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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Grammar of Story

by Paula Davidoff

 Fairy Ointment illustration by J. D. Batten 
Every storyteller knows some version of this tale: a midwife is summoned to a fairy dwelling. Sometimes the woman she is called to serve is human; sometimes she is not. When the baby is born, the midwife is given a salve or ointment and instructed to rub it on the child’s eyes. By chance or by choice, she gets a bit of it in her own eye and, in that instant, the scene before her is transformed. In some variants of the tale, a comfortable dwelling turns out to be a cave or hovel, and the respectable couple who needed her service become wizened imps or elves. In other tales, the opposite occurs and the midwife finds a humble cottage transformed into a splendid room crowded with fairy folk. Either way, the ointment has allowed her to see through the fairy glamour, the magic which makes things seem other than they are.

Begin typing the word glamour into a Google search and you’ll get automatic completions like “glamour shots,” “glamour nails,” and “Glamour magazine.” Today, glamour is almost a synonym for beauty, but a certain kind of beauty: exciting, sparkling, alluring. In fact, some etymologists make its root an Indo-European word for ‘shine,’ with cognates like gleam, glitz, and glimmer.
However, there is another respected etymologic theory about the root of  glamour, namely that it is an alternate spelling of grammar and that it means “magic, enchantment, or spell,” as in “fairy glamour.” At first glance, the two words, glamour and grammar seem to be at opposite poles – one has to do with movie stars; the other with elementary school teachers, but dig a little deeper and you realize that this second etymology explains why a textbook of magic is called a grimoire.

A grimoire contains formulae for casting spells, making amulets, and summoning demons, among other occult activities. These texts are said to have been written by necromancers as ancient as the Egyptian god Thoth, the Biblical King Solomon, and Hermes Trismegistus (the alchemist mentioned in Gerry’s recent post).  Folklore teaches us that making magic is no simple task. It requires learning, patience, and much practice to get it right. The sorcerer’s apprentice must acquire deep knowledge of the natural world before he can command the supernatural and, as the story teaches, there are no shortcuts.

The root of our English grammar is the Latin grammatica or the Greek γραμματκη which means, literally, the art of letters. Grammar texts teach the rules for putting words together correctly. Learning the rules can be tedious but, just as with the lessons of the grimoire, mastering them gives one great power. In fact, when you think of it, language is magic, pure and simple. Take its first building blocks, letters, string them in a certain order and, ta da!, the letters now convey meaning; they put a picture in one’s mind.  They’ve cast a spell, a spelling.

And language is a crucial part of magic making. The words chanted over a potion are as important as the ingredients in the pot. They must be pronounced correctly and in the right order. It’s the same with stories. Like newts and frogs, some story ingredients are easy to find. They are the stuff of everyday life: people, places, and problems. Other ingredients are, like dragon scales, more difficult to come by, and finding an effective combination of any of these elements can be tricky. The storymaker must first learn to understand their value, learn how they work together, and practice, practice, practice to get it right. There are no short cuts.
Those of us who tell folktales find stories ready made. But we must still study our grammars so that, when we find the exactly right words, we know how to put them together to not only convey our understanding of the tale, but also to create images in the minds and uncover truths in the hearts of our audiences. We know the power contained in a well wrought sentence. Put just the right number of sentences in perfect order and cast a spell to transport listeners out of themselves and into strange souls in distant lands at other times, to make things appear other than they first seemed. Story glamour.

Storyteller illustration by Andrew Kostiw

Friday, December 4, 2015

Storyteller as Alchemist

Mosaic of Hermes Trismagestrus from the Duomo di Siena
by Gerald Fierst

When I tell stories, my audiences inevitably give me new stories in response. I read folk lore and myth from around the world.  I listen to personal stories.  I create stories from my own life.  This artistic profession has given me a profound respect for the powerful effect a story has on the individual and collective psyche. 

Over decades of telling stories, I have come to understand the connection between the storyteller and the hermetic tradition of alchemy.  Popular culture imagines alchemy as a Harry Potteresque turning lead into gold, but in the tradition of Hermes Trimagestrus, (you can see the portrait of Hermes in the mosaic floor of the cathedral in Siena)  alchemy is the art of summoning energy to transform both the physical and spiritual plan so that (as we say at a good performance) time stands still, and we are transported to a new and more powerful reality.

Storytelling cannot exist in isolation, but needs the collaboration of the viewer as well as the artist.  Storytelling ( I will now use the term storytelling/storyteller instead of alchemy/alchemist ) transforms a personal vision into a universal statement. We open ourselves up to the experience which the artist offers, and we are transformed by new ways of perceiving ourselves and our world.   The craft of the artist is to know the formulae  developed over millennia and to reinvent the structures that have become conventional in order to enable the psyche to expand and understand the new facts being presented. 

