, irreverent and exciting. Diane would have loved the portrayal and probably would have ‘lifted’ bits of the performance. However, in the novel, Monkey reaches enlightenment only through much internal struggle and many mistakes, as we all d. At the end of this production Dear Monkey King is made Buddha because he was a great protector of the monk. But throughout the journey in the novel, Monkey grows in self-control, understanding and compassion. This aspect of his character was missing in this production.

The Monk, Tripitaka, was beautifully portrayed. The costume was perfect and the monk appeared calm and serene with much bowing and prostrations, but again I was a bit disappointed. I was able to embellish his shock and disbelief that Dear Monkey King would kill for any reason and then banish him, but the anguish is only hinted at and it is unclear how and why Monkey is forgiven and allowed to return as protector. And where was the trembling and crying? The monk is ALWAYS crying in the novel.

PIGSY was wonderful to see. My friend, Rita, will be happy to see Pigsy here. Diane debated for hours with herself and with others about whether to keep this character or gloss over him. She was still wrestling with this choice the last time I spoke with her.

GUAN YIN was the most unsatisfying portrayal of all. Such an ethereal, compassionate and central character in the novel, here she just floats in and out giving directions. I remember workshops where Joy Kelly (fellow storyteller) led us all, Diane included, in the embodiment of Guan Yin. Joy is the most graceful Guan Yin. We all became better Guan Yins because of her.


Here is where choices become even more important. How does one find the essence of an epic novel and craft it into an understandable and entertaining two hour performance?


The opening scenes of the novel are the most well-known part of the story. They stand alone as a complete tale and have been retold in many formats including picture books. Maybe this is why the opening was so easy to follow. As mentioned above, I loved the multi-media approach used in these scenes.


How to choose three episodes out of hundreds, that is the question. Diane Wolkstein was always struggling with this. I was present during many of her performances of this tale and watched her try out one episode or another. The choices portray different inner struggles on the path to enlightenment.

Chen Shi-Zheng chose three episodes in which the heroes confront strong, entrapping women:

·        White Skeleton Woman

·         Spider Woman

·         Princess Iron Fan

 All three episodes incorporated acrobats, circus acts and martial arts battles. Each scene was different and effective; though I’m glad I had some familiarity with the story.


The ending here was much too abrupt. Nothing in the preceding performance led to the bestowing of gifts from Buddha. The scene was beautiful and the characters looked so little in front of Buddha, but the story and episodes were nothing more than that, a string of episodes. In the end, the ‘journey’ was not felt.


I am so glad I saw this production at Lincoln Center. I wish Diane Wolkstein was here so I could discuss everything with her. I think she would have delighted in the playfulness and experimentation. I think she would have taken insights from the choices made. She would have disregarded what didn’t jive with her understanding of Journey.

I have learned much about myself and about storytelling through my work with Dear Monkey King and my work with Diane Wolkstein and fellow storytellers. There are a few episodes I remember friends performing. I’m going to look those up again right now.

Anyone else see the Lincoln Center production? I’d love to hear your reflections.

Julie DT

Thursday, August 1, 2013

SAI Blog: August 2013


On Saturday, after storytelling at the Hans Christian Andersen Statue, I took myself to Lincoln Center to see Monkey: Journey to the West. Next week I will give my impressions of the show, but this week I thought I’d give you some background about my interest in the story,  and why I went to see it in the first place.

Jack (fellow SAI teller) and I had the joy and privilege of working with Diane Wolkstein and 23 other storytellers from North America reading, studying and exploring the epic Chinese novel Journey to the West. (We worked with the 4 volume version by Wu Cheg’En and his one volume version, Monkey.)

Diane had been working for years trying to develop an oral retelling of this story and she wanted to see the whole story played out so she planned a marathon telling of the story with 25 storytellers from the US and Canada. The performance took place from Friday night March 18 to Sunday afternoon March 21 2009. In preparation Diane assigned us each multiple chapters which we were to study and pare down to a 10 minute telling. The absolute hardest part was making  the choices of what to include and what to leave out... so much to leave out!

To help us Diane held workshops in which we explored the characters, the essence of the action, the meanings to be found and the language of the text.  We worked on our own selections as well as parts of the whole story. Though most of the work was done on our own, we learned much from our colleagues in these workshops. This knowledge went into our personal tellings.

Diane’s goal was to develop for herself a two hour performance of this story in a clear, concise and entertaining way. Watching her go through the process of developing this piece taught me much about the storytelling choices we make. Having to craft my own 10 minutes was the learning put into practice!

Some of the ‘marathon tellers’ read all 4 volumes, but, probably like most, I read at least huge chunks of the epic novel. And, of course, we all got to see many of the episodes retold by friends and colleagues. The hours spent discussing and analyzing scenes and characters, motivations and symbols, history and sutras led to a deeper understanding of the story. All of this I took to my afternoon journeying with Dear Monkey King at Lincoln Center.