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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Revaluing the Ordinary

A group of Storytelling Arts performers including myself just finished a residency at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown.  Our theme was community.  The story goes that first you shoot the arrow, and, then, you draw the bullseye.  So it was that, as I told my stories, I once again realized that the oral tradition by its process is a lesson in community.  Whether to a group of two or two hundred, storytelling follows an alchemical formula that creates not only a shared experience, but an empowering experience, that turns the everyday into gold.  One of my stories was the Great, Big, Smelly, Small Toothed Dog.  My friend Margaret Read MacDonald has published it as a picture book, but the story is far more powerful as an oral tale with the teller and audience using body, voice, and imagination, to be in the midst of the story instead of an observer looking at illustrations.  The dog tests the princess three times before he can reveal his true self.  When, at last, he pulls his smelly fur aside, there is a gasp of aha!, not because we are surprised, but because our community’s values are confirmed-  i.e. A prince hides under every smelly dog skin.  Storytelling is a journey, not only to strange and magical experiences, but to a revaluing of the ordinary that is too often taken for granted.

illustration by Walter Crane
Even with sixth graders (or should I say especially with sixth graders) verbalizing these recognitions is an affirming experience.  When we share the stories of popular culture, television, film, music, we often excuse the experimentation and rebelliousness of preteens and teens as a natural part of growing up.  Too often, we encourage middle schoolers to explain away behavior; but when we tell the old stories, we see that the journey is only complete when it includes wisdom and restoration.  Thus, the final day of my residency was spent telling and retelling Little Red Riding Hood.  This story has been distorted as a warning against strangers.  In fact, it is an investigation of rebellion.  Dont go off the path, Little Reds mother warns, but Little Red just rolls her eyes.  The class improvised various scenes from Little Red Riding Hood as we discussed the theme and consequences of actions.  One of the most interesting moments came when we personalized the wolf.  I have always wondered why the wolf doesnt just eat Little Red up.  In this sixth grade, I got my answer.  The wolf became a bully and a self promoter who enjoyed the process of toying and teasing Little Red.  The students recognized this character as everything from the advertising that assaults them everywhere, to the temptations of drugs and alcohol that they hear lie down the way, to the personal actions that individuals choose as a way of defining themselves.  All this came from telling the story and making space for the Aha!

Our final writing project was to write an ode to something or someone we take for granted.  Stories are tools for observation and appreciation.  One girl wrote an Ode to a Door.  Who has passed through you? What feet and hands have left marks and scratches? What cries and sounds have been shut out?  What strangers have been welcomed?  Each question was the seed of a story to ponder and cultivate and develop; for one story is the doorway to another story, which is why, when people gather, one story inevitably leads to another. 

Students often ask where do storytellers learn their stories.  Books and sharing are the obvious answers, but a good storyteller doesntt just repeat a story.  Good storytellers puts themselves into the story, opening the door so that the listener can enter too.

written by Gerald Fierst

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