Working with StorytellingArts, I have seen this process happening in audiences ranging from preschool to adult,  most powerfully,  at the Morris County Youth Detention Center where a group of storytellers has worked over years.  The residents are 15, 16, 17 year olds.  They wear prison uniforms.  They are small groups supervised by a guard. Whatever their old life was, it is stripped away, and they are neutralized. It is at once prison, and, as the superintendent once told me, “the last best hope to start again.”  It is a bleak, heart breaking place- AND YET.

The Jews say if you can save one soul you save the world.  This year the storytellers chose our theme as super powers and magic.  Jack McKeon and I began the year with a series of stories based on the concept of elemental powers.  Jack told a version of The Stonecutter in which a man cutting blocks from the mountain wishes himself to become the sun, a cloud, the wind, the mountain and, finally, once again the man, for a man with tools can transform the world and  is the most powerful.  The session that day was unremarkable, but the next day, when I returned alone, one of the boys entered the room bubbling with excitement.  He had been telling Jack’s simple story over and over again.  The other boys laughed and shared his delight, and the guard rolled his eyes and nodded in acknowledgement.  The boy had discovered a voice that could enlighten and entertain; and if the stories we tell ourselves lead us on our life’s path, this simple story could be the beginning of this child’s positive sense of himself.

Do I know this? - no.  Do I hope this?- yes.  Over and over, I meet people who remember a story I told years ago.  Grown ups who remember a story they heard me tell when they were children in school.  Stories are powerful magic, and, perhaps, on that day last fall, Jack and I made one boy’s life transform from the impossible to possiblities, for one man can level mountains.

Such visions are what the Hermetic tradition is all about.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

In Praise of the Oral Tradition

by Maria LoBiondo

The word “storytelling” is bandied about so often these days, in so many different contexts, that I’m not totally surprised when people don’t understand what I’ll be doing with them as a storyteller. Some, I’m sure, expect me to open a version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to read or appear in a character costume, maybe as a kindly grandmother fresh from the farm.

They must be surprised when they see me without a book or costume.

Now I’m all for reading books—reading is one of my greatest pleasures, both alone curled up in my favorite chair, and aloud, as I did with my kids when they were younger, especially at bedtime. It’s now part of our family lore how my daughter enjoyed extended bath times while my son and I sat together on the floor enrapt with the first Harry Potter novel. 

But as a storyteller, and especially as a Storytelling Arts storyteller, I’m interested in the oral tradition—an emphasis on the spoken word rather than the written one.

To find the stories I tell I read a lot of books, and when a tale strikes me—like Cupid’s arrow—I look for as many versions as possible, from as many different cultures as possible, before I set about learning it. I don’t memorize it; I picture the characters and the sequence as if it’s happening just as I’m telling it (for me it is!) and the words flow.

Recently I was taken by what author Julius Lester had to say about storytelling. Lester, whose Br’er Rabbit adventures are classics, wrote in 1985: “The page preserves a particular telling of a tale, but not the tale itself. The tale is merely the theme on which the storyteller improvises, revitalizing the tale and making it ever new. The tale can never be what is on the printed page because what can not be printed are the movement of the arms, the body motions, the gestures of the hands, which are as important and integral to the tales as the words. Stories are told in equal parts by the voice and the body.”

I’ve been a theater-lover for ages, admiring how actors transform themselves chameleon-like into new selves. I have fond memories of my brief stint before the footlights as “Mei Li” in a high school rendition of the musical “Flower Drum Song,” and in the Greek chorus of a college staging of “Iphigenia in Aulis.”

But in the oral tradition there is no “fourth wall,” the imaginary space between the audience and the actor on stage. For storytellers in the oral tradition and our listeners there are no walls at all. We’re all part of the experience as it happens at that particular moment.

Here’s what I say at the opening of many sessions so that we all understand what storytelling in the oral tradition means in the same way:

  • Do you see a book in my hands? No? That’s because the stories are here—and I point to my head—and here—and I put my hand over my heart.
  • We’re going to make the story come alive together. If I tell a story with no one listening, it would just be a bunch words. But when I tell the story with you, we’ll imagine what is happening in our mind’s eye, each in our own way, and all together at the same time. You are needed to make the story live.

Storytelling in the oral tradition offers an individual and a community experience. It allows each person present to take what he or she needs from the tale at that moment in time. And if we are fortunate to hear the story again—maybe from the same teller, maybe from a different one—the plot may be familiar but the tale will be new and we’ll be enriched by it again. 

Friday, September 4, 2015


by Julie Della Torre

As those of you who follow the blog know, SAI received a grant to work in a school in inner city Paterson. We have written about the project before, but I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about my work with a remarkable Kindergarten teacher, Diane Rudd. We have worked together for the past two years and this year SAI will offer follow-up support. The following will illustrate how we developed our relationship and our lesson plans.

