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

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.