First, we had a year of getting to know each other. Diane needed to see what a storytelling session entailed. What would happen? How were students supposed to respond? How could storytelling fit into the curriculum? I needed to get a feel for her classroom environment. How much flexibility would be allowed? How rambunctious could we be?

The following year was more intense. Diane was going to become a storyteller and incorporate storytelling into her curriculum. We spent quite a bit of time planning before we started this two-pronged project. First, she looked at her reading curriculum and assessed her class. She decided she wanted to address, setting, emotions and feelings of characters, and ‘beginning, middle, end’. These were concepts she would be working on for the entire school year. The schedule allowed us to focus on one of these aspects each week. We fell into a routine in which I would tell a story and model a lesson one day and the following day she would tell a story and present the same lesson. The story repertoire for the class grew. Diane kept a record of every story told on big sheets of paper. Drawings, maps, story language hung on chart paper all around the room.

As we went along I was modeling storytelling techniques as well, which is how I learned to tell stories. We also met during the day for mini-workshops on specific issues. She kept a journal of her process for learning stories. A big part of the process was finding appropriate stories for her class. As she searched for stories w3e had good discussions about what story might be a good one to tell as opposed to read with the illustrations. The lesson plans we developed for her class were simply exercises I do myself to learn a story. As she watched and then practiced the exercises in her journal and finally presented them to her students she was learning the story.
The lessons included much acting out, usually parts of the story told, not the whole story. After working with the story orally, dramatically and demonstrating on the board the students went back to their seats and worked on paper. This routine of listening, speaking and then writing was a key component of the storytelling experience.

The exercises we developed could be used during the rest of the year no matter what story was read or told. Some of the exercises included:
Setting- storymapping. We actually made a masking tape map on the floor and walked the story, stopping to visualize the setting. After looking at real maps the students drew maps of the story.  

Emotions/feelings of the characters: Working from photos we gave the students vocabulary for different emotions. We practiced embodying these emotions. When we acted out parts of the story we encouraged the students to physically show us how the characters felt. Students drew their favorite character.

Beginning/middle/end: after telling the story we figured out what was the beginning, middle and end and we made tableaus. These were then drawn on paper in the proper order.

Working together with another professional is always stimulating and enlightening. I’m looking forward to a year of working collaboratively with colleagues, teachers and other professional artists.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Work We Do

by Julie Della Torre

Karen and I attended an Early Literacy Seminar in May. The seminar was hosted by the Turrell Fund and, as they fund one of our preschool programs in Paterson, we were invited. All attendees were working in programs funded in part by the Turrell Fund.

The seminar was given by Dr. Blanche Podhajski, President of the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Vermont.

The lecture was centered on a program she calls THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF LEARNING. Using the alphabet as an outline Dr. Podhajski highlighted aspects of learning, particularly learning to read.  She emphasized over and over the ideas that reading can be taught, that any ‘program’ should be based in scientific research and that there is much more to reading than figuring out the phonemic awareness and connection. Underlying all of what she said was the concept that oral language is the underpinning of ALL reading. As storytellers, oral language is our tool.

Here are some highlights of Dr. Podhajski's presentation:

What do children need to learn to read? Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, Comprehension and Motivation. Babies are working on all of these auditorily and orally. When we sing to babies, bounce nursery rhymes and tell beginning stories to them we are preparing them for future reading. As storytellers we are always aware of how we build vocabulary, comprehension and motivation with our songs, poems and stories. Everyone wants to hear a story. Motivation is the heart of the matter.

Dr. Podhajski provided a checklist of ‘Skills for Thinking (cognition) and
Skills for Doing (behavior)’from Dawson and Guare, 2009. Storytelling and story listening are natural modes of building and strengthening these skills. Think of how much our listeners need as they listen: working memory, metacognition, response inhibition, emotional control, sustained attention, flexibility. All of these (and more) just to hear a story and then to comprehend a story.

Listening comprehension is still the biggest predictor for success in reading. (A Nation at Risk, 1983 and Podhajski 2000). Oral language is the basis of all learning. The Common Core Standards list speaking and listening as anchor standards from pre-school through 8th grade. When our listeners listen to our oral stories and then participate in oral discourse and discussion they are building skills needed for all future learning. They are doing real work in a joyful non-threatening way. Our work is serious work.

Joyfulness and play are also essential for learning. Here is a quote attributed to Diane Ackerman: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” Joyfulness goes right back to motivation. Story is the way we learn and storytelling is playing with language and stories. What joy!

These few highlights were reiterated many times during Dr. Podhajski’s talk. For each of her 26 talking points (following the alphabet) oral language, listening, speaking and motivation were the foundation of all.

My SAI work with preschools involves presenting parent workshops. The Turrell Fund is providing a follow-up seminar in the fall and I/m hoping to attend a session on Family Literacy. I’ll let you know how it goes.